Saturday, December 29, 2018

Advanced D&D Players Handbook - Introduction

From The Back

No more searching through stacks of books and magazines to find out what you need to know. The Players Handbook puts it all your fingertips, including:

All recommended character classes. Fighters, Paladins, Rangers, Magic-Users, etc.

Character Races. Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Half-Orcs, Humans, etc.

Character level statistics.

Equipment lists with costs.

Spell listings by level and descriptions of effects (including many new spells).

As a dungeon adventurer or a dungeon master, you will find the contents of this book to be what you have been waiting for. All useful material is now compiled under one cover, especially for the players!

Expectations

First, I have to say that I'm impressed with how weird and alienating that back cover is. It really sells the "if you don't know what this is, it's not for you" feel. I suppose that's all part of labeling your game "advanced," though. Doesn't make sense to be "advanced" Dungeons and Dragons, unless there's also a regular Dungeons and Dragons out there for you to be advanced from.

I'm not too worried about it going over my head, though. I'm a pretty old hand at this stuff, and I got my start with AD&D 2nd edition. In fact, the only real reason I have this book is because I wanted to fill the gaps in my collection. One day, I looked at my shelf and I said, "you know, you've got Basic D&D, AD&D 2nd edition, D&D 3rd edition, and D&D 4th edition (which, at the time, was the most recent), so why don't you have AD&D 1st edition?" And while that's not literally how it happened, it was the basic thought process behind why I wound up buying more than a half dozen books for a game I never intended to play.

The weird thing about AD&D 1st edition is that it is the oldest game in my collection. The copyright on my Players Handbook is 1978, a full four years before D&D Basic. Not going to lie. That surprised me. What were the newbies buying between 1978 and 1982? It can't be those books and magazines alluded to on the back cover, because they were the problem AD&D was created to solve. Maybe it was just AD&D. Maybe they saw it on the bookstore shelves and said, "you know, I'd feel more comfortable with just regular Dungeons and Dragons, but there isn't any here, so I'll just have to get advanced and jump in feet first. Gotta run before you can walk, right?"

Anyway, I'm expecting this to be pretty rough, as befitting its age. I'm also expecting, after reading the later BECMI D&D to have it be thoroughly inspired in the oddest of places. That's something to look forward to, at least.

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Friday, December 28, 2018

Mage: The Awakening, 2nd Edition - Reaction

Going into this, I expected that the hardest part was going to be having to read the same basic Storyteller rules for the nth time in my life. But actually, it wasn't that bad. The new version is more streamlined and does some interesting things with player agency and narrative mechanics. I'll probably have to read it a couple more times before it really clicks, but I'm certain that's inevitable. Changeling: The Lost, 2nd Edition is coming in a few days and I probably won't be able to resist getting Vampire and Werewolf indefinitely.

I think the best way to approach Mage is to pretend the rest of the World (sorry, Chronicles) of Darkness does not exist. This has always been an issue with White Wolf crossovers to some degree. Vampire is set in the World of Darkness, and then each subsequent game introduces its own unique cosmology that is pretty interesting in its own right, but doesn't really play nice with anything that has come before. The pieces sort of fit, but sooner or later, you have to make one game subordinate to the other, or at wind up mangling the metaphysics of one or more of your settings.

If I'd read the WoD games in anything resembling the semblance of the right order, this would be a trite observation by now, but because I wanted to read a new book first, I wasted it on Mage: The Awakening, 2nd Edition. It does indeed fit the pattern that goes all the way back to Werewolf: The Apocalypse. It is a very interesting modern fantasy game, but it is most definitely not a Mage supplement for the setting established in Vampire.

It's hard to tell, though, whether that is as big a deal as it should be. In the first edition of the nWoD, all the supernatural types shared the same core book. They didn't work together any better than they had in the oWoD, but there was a clear editorial intent there. It wasn't that weird if you wanted to play a vampire in the Werewolf game. In fact, the rules made it pretty easy.

With second edition going back to an all-in-one core book for each supernatural type, it's unclear whether crossover optimization is any longer a priority. There is some mention of crossover rules, but nothing as prominent as Requiem 1st Edition's "Supernatural Conflict" sidebar.

I guess that means I should proceed as if Mage: The Awakening is its own distinct thing, and not worry about it as a World of Darkness game.

I think it's pretty good, but it suffers from being a World of Darkness game.

Oh, it's nothing in particular. It's more of a general feel. Mages get their magic because they have a vision of the Supernal realm, where the true forms of all the exists casts a shadow on the Fallen world, creating the reality we know as an imperfect copy of the sublime. Once the mage has seen the truth of this other realm, they can call the Supernal laws into the real world and reshape it according to their desires. But there is a problem. The mages have enemies. A powerful group of godlike beings, known as the Exarchs, who reign in the Supernal realm and want to keep its power for themselves. Through their agents, the Seers of the Throne, they strengthen the Abyss, the vast gulf of negative spiritual power that keeps the Fallen world in darkness.

Which is fine, as far as it goes. Its a powerful conflict, with stakes that are simultaneously political, spiritual, and metaphysical. Magic isn't just a superpower, it's filled with mystery and peril. So far, so good.

Where it goes wrong is in the game's pessimism. Nonmagical people don't just lack abilities, they succumbed to The Lie. If they witness undeniable magic, they go insane and unravel it with their disbelief. The very laws of the universe conspire to keep humanity ignorant and afraid, and even if mages were interested in helping them, they have to be extremely circumspect. Again, it's not necessarily a bad setup, but something about it feels vestigial. Like, the mages are fighting a long-term war against near-impossible odds, so obviously things are going to be shitty for awhile, perhaps even the foreseeable future, but the way the game frames the conflict, victory is a foolishly idealistic dream.

And there's no real need for that. The world as it is is enough of a vale of tears, what with the inevitability of sickness and heartbreak and all. And the mage setting is demon-haunted besides. So why shut down hope?

It's not as bleak as it could be. And it's not as if the tone is written in stone. You can play the game hopefully easily enough. I just think it sometimes goes a little too far in trying to make its dark world a World of Darkness. Take its focus on mysteries and exploration and make it a bit more pulp and a bit less horror and Mage: The Awakening comes to be a great contemporary fantasy game on its own right.

Nitpick aside, I really like this book. It dramatically improves the spellcasting system from previous versions of Mage, its organizations and fantastic locations make for compelling plot hooks, and overall, it just works well as a stand-alone game. It's been so long since I read first edition that I cannot compare them accurately, but if I remember correctly, M:tAw 1st had more of the stuff I didn't like in it, so I'm pretty sure this is going to be the definitive version of Awakening for me . . .

At least until 3rd edition comes out.

UKSS Contribution - In Salamanca, Spain there is a library where books that were never written magically appear, last just long enough to inspire their readers with a bit of otherwise unattainable knowledge (from new magical spells to advances in cutting-edge science) and then disappear. I think something like that might be at home in one of UKSS's centers of learning.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Mage: The Awakening, Second Edition - Introduction

From the Back

THE WORLD IS A LIE
Humanity is cursed to a prison of sleep, ignorant of the wonder and danger all around them. Ground down into slavery, by masters they will never see, beset by a plague of cares to distract them from the Truth.

MAGIC
You were like them once, but now you are Awakened. You see the world beneath the Lie's skin, and the Mysteries beckoning you into the shadows. Every day of your life, you hear the call of the supernatural, from the leas ghost to the deepest cosmic enigmas.

You are a mage, one of the Wise. You see, know, and explore what others can't imagine, from the depths of the human soul to he hidden corners of reality. Armed with your spells, driven by an addiction to the Mysteries, you delve into the secrets of the world. Knowledge has a price, and the dangers are many.

Expectations

This is actually the first of the Onyx Path second edition corebooks I've come to own. I ordered it about six months ago and I haven't read it yet. So I feel like I'm in uncharted territory here. What is the design philosophy that animates the second edition? How is it different than the first? Why was it necessary? I know none of these things.

That's basically why I decided to read these books out of order. So I could come into Mage: The Awakening with my mind as empty as it's going to get. I want to understand the game on its own terms, without constantly comparing it to its predecessors.

And yet . . .

Mage: The Ascension was my favorite of the old World of Darkness games. Mage: the Awakening . . . I also enjoyed (though my favorite nwod game was Changeling). I do have some prior knowledge here, and I will be bringing some prejudices to this reading.

However, I am optimistic. Awakening 1e was like this Gnostic thriller, a game of suspense and uncertainty set in a world ruled by evil, where your highest aspirations are the very crimes the powers that be will use to condemn you. It was probably the most different from its owod counterpart, but nonetheless very satisfying in its own right.

If we're talking about my wishlist for 2e, the only things I really want are a bigger scale and more magic. I like it when wizards get to wiz, and the White Wolf mage games were always a little diffident about their own premise for me to be 100% on board.

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Vampire: The Requiem - Reaction

I know what you want. You're all desperately eager for me to continue my fascinating discussion of racial politics in Vampire games. Well, there is no need to keep you in suspense. I officially declare Vampire: The Requiem to be Not Racist.

Obviously, it's not perfect. It had at least one example of "no one knows what's going on in the mysterious East," which is less than ideal. Someone knows, White Wolf. The vampires that live there know. You, the authors of the whole damned universe, know. It doesn't have to be a thing. So why do you keep making it a thing?

That being said, one of the bloodlines was a Japanese offshoot of the Nosferatu. There are actual, named, black vampires. None of the clans is based off an offensive racial stereotype. A solid B+ all around.

Now that we have that unpleasantness out of the way, what about the book as a whole?

It's weird. Nearly every particular element is a notable step forward from its predecessor, but the book, taken as a whole, seems less than Masquerade. And I think I've identified the culprit - something I didn't talk about in my reaction to Vampire: The Masquerade. Something that I really should classify as an artistic and technical flaw, but which nonetheless gave the book a certain charm:

Masquerade would, occasionally, use metaplot to introduce errata.

I only noticed it a couple of times - with the Assamite clan weakness and the Malkavians having Dementation instead of Dominate - but I'm sure it happened a few more times under my radar. And the reason this matters is not (necessarily) that a few artful flaws can make a good thing better, but rather because of what this particular flaw says about how the game was made.

Namely, Vampire: The Masquerade, Revised was the product of White Wolf distilling a decade's worth of constantly-evolving game material, with an active fan-base who had a particular lived experience, and making it into a new introductory core book. Vampire: The Requiem was a product of White Wolf taking fifteen years of experience developing a vampire game and using it to create a new game from scratch.

Masquerade felt . . . weightier, like you were walking into the middle of a conversation. Requiem is probably the superior artistic achievement. It's certainly more confident in its moods and themes, and it has much less of that random weirdness that comes from your main inspiration being your own previous work. But it definitely loses something.

My recommendation is that if you're going core only, go with Requiem. If you're buying into the line as a whole, Masquerade is the way to go.

Although, now that I think about it, Requiem has a second edition. Maybe it too is late-stage vampire, drawing from an entire edition's worth of supplements to mutate into its own unique thing. Without knowing for sure, my recommendation has to be at least somewhat tentative.

Looks like I've got another candidate for my drivethrurpg wishlist. Maybe I'll order it about a month before I'm ready to read V:tM 20th anniversary edition, to repeat the comparison a decade later.

UKSS Contribution: Oh, this is a tough one. Everything good about this game is really specific, and everything stealable is really generic. I guess I'll go with the Morbus bloodline, vampires that can only feed on the sick, and who spread disease wherever they go.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Vampire: The Requiem - Introduction

From the Back

This is not
the abandoment of death,
Nor is it
the breath of life.
This is the funeral song  . . .

No, you know what, this is White Wolf putting poetry on the back of their books, because why should things be simple and helpful. Let's just skip it and go straight into what it is.

Vampire: The Requiem is the follow-up game to Vampire: The Masquerade. In the early 2000s, White Wolf decided to blow up their massively successful rpg franchise and rebuild it from first principles. Requiem should be Masquerade, shorn of its accumulated excesses and refocused on delivering a pure vampire-themed horror experience.

Expectations

You know, I honestly thought there was more of a time gap between Requiem and Masquerade, Revised. Now I'm wondering if Requiem will be nearly as socially aware as I'm hoping. I don't recall anything particularly offensive about it, but then again, I didn't remember anything specifically problematic about Masquerade either.

Which isn't to say I'm going into this looking for a political hit job. I'm okay with a little political incorrectness in my vampire games. Actually, what I'm most looking forward to are the clearer genre expectations and more refined mechanics.

What I'm least looking forward to are the fonts. White Wolf loved fonts that kind of look like handwriting. It's not something I mentioned in my reaction to Masquerade, because I actually kind of like that game and didn't want to keep piling on negativity, but I happened to glance at the introductory fiction and I saw something like four different fonts in the space of two pages.

So, clearly, it would be naive of me to expect Requiem to correct everything that was wrong with Masquerade.

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Vampire: The Masquerade, Revised Edition - Reaction

Vampire: The Masquerade is turning out to be a tough one to grapple with. I don't really want to talk about politics, because that's a black hole that swallows everything that gets near it, but the politics of this book are . . . not good.

It's nothing particularly hateful. On the balance, I'd say the book is on the right side of history. It's just closer to the center of the bell curve than I'm entirely comfortable with. Put in the starkest possible terms, the problem is this:

Vampires are really white.

And, look, it's a thing. It was the 90s. White people were whiter back then. If you stack 1999-era John Frazer up against the Vampire Revised core book, I guarantee you that I was at least 10-20% whiter, by volume. The difference is that I've since had nearly 20 years of personal growth, and this book hasn't.

It's not that the book is racist. I mean, it is, but in that mostly benign 90s way, where it's rigorously colorblind and sometimes overly pious in its tokenism, but clearly committed to the notion that the races are "equal."  And I'm pretty sure, that given its subject matter, any depictions that might have wandered uncomfortably close to real world bigotry were dismissed as "we're equal opportunity offenders."

There is some justice to that. It's not like the Ventrue, a clan whose whole shtick can basically be summed up as "we may have lost our lives, but they'll never take our white privilege," is any better, morally, than the designated PoC clans, and in fact, in true White Wolf punk fashion, is often the punching bag when characters criticize "vampire society." It's just that you have one clan whose deal is that they have traditionally recruited the scions of nobility and have adapted to modern nights by moving into the board room. And then you have another clan of Arabian religious fanatics who are waging an implacable holy war against the underpinnings of civilization (in this case, it's vampires, so it's kind of justified, but in context, it's not a good look).

Vampire: The Masquerade resolves this tension by pointing out that Clan Assamite has recently started recruiting "westerners" (their word).

That's a pattern for the book. Non-white spaces are either closed off completely (basically all of east Asia is a no-go zone, thanks to the  "mysterious" Asian vampires) or it takes pains to note that white people are included (as per the writeups for the Followers of Set or Assamites). The reverse is not true for the Clans that read as white. No mention of black Ventrue, or Native American Toreadors or anything like that. I'm 99% sure that the intent was that the Camarilla and Sabbat clans were all default inclusionary and none explicitly broke down along racial lines (in fact, the portrait on the Brujah clan page is probably meant to be a black man, but it's hard to say for certain with the art style - his skin is page-colored). However, that's the problem. White culture is invisible, and thus the white-coded clans represent broad generic archetypes, despite the fact that a nobleman from Edwardian England is even more alien to a modern American than a contemporary Japanese person from "the mysterious East."

I don't necessarily think the cure for this is more explicitly diverse Ventrue. If we're taking the clan's history at face value, then it makes perfect sense that it is lily-white. European nobility was overwhelmingly white, and modern finance hasn't exactly closed the racial gap. And it's not as if the Ventrue are going to benefit from good publicity by being inclusive. Plus, you know, given the age of the vampires and the social circles they came from, they're almost certainly hugely racist.

But if you're going to go with an all-white clan Ventrue (and the more I think about it, the more I agree that you should), you kind of have a duty to point it out. To acknowledge whiteness as a political force, and, indeed, to draw parallels between vampirism and the exploitative power of white supremacist capitalism. Indeed, if you're doing it right vampires =  white people is a metaphor that is too on the nose.

I mean, not to belabor a point (too late), but there's a whole chapter devoted to the history of the kindred, and an important theme is how vampires crossed the ocean to escape the stifling order of the European elders, and you don't even mention the transatlantic slave trade? Nothing about characters having to be shipped as cargo rang a bell? The American revolution is discussed in the paranoid context of warring vampire factions, and not one peep about the ready availability of blood in a society where it was possible to literally buy and sell human beings?

That's how white vampires are. They can afford to forget about race as a force.

And so, despite my best intentions, this post wound up being heavily political after all. But that's not all of what Vampire the Masquerade is. It's not even the bulk of it. At its heart lies the dream of bringing your Anne Rice fanfiction to life. And how does it fare at that task?

Passably. It has flaws. The system makes a hash out of probability. Having both a variable target number and a variable dice pool makes it very hard to have an intuitive sense of how likely something is, and some actions requiring multiple successes doesn't make it any easier. The end result is a system that feels like it is held together by the players' optimism.

But it also leads to a system that is at its most robust and functional in combat situations. A factor, I'm sure, that led to many games becoming extended brawls.

That ties into the system's biggest weakness - it's being pulled in too many directions. It wants to be a game of sexy vampires doing sexy things in a moodily-lit shadow world of decadence and deceit, but it also wants to be a game of personal horror, where characters have a tenuous hold on their morality and slowly become corrupted by the temptations of undeath, and also an occult conspiracy game, where long-buried secrets hold the key to an imminent apocalypse and also a game about the conflict between rival ideological factions, with different visions of how the vampiric condition should relate to society at large. All these factors can work together to tell some remarkable stories, but it's more likely that they don't.

That's probably the game's greatest strength, too. Roleplaying games are a chaotic storytelling medium at the best of times, and the players are likely to have different agendas about the direction they want the game to go (a fact that Vampire, Revised sometimes seem to be in denial about) and it's good to have something for them to do.

UKSS Contribution: Probably Clan Tremere. The hubris of wizards attempting to wrest the secret of eternal life from the undead, only to fail and become vampires is pretty compelling. I also like the image of a sinister cabal of vampires, gathering in secret to perform mystical rituals. Plus, they're arrogant jerks, which is always something you want to see in your vampire conspiracies.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Vampire the Masquerade, Revised Edition - Introduction

From the Back

There will come a time, when the curse of the One above will not be tolerated further, when the Lineage of Caine will end when the Blood of Caine will be weak and there will be no Embracing for these Childer for their blood will run like water and the potence in it will wither. Then, you know in this time that Gehenna will soon be upon you.

-- The Book of Nod

What is This

Well, the back wasn't very informative. It's a game about vampires. Or, more accurately, the game about Vampires. The third edition of the original, gothic-punk, superheroes-with-fangs, angsty, tortured storytelling game of personal horror.

Expectations

As a classic White Wolf game, I'm looking forward to one part compelling fiction, one part unbearable pretentiousness, and one part mechanical carelessness. As an artifact from the late 90s, particularly one that marketed itself as "adult," it's likely to blindside me with some bit of political backwardness that I didn't notice at the time. So that'll be interesting to write about, at least.

Overall, I think I'll be pretty energized by this one. White Wolf always had a knack for creating readable rpgs.

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Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia - Reaction

I have a vision of the future. I'm sitting in my nice leather chair. I've just read two editions of GURPS back to back. And my brains are leaking out through my ears.

Reading the D&D Rules Cyclopedia so soon after the individual boxed sets wasn't quite that bad, but it gives me a horrifying glimpse at what awaits me.

But putting that aside, I have to say, this book is . . . good? Bad? Goodbad?

It's one-volume D&D. Everything you need for a game - player abilities, DM advice, monster stats - in a single book that you could sit down and read over the course of a couple of afternoons. I may be missing some obscure product, but it is quite possibly the only version of the game ever released that lets you do that. So the very fact that it exists is incredible.

It's just, this version of D&D, it's . . . I don't want to say "bad," but I'm at a loss for a similarly simple word that means "inconsistent, filled with ad hoc rules, and a poor fit for emulating the heroic fiction that inspired it."

Of course, that was my key observation on the first go round of BECM D&D. So, the worst thing you could say about the Rules Cyclopedia is that it doesn't dramatically improve the material it compiled. It does streamline things a bit. It's easy to underestimate how much of a benefit it is to just have all the rules for a particular character class in one place, but it does help both comprehension and flow. And some of the more obvious missteps have been corrected. For example, it now advises thief characters to not steal from their party. And it is no longer canon that apes can become wereseals.

The parts I was most interested in are those from the Companion DM's book, which I inexplicably do not own. There were some monsters, some magic items (including the demihuman relics, which all seemed to produce some obscure method of transportation, for some reason), but the biggest contributions were the mass combat and dominion management rules.

Which, I'm glad they're included, but I'm even more glad that I won't have to use them. Mass combat basically involves sitting down with your friends and doing algebra for 20 minutes (if you're lucky) and dominion management is not dynamic or interactive enough to be worth your time (it actually suggests that staying in your dominion, ruling in person, is likely to increase your chances of a coup, so that's a pretty sick burn).

In theory, I really like taking these high level things out of the realm of DM fiat and making them objectively influenced by character stats and actions, but ultimately, what I want is something that will model the interstitial narration of a historical epic (". . . and in the year of the lion, the Ochre Horde advanced on the capital, but Lord Horence was too far away to rally his forces, or was he . . .") without getting bogged down in too many corner cases or exceptions.

Maybe it's not an attainable goal, and I certainly don't fault the Rules Cyclopedia for not pulling it off, but it does kind of exemplify both the strengths and weakness of this edition - everything is included, allowing you to tell fantasy stories of any scope or scale, all with one book . . . but the price is that it's all just a little bit crummy.

Overall, though, I think I'd take it over AD&D, which - hell, I'll let the Rules Cyclopedia's conversion section finish this thought for me - ". . . often has a more detailed rule that includes more variables, allowing it to cover situations in much greater depth."

I mean, good gods, at least we dodged that bullet.

UKSS Contribution - This pretty much had to come from the monster's section, and there were some pretty good choices, but none that quite had the charm of Sasquatches. I'm pretty sure they were in either Basic or Expert, but the Rules Cyclopedia introduces a new rule here - they can sometimes be spellcasters. Specifically, they can reach up to level 4 as druids.

Now I'm picturing a whole community of gentle, hippy Sasquatches, living in harmony with nature and hiding from the rapacious industry of the hu-man with the aid of the forest spirits.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia - Introduction


From the Back

Whether you're a player or Dungeon Master, the DUNGEONS & DRAGON Rules Cyclopedia is now the comprehensive sourcebook you need for the original fantasy role-playing game! For ages 12 and up, the Cyclopedia contains the complete game system and hundreds of features including:

  • All the rules from the D&D Boxed Set series, including Basic, Expert, Companion, and Masters.
  • Guidelines to develop and play characters from levels 1-36.
  • Comprehensive lists of weaponry and equipment.
  • Expansion rules including optional skills and talents.
  • And overview of the Known World and HOLLOW WORLD game settings, the official D&D campaign world.
  • Rules to convert D&D games and characters into AD&D 2nd edition game statistics and back again.
  • Provides all the original monsters from the earlier boxed sets.

Expectations

I'm kind of dreading this one. It seems like it should just be a rehash of the three-and-a-half books I've already read before. But maybe the Cyclopedia will put a new perspective on the material, or at least rephrase it so I'm not going through exactly the same stuff as I did before.

But let's be real. This is going to be very similar to the books I've already read. At least I'll be able to find out what I missed in the Companion DM's book. 

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Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Earthdawn Gamemaster's Guide - Reaction

My main takeaway from The Earthdawn Gamemaster's Guide is that the decision to split the game into two volumes was not a fruitful one. Sure, it makes sense to keep the monster stats and magic items a secret, but I see no reason to segregate the climbing rules, and certain things, like the setting information do active harm to the game by being hidden away in a GM supplement.

Okay, so it's 2018, and it's highly unlikely that anyone is coming across Earthdawn 4th Edition by accident. I mean, I discovered it by accident, when I went into the local game store and saw it on their rpg shelf, but even then, it didn't have to sell me on the game. I knew right away what it was, and how improbable it was that I'd ever see it again. Still, if I'm imagining an alternate universe where these books were destined for the hands of an utter Earthdawn naif, then I have to question the wisdom of putting the game's main selling point - its incredible setting - into a book marked for GMs.

Because the setting information here really is quite good. It combines the familiar with the novel in a way that feels fresh. Like, it's a fantasy setting with elves and dwarves and whatnot, but dwarves are the most common race, outnumbering even humans. And the dwarf kingdom is underground, but that dovetails with the setting backstory in a really fruitful way. Of course, dwarves would have certain advantages in a world where all sapient life spent six of the last seven hundred years huddled in underground bunkers. And yet, aside from its exotic location, the Kingdom of Throal is portrayed in much the same terms as any fantasy kingdom - it is driven by profit and pride, but sometimes the idealists win. Just because they're a kingdom of dwarfs doesn't mean they're pigeonholed as the "dwarf kingdom." It's a remarkable bit of world-building.

But if I had to narrow the appeal of the setting down to one single element (which I don't have to, and really shouldn't - there's a lot of great stuff there), I'd say that what makes Earthdawn great is that it really manages to capture the sense of loss that comes with its post-apocalyptic setting. Lots of fantasy stories are set in the ruins of some prior, great civilization, but they often seem to use these ruins as a sort of adventuring loot box. Rarely are they engaged with as ruins - places that were once filled with activity and life, but which have since faded away.

The way Earthdawn establishes this is subtle. Take, for example, the broken kaers. Let's be real for a second. They're dungeons. They exist to be big, dangerous boxes full of thrilling monster fights and fabulous treasure. And they succeed in that. But, the plot of going into a kaer, clearing out the monsters, and retrieving the treasure also manages to be effortlessly affecting, even without further embellishment.

And it all comes down to one choice that seems obvious in retrospect, but which eluded me for years - Kaers are not mysterious. You never have to wonder "for what purpose did the ancients construct such an elaborate underground structure." You know it was to take refuge from an implacable enemy. And you never have to wonder "what fate befell the inhabitants that such a place would be abandoned to monsters." You know. The refuge failed.

But the trick Earthdawn pulls off is actually a two-step. Because Barsaive is not a bleak world, where people are constantly wailing in grief over a past that can never be reclaimed. The thing that most sells the sense of loss is that world is really quite the opposite. It's a world filled with hope. The people of Barsaive are rebuilding. The Horrors are in retreat. The evil empire suffered a major defeat. The dwarves of Throal were sincere when they said they were going to use their influence to liberate and unify, rather than rule. It's called Earthdawn for a reason. Tomorrow is going to be brighter than yesterday (with the help of the heroes, of course). The world has faced its darkest moment and survived. Life endures.

But then, sometimes, you come across a reminder of the people who didn't make it . . .

And that's what makes Earthdawn so great as a setting. And it's a shame that so little of that made it into the player-facing book. I'm glad that it's still somewhere, but I can't help but feel that the Player's and Gamemaster's Guides are less two stand-alone books, each serving a particular purpose and more two complementary volumes of a single work, that can't really function without each other. In fact, my theory at this point is that printing technology isn't really well suited to making a 1000-page book at 6"x9", so they arbitrarily split it in half to make it easier to manufacture.

Oh well, it doesn't much affect me on a personal level. I own both books and I was happy to read them. I may even put out feelers in my gaming group, see if anyone's interested in starting an Earthdawn game.

Ukss Contribution - I'm going to be cautious here and go with "cats can see into the astral." Such a picayune detail, doesn't especially help anyone but a Beastmaster character, and the only reason I even know about it is that the writers made the odd decision to include normal, non-combatant animals in their bestiary alongside Griffins and Unicorns.

So, you know, if you ever need to fight a mule, Earthdawn's got you covered. They don't have any magical powers or anything, but they are pretty good at carrying gear, so they could be armed with anything.

Seriously, though. The thing about cats seeing into the astral is a detail I really like. I enjoy it when fantasy games take real world superstition and make it function within the context of their rules.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Earthdawn Game Master's Guide - Introduction

From the Back

[Snip same 3 paragraphs that appeared on the back of the Player's Guide]

The Gamemaster's Guide provides rules and advice for running the Earthdawn game and includes an exploration of the lands of Barsaive, as well as numerous fantastic creatures and magical treasures to challenge and reward your players.

Expectations

The Player's Guide disappointed me a bit with its lack of setting information. The Gamemaster's Guide devotes 80 pages to history and setting (not counting the setting info that's surely in the creatures, dragons, and horrors chapters) so I'm optimistic about that. On the other hand, this book, like the first one, is huge. It's got to fill that word count with something, and if it's not high fantasy spectacle, it will be GMing advice and dry rules that is too rarely used to be included in a player reference.

In any event, Earthdawn is a game I've always had a soft spot for, despite not owning it until about two months ago. The best case scenario is that I'm inspired to buy a whole bunch of old supplements off Amazon. (Some might call it the worst case scenario, but I'm a slow learner).

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Dungeons and Dragons Gazetteers - Reaction

The Grand Duchy of Karameikos

I went into this batch of books with a certain skepticism, and The Grand Duchy of Karameikos did not disappoint in that regard. I was expecting a by-the-numbers D&D fantasy setting, and what I got was even less fantastic than that.

Don't get wrong, the book is still useful, if you ever needed a serviceable starter kingdom, predominantly run by humans (so much so that the fantasy races could be excised neatly without changing much of anything) and low magic. It describes several medieval-style towns and gives a rundown of all the major figures of the Duke's court. And there's a historically-based ethnic tension that could serve as the driver of a lot of plots.

But . . . nope, no buts. If you were hoping for early D&D high fantasy weirdness, there isn't any. Not even any mention of water termites. Okay, it introduced two new monsters, one of which is kind of weird. The chevall is a sort of . . . were-centaur? It's a creature that mostly runs around in horse form, but can change into a centaur if it sees horses being threatened. The other new creature was the nosferatu. As near as I can tell, it exists only to be a stealth errata for the D&D vampire ("[it] strongly resembles the vampire. However, the Nosferatu does not drain energy levels. It drinks blood.")

The best things about The Grand Duchy of Karameikos are its seriousness and attention to detail. The most entertaining thing about it was Baron Ludwig von Hendriks. I'd already encountered him once before, in Lathan's Gold (which I only now realize covered the entire south coast of "The D&D World," not just Ierendi). He was the asshole who kidnapped my girlfriend for a ransom of unrefined gold. He lives in a castle called Fort Doom.

I think the author of this book might have hated the character. It depicts him very bizarrely. Like, even in-setting he is "bizarre" and "theatrical". The origin story of Fort Doom is that Ludwig von Hendriks was the Duke's cousin and was granted the title of Baron, but despite being the lawful ruler of the village of Halag, he came in with an army and conquered it anyway (actual quote - "he didn't need to conquer it . . . but he wanted to conquer something.") and then renamed it Fort Doom. The canonical reason for why he's allowed to get away with it is that his deeds are so over-the-top that the Duke assumes the reports are exaggerated.

So there you have it. A mostly down-to-earth fantasy setting, so restrained in its use of magic that you could slot it into a historical game with only minimal modification, and also it's home to a cartoonish, scenery-chewing supervillain.

UKSS Contribution: It has to be Baron von Hendriks. A guy who straight-up relishes in his own villainy and lives his life like a romantic diva? He could be equally ill-at-home in any genre.

The Emirates of Ylaruam

I was worried this book would be really racist, but it turns out that it was merely blithely sexist. Don't panic. It's not the worst case scenario. Fantasy Arabia, in the wrong hands, could have been very bad. The Emirates of Ylaruam's cardinal sin is that women are nearly completely invisible. There are zero named female characters, and while I didn't keep a running count, as near as I can tell, the only specific female character at all is a woman who buys some magic makeup after being tricked by an evil alchemist (but who doesn't actually figure into the subsequent adventure, which is about retrieving the makeup for a good alchemist). The character creation page does have example female names . . . marked by an asterisk because they're mixed in with a whole lot more male names.

It's weird. Even for the time, it's weird. Both The Grand Duchy of Karameikos and The Kingdom of Ierendi were much better about this. The Duchy had a Duchess and the Kingdom had a Queen, so even by the bare minimum standards, the Emirates fell behind, but then they each had female ambassadors and shop owners and city administrators, and even some female adventurers. All books written in 1987, but only two out of the three seemed to remember that half of the human species even exists. Counting points off for that. Bad form.

I wish I was more of an expert on Orientalism, because I'm curious about how this is influenced by the book's subject matter. Not to put too fine a point on it, but harems are conspicuous in their absence, and I wonder if that was less an oversight and more a deliberate excision. Certainly, the cover of the book is well aware of the existence of the trope. And if you're in 1987, writing about fantasy Arabia, and you're cutting out harems, than maybe there's no other mental connection you have between Arabs and women.

I've got to figure that someone, somewhere, made a call. Because when we look at Ylaruam's treatment of its male characters it's . . . okay. Not great, but okay. They invented fantasy Islam to underpin the region's culture. Which makes perfect sense. You can't have medieval Arabia without Islam. It's so influential that you leave a huge void if you just take it out. But that raises the uncomfortable question - what is fantasy Europe's analogue to Catholicism?

That's the main flaw of this book (aside from the women thing) - it makes specific things that are maybe a bit more general. Like, there's roleplaying advice that basically boils down to "characters will act rashly if challenged on their machismo, because the region's warrior-ethic is rooted in a highly performative masculinity" and my main thought was "where was all this when we were talking about Karameikos."

Guys, did you know the people of Ylaruam take their religion seriously, consider it rude if you jump straight into business without engaging in small talk first, and believe it's important to be hospitable? Wow, what a strange and mysterious people.

Okay, I've ragged on this book enough. It actually does a pretty good job of sketching out a setting and making it feel real. So maybe the problem is less that its editorial focus makes common things seem exotic and more that other books take a lot of stuff for granted.

And if you put aside the political angle, The Emirates of Ylaruam follows in the tradition of The Grand Duchy of Karameikos in being a serviceable workhorse of a book that mostly eschews magic and high fantasy for a grounded pseudo historical realism. It devotes roughly twice the word count to water management policy than it does to genies. Which, okay. It's not what I want from a roleplaying game, but I respect it. You can pick up this book and within minutes have a perfectly unremarkable Arab-inspired town, complete with beggars, barbers, and rival tribes, that's ready to be slotted into nearly any appropriate campaign. It may not make for the most compelling reading, but it does spare the DM a lot of scut work.

UKSS Contribution: The Roc. It's not used in an especially unusual way here - She attacks a village after the inhabitants steal her egg. But hey, the classics are classics for a reason.

The Kingdom of Ierendi

Moving on from fantasy Arabia to fantasy Hawaii. And people, this is bedrock D&D weirdness. It goes off the rails almost instantly and it never gets back on. I can't even figure out how this tracks with the previous two supplements, because it doesn't seem like remotely the same world. In Ylaruam you've got people sipping coffee and pointedly not discussing financial transactions, and in Karameikos you've got them stoking ethnic tensions as cover for their criminal syndicate, and meanwhile, over in Ierendi, you've got adventuring-based tourism, civic government, and religion.

This is not me being hyperbolic and reading more into the text than intended. The King and Queen of Ierendi are literally chosen by a process known as "The Royal Tournament of Adventurers." Once a year, the ministers of Ierendi set up mock dungeons, stock them with monsters, and hopeful contestants run through them, being judged by the mysterious criteria of "The Tribunal" and the highest-scoring man and woman get to be the King and Queen for the year.

And the economy of Ierendi is based on tourism. Given the numbers provided by the book, hundreds of thousands of people visit the islands each year. And one of the more popular attractions is Gastenoo's World of Adventure on Safari Island (so much so that it spawned a dozen imitators). In these parks, special magic items are used that absorb all damage directed at their wearers, while simultaneously announcing the wounds they would have received. Combined with weapons enchanted to stun, rather than kill, visitors to these parks go through carefully scripted scenarios "based on fairy tales, heroic legends, and ancient myths."

I . . . don't . . . even.

Wrap it up people. It turns out we've all been living in a world that reached peak irony back in 1987.

I'm not sure how this is meant to be used. Why am I taking a heroic legend and using it as the basis for a game within a game? If the players were interested in roleplaying the legend, couldn't I, you know, just make that the basis of the game? What's my pitch, here? "Hey, do you guys want to play D&D, but with a framing device where you're in the Enterprise's holodeck?"

But apparently, thousands, nay tens of thousands, of people in the D&D world do this every year.

And as for the religion . . . well, that I am reading into a bit. I'll let the book's own words describe it:

One message on the stones has not changed at all. Tomia, the Hope, wrote of a great treasure . . . [It] will be found, according to the Immortals, when the People's Temple's need is greatest. Not even the Temple officials know when this will be, so a continual search for the treasure is conducted by the Temple priests and by individual followers of the Temple.

Temple officials strongly encourage adventurers to increase their proficiencies and to someday achieve the level of Immortal. They do this in hopes that the great treasure will be revealed to them.
So, the doctrine of Ierendi's most popular religion is that you should gain levels and look for treasure. Imagine me giving a very pointed hmmmm.

I guess my takeaway from the Kingdom of Ierendi is that I have a very poor intuitive sense of what the beginning of Dungeons and Dragons must have been like. To me, 1987 is still very early D&D, too early, I'd think, to start with the whole, jaded "adventuring is kind of like extreme sports" idea. Hell, real sports hadn't even gotten to that stage yet. It feels like learning that there was a punk rock band in 1965.

I'm not saying I don't like it. I'd tweak a few things, put the islands in a setting where people actually go on expensive island vacations, maybe just up the tech level generally, but as a concept, it works. On the other hand, if I'm working at TSR in the mid-80s, I would never have approved the manuscript. Gazetteer 4 is too early in the run to start parodying your own setting.

UKSS Contribution: There is a village of albinos that believe they can attract their gods to the mortal realm by building magnificent houses for them. They do this by building mansions out of sand (the primary material available at the beach) and then using secret alchemy to harden the sand into a durable structure.

I'll take the sand-hardening potion. Leave the stuff about the cult of albinos.

PS: I'm writing this about a year after the original post. I linked to this one from The Complete Book of Humanoids because I remembered a detail from Ylaruam that was relevant to the discussion - in the village, there's a tainted well. It's cursed because there are a bunch of undead lizard-folk down there. It didn't merit much mentioning at the time of the initial post, but apparently it stuck with me for months afterwards. Funny what you remember.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Three Dungeons and Dragons Gazetteers - Introduction

What Are These

Dungeons and Dragons had a series of thin books that described various locations in its default setting. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos is used for example adventures in the Expert rulebook. The Kingdom of Ierendi showed up in Lathan's Gold. And a quick internet search shows that the Emirates of Ylarum are original to the book.

In terms of old-school supplements, these are the real shit. The covers are gorgeous in that mid-80's overwrought fantasy way. And you can bet your life that all the ladies are staring sleepily into the distance while having implausibly deep cleavage and the men are all doing heroic action poses with lovingly detailed fantastic weaponry.

The back covers of Karameikos and Ylarum both promise a "complete historical, economical, geographical, and sociological overview" of their respective areas. Whereas by Ierendi, they'd mellowed a bit and focused more on pitching the adventure. 1987 must have been a very busy year at TSR.

Expectations

I think the trickiest thing about tackling these is that they are from before the time when their brand of fantasy became boring. Like, the Grand Duchy of Karameikos looks like peak D&D fantasy. I'm expecting heroic knights, rampaging goblins, and aloof wizards. Maybe there will be some mysterious elves that live in a forest and some taciturn dwarves that live in the mountains.

Ylarum looks like it's going to be benignly racist in that old-school orientalist way, where the author is really enthusiastic about the subject matter, but engages with it through a colonialist lens. Though to be fair to the author, this impression comes mostly from the cover, which feature two men in Keffiyehs, with covered faces, a harem dancer, and a beautiful woman with a veiled face. The rest is just an educated guess.

Ierendi is harder to pin down, at least from the book's cover. It's the one I'm most optimistic about, just because it gives off a purer sword and sorcery vibe than the others (though, the phrase "psychotic natives" appears on the back cover, which is never a good sign).

Despite my cynicism, I'm prepared to be surprised by any or all of these. The advantage of predating the genre it created is that there's still room for the ideas that got dropped in the process of working out the common denominator. The D&D rulebooks themselves were filled with all sorts of bizarre ideas that were largely forgotten. Here's hoping the setting books are early enough to share that sense of experimentation.

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Earthdawn Player's Guide - Reaction

My biggest complaint about the Earthdawn Player's Guide stems from the thing I enjoy most about it. See, in Earthdawn, you play an Adept, a person who uses magic to perform phenomenal feats of skill. Warrior Adepts strike harder than a charging bull. Thief Adepts skulk through the shadows with preternatural grace. My absolute favorite is the Sky Raider talent that lets them negate their falling damage and jump from airships in a precision aerial assault. That's both a neat bit of world-building and a cool image on its own.

There are fifteen Adept "Disciplines" (ie character classes), covering a variety of heroic archetypes. And I like that a lot. My complaint is that a significant portion, 4 out of 15, of the Disciplines are spellcasters and taken together, they undermine the Adept system in ways I'm not sure it can recover from.

Don't get me wrong. Wizards and Elementalists and Illusionists and Nethermancers fit well into the Earthdawn setting, and it is both appropriate and wise to include them as character options. It's just, the portion of the book given over to spells and spellcasting is 95 pages. The portion of the book devoted to all of the other talents for all fifteen Disciplines (including those belonging to the four spellcasting Disciplines) is 64 pages. One quarter of the Disciplines gets one and half times more wordcount than the other three quarters combined.

It bugs me. On the one hand, the book is saying "magic permeates this world and is used in a variety of activities and fields, rather than being sequestered away in the dusty old tomes of specialists" and then it immediately walks that back by putting most of the flashiest special effects into the dusty old tomes of specialists.

It's not that spellcasters are necessarily more effective than other Disciplines. In fact, I'm fairly sure that given the xp sink that spells represent, nearly every Discipline is going to be better at its niche. It feels like a missed opportunity to give other fantasy archetypes a greater diversity of wondrous feats.

But that's a fairly minor complaint. Overall, I would call the Discipline system a success and my whining merely an aesthetic preference. The only thing that I'd call out as a flaw is the "step system" method of determining dice pools.

The way it works is that your attribute and talent ratings combine to give you a "step" and then various bonuses and penalties (such as equipment, magic, or the specific maneuver you're attempting) can raise or lower your step. Your final step determines what dice you roll, as indicated by a chart near the beginning of the book. At the low levels, it's fairly intuitive. Step 4 is 1d6. Step 5 is 1d8. Step 6 is 1d10. And so on. But then, once you start rolling multiple dice, it gets a little hard to follow. Step 28 is 1d20 + 1d12 + 2d8. Step 29 is 1d20 + 1d12 + 1d10 + 1d8. And step 30 is 2d20 + 2d6. There's a logic to it, but realistically, you're going to have to be checking that chart constantly.

I think you'd get used to it, though. And it would be worth it to do so. Earthdawn as a setting as a lot of great fantastic conceits that make it a one-of-a-kind experience. It is the only fantasy rpg I can think of that is explicitly post-apocalyptic. Most others have a vaguely sketched out disaster that ended a previous golden age, but in Earthdawn, that disaster is within living memory and the current society is the first and second generation descendants of people who huddled for safety in underground bunkers while ravenous Horrors scoured the surface of all life. There's even a location called Bartertown, which I have to assume is a deliberate homage.

Other things I like are Blood Elves, a group of elves whose magical protection against the Scourge failed and in desperation turned to blood magic to cause living thorns to grow inside their bodies, depriving the Horrors of the opportunity to derive sustenance from their suffering. Or the Sea of Death, which is an ocean of open lava, where specially shielded airships fly over it to harvest pure elemental fire. Or that trolls get around the fact that they are too big to ride horses by domesticating dinosaurs.

It's very cool, and honestly I wish there was more of it here in this book. The explicit setting chapter is less than 15 pages long, and much of the feel of the game has to come from examples, chapter quotes, and the odds and ends sprinkled throughout the book. I feel like 1st edition maybe did it better, but that was a long time ago, and I may be remembering the past with rose-colored glasses. (Sadly, I don't have any 1st edition Earthdawn books, probably my most regrettable collecting oversight).

UKSS Contribution - This is a tough one, but I'm going to have to go with sealed kaers. It's mentioned a couple of times throughout the book that not everyone has emerged from their magical bunkers yet. Even now, decades after the Scourge has ended. I think it would be cool to have a couple of those in the World of Ukss, even if the thing they're hiding from has to be changed.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Earthdawn Player's Guide - Introduction

From the Back Cover
An age of magic once existed in our world. Lost to history, this time is remembered in the echoes of myth and legend. Humans lived alongside the other Namegiver races: Dwarf and Elf, Troll and Ork, Windling, T'Skrang, and Obsidiman. The wild places of the world were home to griffins, shadowmants, and other fantastic beasts.

The land was once besieged by the horrors, foul creatures from the depths of astral space that sought to feed upon and destroy all that was living and good. Their time, the time of the scourge, has passed and the people have returned to the surface, reclaiming the lands that were once their home.

Brave heroes band together to explore the land of Barsaive, fighting the horrors that remain and protecting their homes from those that would enslave them.

The Player's Guide Provides you with the rules for playing characters from first to eighth circle, with all the talents, spells, and other tools needed to forge your own legends in the Earthdawn roleplaying game.

Expectations
I have a friend who lent me the old FASA version, many years ago. I thought it was a great setting and I especially loved all the clever easter-egg connections to Shadowrun. From what I understand, those are no more, due to the severing of the licenses, but I still like the exotic fantasy races, strange magic, and undercurrent of melancholy that characterize the setting as a whole.

This particular book is an absolute brick, more than 500 pages long. I hope that means that there will be a lot of juicy setting detail, though my worry is that the system will be really finicky and complicated.

Either way, there are sure to be long, dry stretches.I've got to prepare myself emotionally to power through.

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Monday, November 19, 2018

Old School Adventures - Reaction

Let's take these bad boys one at a time.

Lathan's Gold
This module was a bit of a surprise. When I saw that it was a solo adventure, I assumed it was for one player and one DM. But it turned out to be a solo adventure. Just a single player with no DM, like a choose your own adventure book. A really dry, complicated choose your own adventure book.

It was kind of neat. It had hundreds of paragraph-long encounters that would branch into each other to lead me through the plot. It was nearly impossible to read. Imagine page after page of things like this:

V69. You are just off the shore of an island in the Minrothad Guilds. Other guild islands lie to the north and east. An island of the Kingdom of Irendi lies to the west. If you land on the island before you, read entry E13.
    north -- T20, 1 day      east -- V79, 1 day
   south -- V68, 1 day     west -- V59, 1 day

I made the decision early to just play through the adventure as intended instead of trying to read it like a book. And it went pretty smoothly. I inadvertently cheated a few times, because I accidentally skipped over the random encounter rules, but then I balanced it out by mistakenly rolling for more random encounters than necessary. (The rules are at the start of section V,  and only apply there, but I used them for sections T and C.)

Also, there was some ambiguity as to whether I succeeded at the quest or not. You're supposed to bring the evil Baron some unrefined gold, weighing 1000 coins (Dungeons and Dragons uses "coins" as a measure of weight). I had 700 coins worth from the expedition and 800 regular coins. I counted that as a win, because surely the Baron would understand that gold is gold, and if we're just going by weight, then 300 actual gold coins are better than the exact same amount in lump form.

But then again, maybe the standard gold piece is adulterated, mixed with other metals. But if the coins are at least 3/8ths gold then the Baron would come out ahead. The book didn't give me much guidance either way. I'm inclined to award myself victory, because of course, but reading the rules as written, I probably shouldn't have. It certainly doesn't make sense for the Baron to set a 1000gp ransom when your character starts with 750gp.

Overall, it was pretty decent. It was like playing a really short adventure game where I had to track my inventory with a piece of scratch paper. I'd have gotten a lot of use out of it when I was a kid, but now I can just play an adventure game whenever I want . . .

Still, a pretty cool thing to own.

UKSS Contribution - nothing in this adventure is particularly well-described or distinctive, so it's hard to choose, but I guess I'll go with Three Sisters Island, where you receive a vision of the three sisters of the sea and they teleport you to some other island.

Blade of Vengeance
This was a traditional solo adventure of the sort I was expecting when I started with this batch.  It's D&D, but with only one PC. It's also the best story out of the bunch, though that's not saying much.

You're an adventurer who returns to her hometown just in time to see it destroyed by a dragon. Swearing vengeance, you track down the final resting place of the hero that slew the dragon's grandfather so you can get his special dragon-slaying magic items.

A simple enough story, but the tone is all over the place. Halfway through, you encounter a mischievous nature spirit who steals one of your magic items, and there's a lighthearted detour from the main quest while you sort it out. All the while, the adventure is assuming you're pursuing this in a well-focused, but mercenary manner. The text goes out of its way to point out how much treasure every character (no matter if it's a wandering monster, friendly NPC or random halfling townsfolk) is carrying. The bizarre treasure focus reaches it's zenith in the dragon's lair itself, where you notice a tapestry worth 1500gp . . . depicting the dragon's grandfather destroying a village.

I misread that entry the first time through. I thought the tapestry was of the same dragon you were trying to kill. And I laughed my head off. I guess my imagination went even farther than the (misread) text and I just pictured the tapestry as showing the destruction of the main character's village. Like, while the PC was off chasing faeries and communing with the ghost of an ancient hero, the dragon had somehow commissioned and received a tapestry of itself. And that tapestry just happened to be so well done that it had already received critical acclaim and an appraised value of five years' worth of workman's wages. The image of Erystelle doing a double-take as she walks past is one that's going to stick with me for some time.

Ultimately, though, what hurts Blade of Vengeance the most is that its story doesn't have a proper arc. You've got the dragon attack at the beginning, a whole lot of filler with no particular symbolism or thematic weight, and then the confrontation at the end. Structurally, it's a mess.

Also, it seemed like every other monster in this quest had a sword +1. I noticed at least four, not counting the main characters, which honestly makes them seem less magical.

UKSS Contribution - I have to go with Wally, the Halfling elder. This is another case of me misreading the book, but this time I'm doing it on purpose. Here's how he's described:

No matter when Erystelle calls, Wally will be in his dressing gown and will have a pipe in his hand.
 Now clearly, this just means that the adventure wasn't going to go through the trouble of writing out this minor character's entire daily routine. But I'm choosing to interpret it to mean that he just goes around all day in his pajamas, possibly as a result of whatever is in his pipe. I'm certain that I could have a lot of fun pairing that personality with some other authority figure in the world of Ukss.

Mystery of the Snow Pearls
For this one, I'm going to let an image do the talking.


The whole book is like that, except for a few paragraphs of explanation. Apparently it originally came with a "magic viewer," which I'm guessing is a small piece of red plastic film that has long since been lost. I may come back to this book if I ever find something suitable, but until then, I guess this one was super easy.

Quest for the Heartstone
The simplest of the five adventures (probably). You and a team of your friends are just chasing after a Macguffin because you're being paid to do it. I remember the blurb on the back not doing an adequate job of explaining why the Queen needed the Heartstone to rule, but that turned out to have a very simple answer. The Heartstone gives its wielder the power to read minds, which she intended to use in her courtly intrigues. Which, you know, fair enough. She'll need all the help she can get, what with being the 35 year old wife of a man who died at the age of 82.

Okay, it was a different time. And surely good ol' King Ganto was a decent man. But geeze, there's no version of that relationship that leaves me feeling comfortable.

The quest itself is fairly boilerplate. You go through a trap-ridden dungeon, fighting monsters and getting a bunch of incidental treasure. The high point is the "wellevator," a magical elevator built in a well. Or perhaps the cursed scroll that turns whoever reads it into a pixie for one week. Or maybe the return of the water termites (which also showed up in Lathan's Gold - I may have underestimated the broadness of their appeal).

No, actually, the best thing is the NPC line "we are providing you with a pair of tongs." The queen's advisor doesn't want the PCs to touch the stone, presumably because they might then covet its powers for themselves, but even if the stone were actually as dangerous as implied, it would still be a ridiculous line. Tongs are, like, what, 2 cp? To present them as if they were some piece of specialized equipment generously being bestowed upon the adventurers is just ridiculous.

The worst thing about the adventure is the way it took every opportunity to advertise the official D&D line of figurines. They even based the preconstuct characters off the toys. And only 3 of the 18 were women. Which doesn't say anything good about either D&D culture or toy culture circa 1984.

UKSS Contribution - The Prism Wars. The module didn't say anything about them, just that they happened 50 years ago, under the rule of the previous king. I just think the name sounds cool.

Twilight Calling
This adventure has one critical flaw. The negative consequences of the plot only happen because the PCs get involved in the plot. The gates to the ancient prison of the Carniflex were in no danger of being opened until the PCs went to the seven magical realms to retrieve the keys. If they had just decided to say, "let's not get involved," nothing would have happened and the status quo that had endured for thousands of years would endure for thousands more.

Technically, an evil god tricks the PCs, by pretending to be a mad prophet who predicts the coming disaster, but at no point is that revealed and the PCs can't do anything about it.

The adventure itself is adequate. You go to seven different mini-dungeons, each of which has its own theme. Some of them are overly precious, like guardian who challenges you with three-card monte and then gives you a hint in the form of a pun. And the adventure as a whole suffers from that old D&D thing where there is a lot more combat than is necessary. Like, narratively, it doesn't contribute the story to be attacked by a dragon out of nowhere, but it does pad out the length.

Although, the part of the adventure where you go through the Carniflex kitchens and have to avoid falling into a pit of poisonous barbecue sauce was pretty amusing.

UKSS Contribution - Rainbow Knights. They don't have any deep description. They're just a monster you might fight if you flub the riddles on the rainbow bridge, but I think they might have fought in the Prism Wars.

Group Summary
I've never really used pre-made adventures and this group of five shows me why. Their pacing was weak and they don't really mesh with my interests or humor. Creating something from scratch is the only way to make sure it fits me perfectly.  Maybe if I'd had more experience in using them, I'd also have a better intuition for how to adapt them to my style, but that's just speculation at this point.

Unfortunately, nothing in this batch of adventures sold me on the concept. That was pretty predictable. I got all of these in a big bundle from a stranger I never met, but I would never have bought them for myself. They are from a genre of fantasy I don't particularly care for from a period of time that I can't really relate to. I'm glad to have read them, but I'm also glad I don't have to read them again.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The World of Ukss

Introduction


This setting contains one item inspired by each of the books I read. It will be updated regularly, as I gather more material from a variety of roleplaying books. It is free to use, free to alter, and free to share. Just a little in-joke between fellow hobbyists. Comment if you actually use it, though. I'd be very interested in knowing how that plays out.


The World of UKSS
Atalanta
The largest of Ukss' continents, Atalanta extends from the southern tropics all the way down to the south pole, and east-to-west stretches halfway around the world. It's home to a wide range of climates and biomes and a subsequently diverse array of cultures and peoples. Atalanta's northernmost peninsula is separated from the south coast of Hyborea by only a narrow channel and defines the western edge of the Omphalos sea. That region is known as the Lowlands and is the most prosperous and technologically advanced in Ukss.

To the southeast of the Lowlands are the Shielding Mountains. They run the entire width of the peninsula, cutting it off from the main body of the continent. South Atalanta is dominated by cold grasslands that gradually shift into temperate rain forests the closer you get to the north coast.

Going east, the Haven Mountains define the edge of another sub-continent. These mountains are considerably more navigable than the Shielding Mountains, with only a few peaks extending up past the tree line. The eastern slopes of the Haven Mountains are covered with rivers, both great and small, making the coastal Twilight Forest region into vast, sprawling wetlands. 

Travel across Atalanta is difficult and expensive. The densely-populated Lowlands and Omphalos coast have complex rail systems, but mountainous terrain keeps them from connecting to each other. The south plains are too sparsely populated and the Twilight Forest too wet to support much infrastructure. The preferred method of travel between regions is still the shallow-water ships that specialize in traversing the Omphalos sea, though for direct travel between the richer cities, airplanes are becoming more and more popular.

Despite the difficulties in travel, Atalanta does have a very nearly transcontinental telegraph network the connects human and goblin settlements from the Lowlands to the Haven Mountains (the Yokai who inhabit the Twilight Forest have so far demonstrated little interest in maintaining communications with the outside world.)

The Lowlands
True to their name, the Lowlands are astonishingly flat. Though the climate ranges from balmy in the north to chilly in the south, the whole region is remarkably temperate and well-suited for agriculture. The massive Grey River bisects the Lowlands, serving as a conduit for travel and trade, though it has surprisingly few tributaries for a river that size.  The region as a whole is very densely populated, and virgin wilderness is rare, save for the occasional old-growth forest that remains protected by Yokai or Alfar.

At any given date, between 20 and 30 nations call the Lowlands home. The core of any given nation is usually a distinct language, though sometimes linguistic nations will split for religious or cultural reasons or multi-language states will form for mutual protection and/or economic advantage. Despite the diversity of customs and fashions, the entire Lowlands region is quite homogeneously capitalist, and most of the larger states have definite imperial ambitions.

The people of the Lowlands have straight, black hair and skin that ranges from medium brown in the south to near-black in the north. Eyes range from dark brown to hazel, with green eyes being both extremely rare and stereotypically attractive. 

Sheyaugh
This balmy nation near the north coast of the Lowlands is known as "The Land of Summer" and trades extensively with the Bay of Blood. It practices an extremely bureaucratic form of capitalism that looks on paper like it shouldn't possibly work, but in practice is quite robust.

This is thanks to the guiding hand of the country's Empress, a prophetic prodigy of incredible insight and power. She was found, 50 years ago, by an ambitious minister who immediately recognized her potential and put her to work. Since then, she has not visibly aged, appearing as the same serene child that was found in a field all those decades ago. The people of Sheyaugh adore her and believe she has delayed her own deification to stay and guide them. She is known by no other name but The Incarnate.

Sheyaugh is largely ruled by the ministers one level below The Incarnate. Technically, they are civil servants, promoted by nothing but merit, but webs of patronage and reciprocal nepotism-by-proxy are common. Occasionally, The Incarnate will direct her highest ministers to adopt a new law or strike an old one from the books. These actions often seem whimsical or overly specific to other people, but in aggregate, they serve to keep the nation prosperous in ways no conventional economist can quite understand.

Capet
This small, but dignified state abuts the Grey river, near its source in the Shielding Mountains. It is known for its crisp autumns and brutal winters, but also for the grace and elegance of its courtiers. It is ruled by Hir Majesty, the Sovereign Sasha Blackberry Capet. The Sovereign is a hard-working, practical soul, ill at ease with hir court's pomp and formality. The masters of protocol have had to work overtime in adapting the nation's ancient customs and rituals to hir non-binary gender, but ze regards it as hir one indulgence in royal prerogative in hir otherwise humble and conventional reign.

Capet strikes many outsiders as quaintly backward, like something out of the last century. Sovereign Sasha has been negotiating with both foreign investors and the nation's home-grown industrialists to try and rapidly modernize, but has been running into problems with a capitalist class that is a little too eager to sacrifice the country's natural beauty on the altar of profit. Capet currently has some of the best air and water quality in all of the Lowlands, something that gives Hir Majesty considerable clout, given its position at the head waters of the Grey River, but ze has not yet mastered the political maneuvering necessary to use it to hir country's advantage.

Despite its lagging technology, Capet is not easy-pickings for its more opportunistic neighbors. It has one of the premiere air forces on Ukss, in the form of the Aeriel Excellence Squadron and its proximity to the Shielding Mountains gives it abundant mineral resources, especially living metal, which can not merely transform a horse into a match for a biplane, but also has a myriad of industrial and sorcerous applications only now being discovered.

The Omphalos Coast
A land of rolling, golden hills, slow, muddy rivers, and rich, fertile valleys, the Omphalos coast is blessed with mild winters and long summers. It is almost as capitalist as the Lowlands, but more pastoral, more religious, and less aggressively expansionist. 

Bordered on the south by an impassible, yokai-haunted rain forest, the Coast is much more accustomed to strange disappearances, mysterious transformations, and alien revelations than nearly anywhere else on Ukss. The people are earthy, practical, and unpretentious, but they take no chances with the occult. Every village and small town has its own rituals of appeasement, and though the cities don't have the same sort of worries, they never quite lose that cautious edge. Reverence for nature and respect for the gods are key values.

The people of the Omphalos Coast have golden-brown skin, dark hair, and dark eyes. In the country, dark suntans are both expected and considered a sign of a proper work ethic, though city folk view them as an affectation that goes in and out of fashion with periodic regularity.

Vaporia
A small island less than a day's sailing off the coast, Vaporia is a community utterly devoted to its signature industry: glass-making. The famed sorcerer-artisans are world-renowned for their enchanted glass boats and elegant mechanical hawk familiars (made with brass fittings and clockwork mechanisms, holding together the glass feathers which allow them to fly), but the island also produces large amounts of mundane glass, from the exquisite blown-glass figurines that decorate every house on the island to industrial quantities of simple plate glass, to sate the south's ever-growing appetite for modern windows.

The culture of Vaporia is best described as "artistic, but mercenary." They love to show off the latest achievements of the glass-maker's art, but not unless they've been paid first. As long-distance travel continues to drop in price, they've been receiving increasing numbers of tourists, eager to experience its colorful and chime-filled streets. Though this has been an unquestionable economic boon for the people of Vaporia, some of the old guard believe that it threatens to dilute their way of life and replace real glass work with "shows for gawkers."

The Haven Mountains
These low, weathered mountains have been ground down by centuries of erosion. But though the terrain is gentle, the land is as wild as any place on Ukss. The original goblin homeland, the Haven Mountains have never been truly settled by humans. 

Small, frontier towns dot the landscape, but they must take care not to grow too large, lest they draw the attention of a hungry dragon. They persist because there is good money to be made prospecting, trading with deep goblins and wild yokai, and exploring abandoned ruins from all the prior colonies that had the hubris to think they could tame this land.

There are no humans native to this land. Lowlanders are the most common, driven by their home governments' ambitions and a strong cultural need for profit, but nearly anybody can come here to make their fortune. The most unusual feature of the Haven Mountains' population is the degree to which humans and nonhumans mingle. Goblins make up a bare majority of the population, and in many places Yokai outnumber the human population, even in colonies sponsored by a human nation.

The Sleeper
One of the tallest peaks in the Haven Mountains, the Sleeper stretches almost all the way to the tree line. Near the top, a long, sinuous rock formation spirals around the summit, forming a caldera-like divot. From this shallow valley, long streams of dense fog pour down the the sides of the mountain, waterfalls of mist that puddle around the base on a cool day and gradually fade to invisibility when the sun is high. The forest these mists pass through is eerie and sacred. The more spiritual Yokai gather there, and even the most secular of Lowland capitalists hesitates to cut branches or gather stones.

The Sleeper is not an ordinary mountain.  It is a great dragon, one of the few that ever been powerful and cunning enough to reach the end of a dragon's natural life span. As it felt the day of its passing draw near, it called upon the deepest of draconic magics to merge itself with the land. The forest and the mountain and the mist all have a rudimentary consciousness, not quite as intelligent or as perceptive as the dragon in its prime, but one that nonetheless has access to potent and poorly understood abilities that serve to keep the area free from human interference.

The Boiling Sea
To get to the Boiling Sea, you must travel to the far south, deep into the interior of Atalanta's polar ice shelf. If you approach from the east, upwind, you'll have only a day's warning, as the permafrost gives way and scalding hot geysers spring from the earth. Downwind, to the west, the warm air thaws a thousand square miles, making it an improbable temperate region in the middle of the arctic.

The warmlands are home to a small, but thriving civilization. They almost never see outsiders and are curious and friendly, but they can be ruthlessly pragmatic when the winds change and resources become scarce.

The Boiling Sea itself is exactly what it sounds like. A small sea, around 100 miles across, that boils like a kettle running over. It is wreathed in a huge pillar of steam that acts as a beacon from horizon to horizon. The warmlanders have learned to harness the steam to power simple industry (only their small numbers prevent the adoption of more sophisticated techniques), but it is dangerous work. No one has ever ventured into the center of the sea and its cause is currently unknown.

The people of the Warmlands have tawny skin with golden undertones. They are paler the farther they are from the Boiling Sea, but this does not appear to be genetic. Someone who moves from one area to the other will often find themselves gaining or losing a tan. Hair is brown or auburn, but occasionally shockingly blonde. Eyes are brown with pronounced epicanthic folds. Ruddy cheeks and red noses are common, especially among the region's heavier drinkers (their mastery of steam technology means that flavorless distilled liquors are common and often served in delicious mixed drinks that take visitors completely by surprise).

The Twilight Forest
These expansive wetlands dominate the east coast of Atalanta. For hundreds of miles at a stretch, the branches of the mangrove trees are so tightly intertwined that the swamp floor exists in a state of permanent darkness. Fireflies in a half-dozen colors swarm thick in these areas, and it is a rare piece of deadwood that doesn't quickly become covered in glowing, bio-luminescent fungus. Strange vampire families call the forest home, growing powerful in the absence of their enforced slumber. Some say these vampires are the force behind the will-o-wisps that lure travelers away from safe paths, never to be seen again. Others believe that there are other powers at work there, and old gods that even vampires fear.

The northernmost quarter of the Twilight Forest is dominated by the Frog Nation. Canny to the ways of the swamp, and grown fat on its bounty of fireflies, the Frog People fear neither vampire nor god nor wisp. The Misty River marks the southern border of their traditional range, not out of any power the local Yokai have to stop them, but because they find the chillier, foggier climate uncomfortable.

There are very few humans native to the Twilight Forest. It is more of a Yokai place, but there are a few isolated villages in the colder southern regions, maintained by the vampires as sources of blood and (rarely) new recruits. These people are pessimistic, with dark humors, but are also nonetheless tenacious survivors. They have chalky white skin and blue eyes with hair that ranges from blonde to mousy brown. They worship the solar deity TBD, but in a terrifying apocalyptic aspect. In their prophecies, they will be liberated from their vampiric oppressors when their god consumes the Twilight Forest (and perhaps the entire world) in a cleansing inferno that delivers pure souls to paradise and consigns the monsters to oblivion.

Hyborea
The continent of Hyborea straddles the equator. The Bay of Blood is defined by a spur of land that comes within sighting distance of the northernmost point of the Lowlands peninsula. Its mouth is about 200 miles wide and it's 500 miles across at its widest point. The lands ringing the Bay are hot, but fertile grasslands. They are densely populated with more than 100 fractious city-states.

To the north of the Bay of Blood, the grasslands dry out and turn into the Reliquary Desert. Though now inhospitable to human life, there are grand, cyclopean ruins half-buried in its sands. The desert continues to the north up to the slopes of the Dragontail Mountains. In the east, it fades back into a thin ring of grasslands the border a dense tropical rain forest.

The Bay of Blood
The nation-state never took root in Hyborea thanks to its abundance of powerful magic users. The lands are not intrinsically more magical than Atalanta or Mu, but the old civilization of the Reliquary Desert left behind many sophisticated rituals and magic wands, and that inheritance has deformed the social history of the continent. Every few years, an ambitious treasure-hunter or magician stumbles upon some piece of relic magic that allows them to conquer a city-state and turn it to their will.

The Bay of Blood gets its name from the innumerable wars prompted by the ambitions of these would-be sorcerer-kings. Any individual realm may be stable for decades or centuries, but none can grow too large without provoking rebels, adventurers, and jealous rivals.

This hothouse atmosphere has led to many eccentricities among the Bay's cultures. The only states that survive are the ones who have some edge, usually some unique magic or a powerful sorcerer as a patron.

There is no single dominant racial type in the Bay of Blood. It has been a crossroads for centuries and mixed ancestry is common. Native Hyboreans have skin that ranges from coppery brown to deep black and black hair that ranges from curly to coiled, but after the fall of the Northern Kingdom, nearly the entire human population of the continent migrated to the Bay, so there's no simple geographic distribution of ancestral peoples.

Yennin
The city-state of Yennin is a rising power in the Bay of Blood, buoyed by its willingness to experiment in areas of magic others treat with superstitious dread. The ritualists of Yennin have devised magic that interferes with the natural process of procreation, potentially bringing to life things that were never meant to be.

The most famous application of this magic is the Clone ritual, which is already changing the way the wealthy cope with death. In the long-run, though, their chimerical breeding program may wind up having even more profound effects.

The champions of Yennin are made from the seed of ten fathers, which is somehow blended together and implanted in a single mother. These champions have super-human strength, durability, and insight. They manifest strange Prodigies, even if their fathers were normal men. If the fathers were Prodigies themselves, these ability may magnify as much as ten-fold.

So far, Yennin is a commercial power, selling the fruits of its research for unheard of profits, but it has imperial ambitions, and the day my come when the people of Ukss curse its champions as the vanguard of a conquering army.  

The Kingdom of Bliss
The Kingdom of Bliss is probably not a true kingdom. If it has a monarch, they have never been seen in public. There is no royal palace or crown jewels. In fact, by the standards of most nations, it is barely ruled at all. The sorcerers who perform and interpret the soul-readings are probably the closest thing they have to a government, but that is an open fellowship, and they are constantly admitting new members to help relieve the burden of their work.

The soul-reading ritual is at the heart of The Kingdom of Bliss. It strips away all prejudice and self-delusion to reveal the soul's true calling, whatever vocation, lifestyle, and social associations would make the subject happiest. Then, once the report is ready, the Kingdom of Bliss works its hardest to try and make it happen.

Travelers tell of an upside-down land, where stable-muckers go home to expansive palaces and scientists and engineers live in humble cottages. Where there is song and laughter everywhere, but long lines for grain and water. Where there are few soldiers, but those that exist fight with unseemly passion.

It is unclear exactly how much magic is going into propping up the Kingdom of Bliss, but it is likely that their all-consuming obsession with making every citizen as happy as possible is the only thing keeping them from being a major regional power.

Laconia
This aggressively expansionist city state has few friends, but many admirers, mostly among romantics, authoritarians, and militarists in societies that otherwise know better. It is a state that has devoted itself utterly to the art of war, and every aspect of its culture, religion, and civic organization is bent towards that end.

Laconia is the most self-regarding state in the Bay of Blood region. It practically worships its own idealized conception of its mission. According to the Laconian constitution, their society is broken up into two castes - serfs, who farm the land and provide auxilliary and irregular troops for the Laconian army and citizens, who are devoted from birth to death to becoming the perfect soldiers (there is also a third unofficial and unnamed caste of merchants and artisans, who are neither tied to the land nor allowed to own it - the Laconian constitution is not very rigorous)

In theory, this means that Laconian citizens live a life of discipline and austerity, devoting their days to fitness regimens and military drills and their nights to the study of tactics and strategy. And superficially, this does appear to be how the Laconians live, but the entire society is shot through with subtle corruption. Though they lack taverns, bawdy houses, and gilded palaces, they find other ways to indulge their pleasure-seeking impulses. Sadism is shockingly common, whether directed at serfs or lower-ranking citizens. Even the best Laconians are hidebound and haughty and seem to delight in reminding their "inferiors" about the purity of the Laconian lifestyle.

Laconia is currently a state in decline. Its warriors are unusually fierce and skilled, but not to such a great degree that it's worth sacrificing science, philosophy, and the arts. And more and more in recent times, they've been facing new weapons and tactics that their overwhelming conservatism is ill-suited to adapt to. The more cosmopolitan wags in neighboring states like to joke that they've become a living museum to an outdated way of life.

It would be foolish to discount Laconia as a threat, though. They are a people who can feel their culture and values slipping away from them and that makes them dangerous. They may not be a match for a modern Lowlands military, but they can still do a lot of damage to states that are lagging behind. Whoever they decide will be their last blaze of glory will find themselves in mortal danger.

Mu
Mu is a broadly egg-shaped continent that extends from the equator in the south to tornado-wracked dry grasslands in the north. It is the closest land to the northern ice cap, but it still takes several days of sailing across the Girding Ocean to get there.

The southern third of Mu is a massive savanna of unnerving flatness. In prehistoric times, the gods leveled the savanna and piled all the surplus dirt into the Great Mesa, a six-mile high mound of earth with a flat top hundreds of miles across. In the center of the Great Mesa, perfectly aligned with Ukss' equator, is the Ascension Tower, a massive diamond cable that stretches all the way into the Cosmic Sphere. Those who wish to petition the Celestial Embassy may enter the palace at the base of the Tower, and if their case is deemed worthy, the palace as a whole will rise up the cable, eventually, after seven days and seven nights, reaching the Celestial Embassy itself.

To the north of the savanna is the Crimson Badlands, a desert of red earth that was once a prehistoric sea. The region is rocky and mountainous, though the tallest of the peaks reach only a few hundred meters above sea level. There is a stark beauty to lands, as if the bones of the earth have been laid bare, but it is so hot and so dry that few have crossed it and lived. In old Mu, the Republic would maintain coastal cities to the north and south of the Badlands to divert cargo and passengers destined for The Great Mesa, but those cities were among the first targets in the Prism Wars.

Farther north, past the Badlands, lies the former heartland of the Republic of Mu. It is now known as The Spectrum Lands, a place where the standard rules of Ukss geography have been put into abeyance. The Spectrum Lands were ground zero for the Prism Wars, where the magician TBD's mad ambition held the greatest sway, and where the Rainbow Knights were allowed to terraform the land to better match their bizarre home dimension. The soil of the Spectrum Lands has been scoured away and replaced by vast stretches of multicolored sands. Strange crystalline life thrives in these wastelands and giant polyhedral crystals dot the landscape. It is a place of quiet dread, but is not without its own alien beauty. Humans survive in the Spectrum Lands only by taking shelter in kaers. A few have opened themselves to the world, now that the worst of the crisis has passed, but many still believe it unsafe to emerge.

The natural borders of the Spectrum Lands are those territories the Republic of Mu found too dangerous or unprofitable to settle - the Crimson Badlands in the South, the volcanic Helltooth mountains to the West, and the Funnelcloud plains to the North. There is a strip of habitable land between the Spectrum Lands and the Girding Ocean to the East, the last vestige of the Republic of Mu, where they made their last stand against the Rainbow Knights, but the political authority of the Republic has collapsed and it currently has no political organization above the local level. It is home to villages of survivors, and to colonies from the Lowlands, who hope to exploit the fall of native Mu society to establish a new imperial foothold on the continent.

The people of Mu used to have a wide range of skin colors ranging from russet to pale pink, but the close confinement of the kaers has evened out the human palette a bit. Olive skin and dark hair is the most common, but mutations are everywhere. Due to contamination from the Spectrum Lands, as many as 1 in 3 people in an isolated settlement might have brightly-colored hair or eyes in unnatural colors like orange or purple. These people sometimes try to dye their hair black, but any native of Mu will immediately recognize the shade and wonder what else they might have to hide.

The Equatorial Colonies
After it became clear that the Rainbow Knights were defeated for good, a landrush began to reclaim as much of Mu as possible. This led to the establishment of Lowlands colonies in the southern savanna. Though they are still small and dependent upon their home nations for support, the largest of the Equatorial Colonies are well on their way to becoming self-sufficient.

In addition to providing cheap sources of cotton, corn syrup, and chocolate, the Equatorial Colonies also serve as a dumping ground for petty convicts, political dissidents, and the unemployed. Ships containing transportees operate in a more or less continuous circuit and though as many as one in five die within the first year of arrival (approximately half from the voyage and half from the near-survival conditions of the colonies themselves), the growth rate of the colonies is among the highest in the world.

Places
The Dragon Market
If you leave TBD-city and head inland, riding for six days through the TBD-wastes, you will come across a massive meteor crater, nearly a mile across and more than 2000 feet deep. But the ancient signs of carnage pale before the modern ones. Carved into the sides of the crater, to take advantage of the magic-dampening properties of meteoric iron, are the only cages in Ukss capable of holding an enraged dragon.

The Dragon Market is an assault on the senses. Explosions of dragon breath, unleashed in useless rage, light up the sky. Noxious odors of unwashed bodies waft down from the cages and up from the mercenary armies that regularly rotate in and out of the crater. And above all, the noise. Roars and curses, insinuating whispers, offers of bribes, and screams of pain that seem almost human.

And in the center of it all is the Trading Floor, a modest three-story townhouse, made in a popular TBD-city style, that nonetheless seems to dominate its surroundings from the audacity of its smallness. It is here that merchants, potentates, and speculators gather to trade dragons.

It is rare for a dragon, once captured, to actually leave its cage. The ownership is almost entirely on paper, and exists purely to facilitate games of statecraft and realpolitik. But their value is not entirely by fiat. Most dragons, even the nastily evil ones, will honor a bargain made to secure their freedom, making them the ultimate weapon of last resort (The fact that the Market quite provably knows how to contact the really effective Dragon-Hunters also serves to secure the prisoners' honesty).

The proprietors of the Dragon Market are shrouded in secrecy. Any number of heroes, rulers, and apocalyptic cultists would love to move against the people who hold the keys to dragon cages, and not all of them would be dissuaded by the chaos that would ensue if those cages were thrown open all at once.


The Blackfire Cauldron
In the peaceful TBD woods, just off the main road, lies a small cave, tended by an order of monks, sworn to poverty and nonviolence. The cave is the resting place of the Blackfire Cauldron. A sacred relic of the god TBD, it is a simple bronze pot that contains a flickering darkness. If ashes are fed into it, they will un-burn, restoring the original object.

This always seems to work out fairly smoothly, not being confused by partial or mixed ashes, but the exact mechanism is a mystery – the monks gently forbid experimentation. As near as anyone can tell, the Blackfire works by answering a sincere prayer for restoration. Casually tossing in a handful of random ash probably won't do anything.

The Blackfire cannot bring the dead back to life, but it can restore a burned corpse for purposes of identification or dignified burial.

The Order of the Cauldron has an itinerant branch that wanders from city to city, gathering the ashes from the fires that periodically spring up in such places. They return these ashes to the Cauldron as an act of devotion. The walls of the cave are lined with hundreds of items recovered in this manner. Pilgrims, provided they did not bring ashes of their own, are allowed to remove a single such item, as a keepsake of their visit and an icon of the god TBD.

Three Sisters Island

There's an island in the Girding Ocean that wise sailors avoid. It has no name. Very deliberately, it has no name. When the sea-canny refer to it all, they do so obliquely. It is "where the sisters sleep." Or "The place the sisters protect."

No one is quite sure what the sisters are, exactly. Goddesses, perhaps? Or creatures older than humanity's petty categories. It is rare for them to directly confront trespassers, but if you sail towards their island, you will find yourself sailing away into stranger seas. It is a common beginning to many heroes' stories.

The hero always survives, but it may be because only a hero can. 

Sandcastle Village

Sandcastle's name isn't purely poetic. The people there have mastered a peculiar alchemy. By means of a certain potion, brewed from a mix of local herbs and minerals, they are able to harden sand so it has the durability of stone. The resulting buildings, which look for all the world like scaled-up children's sandcastles, give the village its distinct character. The exact mixture is a well-kept secret, and protecting it is the only thing the otherwise laid-back residents of Sandcastle Village seem to take seriously.

Sandcastle is "ruled" by Mayor Wally. Chosen by general acclaim, Wally is not your typical politician. No one has ever seen him without his trademark robe and slippers, even in town meetings and important trade negotiations. Similarly, his trusty pipe is always close at hand. The two facts may be somewhat related.

Yet the people of Sandcastle love their mayor, and seem to take special delight in directing impatient outsiders to take their "urgent problems" to him.

The Other Library
In the city of TBD is a library the world's scholars speak of in hushed tones. It is not a center of learning. It does not contain the great historical classics, nor cutting-edge treatises on advancements in science and magic. It is The Other Library, and it contains only books which have never been written.

Most people visit only to satisfy their curiosity. The bulk of its books are histories of events that never happened or the outlandish stories of alien societies that no one on Ukss will ever meet. Sometimes, though, a visitor will become obsessed. They will search the stacks desperately for posthumous works from history's greatest authors, diaries of their enemies (or loved ones!), or for wondrous inventions that never were.

It's a fool's errand, but sometimes it pays off.

The Sky Preserve
As industrial production spreads across the world of Ukss, there are some who worry that their pollution may cause irreparable damage to the natural world. In an attempt to preemptively find a solution to this problem, a group of ecologically minded ritualists gathered together to create the Sky Preserve.

Intended as a model of responsible urban living, The Sky Preserve is a modern city born aloft on an enchanted mountain, pulled from the barren stone of the Crimson Badlands. It is home to about 40,000 people and it flies in a lazy circuit around Mu's southern savannah. It trades finished cloth with the Lowland empires, but after transportation costs, these industries barely break even. It is largely subsidized for its biological research by lowland monarchs and magicians who either agree with their mission or cynically want to exploit it for their own ends.

The Tree of Sages
It is known among the scholars, engineers, and magicians of Ukss that the wisest among them need never die. If they are willing to face the perils of a long and dangerous pilgrimage, they may take themselves to an isolated valley in the Haven mountains to find there The Tree of Sages. If the Tree finds them worthy, it will take the soul from their body and absorb it into its branches, where the now-immortal sage may commune with their fellows until the end of time.

Seekers of knowledge will sometimes seek out the Tree of Sages to answer their questions and provide guidance to their research or inventions. When queried, the Tree will grow faces, like wooden masks, through which its sage-spirits may speak. Since the tree contains hundreds of sages, gathered over centuries, any of whom could speak to any question, the "answers" given are usually more like symposiums (or, less charitably, "massive arguments"). Nonetheless, a discerning student could learn much, provided they don't lose patience first. 

The House of Not Yet Midnight
This house is not in any guidebook to the occult. It is neither studied as a mystery, nor marked as a threat. As far as the outside world is concerned, it's just an ordinary house. But the children of TBD know better. They warn each other to stay away from the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, the one hidden behind an overgrown hedge and wrought-iron gates. Kids who venture into that house come back . . . changed.

The House of Not Yet Midnight sits on a vortex of invasive magical energies. The whole structure is like a giant wand that channels its inhabitants' fears and regrets, trapping them in a time-loop of their own creation, one where they face their greatest weakness again and again, until it is overcome. No one ever ages in The House of Not Yet Midnight. Nor do they die. No matter how many hundreds or thousands of times they fail, the House will not grant them that mercy. 


Vintner's Valley
The goblins of Vintner's Valley live in comfortable, shallowly-dug burrows, outfitted with all the latest middle-class comforts. They are respectably old-fashioned, wearing styles that were popular among humans a half-century ago. When they are not working, there is almost always some sort of festival or gala or garden party with which to celebrate the turning of the seasons. They are fat, rich, and contented.

The source of this idyll is the Valley's fertility and mild climate, which make it an ideal location for some of the world's best dairies and wineries. The instinctive magic that goblins put into all of their crafts manages to elevate even those natural blessings into the realm of the sublime. Wines, cheeses, and cured meats from Vintner's Valley are the gold standard by which all luxury foodstuffs are measured.

Vintner's Valley is extremely friendly to humans, provided they appear to be of sufficient social class to afford its products. This reputation for chumminess makes it the butt of many jokes among more worldly goblins. "Valley Goblin" is widespread slang for those who appear to have adopted human customs at the expense of their own heritage.

Manikin Town
On the continent of Mu, at the edge of the Spectrum Frontier, there lies a town that seems to have escaped the touch of the Prism Wars. So long as its water wheels keep turning, the people of the town continue to go about their lives as if they didn't have a care in the world. Their town is cheerful, prosperous, and blessed with all the arts of ancient Mu.

But when the wheels stop, whether due to seasonal droughts, mechanical failures, or deliberate sabotage, the town grows still. It's as if the life departs along with the power, and everyone, from the shopkeepers to the constables to the playing children (and even most of the livestock and pets) simply freezes into place. The color drains from them and it becomes apparent that they are all merely clockwork dolls, given life by some electric sorcery.

Someone maintains Manikin town, for these outages never last for long, but they have hidden themselves well, and it's unclear whether the village is a monument, an experiment, or a way of making amends. The people of Manikin Town seem unaware of their unique condition (or at least there is no power yet found that will make them admit it), though if you earn their trust, they will confide that they often have nightmares of ice.

The Dead Woods
No living soul remembers the purpose of the monastery at the heart of the Dead Woods. Did they commit some impiety that brought down a curse on the surrounding lands? Or did they perform appeasing rituals to keep an ancient evil sealed away, rituals that failed when they were destroyed by enemies without or within?

Whatever the explanation, the woods truly belong to the dead now. Spectres haunt the decaying trees, and mobile skeletons claw at any life that dares sprout up in the ruins.

Travelers shun the Dead Woods, but sometimes, by mistake, their path takes them perilously close. If it does, they might encounter the land's only survivor, a giant sow, at least as tall as a man. The sow may or may not be a guardian of human life, but what is not in doubt is her hatred of the undead. Many lives have been saved by her timely charge out of the mists. She will trample effortlessly over zombie flesh, and somehow, there is a magic to her that puts fear even into the spirits of the dead.

Not much is known about the protector of the Dead Woods, except that she must, at some point, have been domesticated, for she still bears a rhinestone collar embroidered with the name "Diva."

The Nightmare Theater
In the city of TBD, on the Omphalos Coast, there is a shabby and disreputable-looking building that nonetheless has a well-maintained stairwell sinking down below street level to an imposing door of black hardwood. Those who know the password . . . or who have been drawn to the door by fate may pass through to find an intimate, dimly-lit theater.

The shows at The Nightmare Theater are lurid and disturbing. The actors wear grotesque masks and the plots are surreal pastiches stitched together by dream logic. A common theme is sudden, unexpected violence, presented not as spectacle but in a way that makes the audience feel complicit. Patrons leave the Theater feeling psychically drained.

Which is exactly what happened. The Yokai who run the Nightmare Theater live off the spiritual energy they harvest from their performances. But this is not a purely parasitical transaction. Once they get a good night's sleep, those who have sat through an entire show find that for a few days afterwards they perceive the world with unusual clarity. They are more tuned in to the emotions of their friends and coworkers, more alert and observant, and much less focused on their own problems. Whatever it is these minor gods take from their audience, it is the energy that powers anxiety and self-doubt.

Those who figure out the connection often seek to return, but it is said that it's impossible  to find the Nightmare Theater unless one's soul is burdened enough to nourish its proprietors.
 
People
The Seekers of the Hour
Concentrated within the technologically advanced areas of the Omphalos Coast, but with followers worldwide, the Seekers of the Hour are a mystery cult whose rituals revolve around clocks and timekeeping. The deepest initiates, those who have studied and meditated for years, gain the minor magical ability to manipulate clocks, causing them to run faster or slower, stop or start, all with a thought.

The Seekers demonstrate no other telekinetic of time-manipulating abilities, and they have never claimed to offer such. To their thinking, the clock is humanity's purest invention. A concrete manifestation of Intellect, undiluted by personality, or even knowledge. They believe that their control of clocks comes from a spiritual connection to that pure intellect, and that while they may not be able to control anything as crude as terrestrial time, their practices allow them to influence their own celestial clock – advancing their progress along the wheel of reincarnation or extending their time in a favorable form.

The Seekers of the Hour tend to recruit from well-to-do people, the natural philosophers of the gentry, who use their leisure time to ponder the mysteries of the universe. Connections within the cult can open a lot of doors in high society, and their more or less unique magic allows them to easily identify each other across national lines.

Baron Von Hendriks
 The self-styled "Lord of Fort Doom," Von Hendriks is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. His enemies, of which he has many, dismiss him as a fool and a fraud, but they have never been able to defeat him.

He is a conqueror. A schemer. A tyrant. A raider of cities and ransomer of damsels. Above all else, he is theatrical. He attacks when he doesn't need to, overcomes impossible odds, and is left with a prize he can't possibly keep. He gloats when he is merely on the verge of victory and gives grand speeches when his forces should be in retreat. He has a knack for angering the powerful and inspiring peasant uprisings in places that have been peacefully subdued for the past thousand years.

While his tactics are invariably brilliant, none can figure out his strategy. Some say he does it for the glory. Others for the challenge. Some quip that he must have made a deal with a trickster god - peerless might in exchange for fleeting victories. These theories all capture part of his reasons, but his real motivation is much simpler - he does it because he is the one and only Baron Von Hendricks, and no one else would dare.

Order of the Mantis
This elite martial order operates out of the fortress of TBD and serves as a sort of national symbol for the people of TBD. They are Ukss's only heavy aerial cavalry and fly into battle heavily armed and even more heavily armored. Partly this is to act as hard-hitting shock troops, supporting the infantry wherever air support is needed most.

Mostly, though, it is to protect the riders against their own mounts, should the beasts ever slip out of control. For the Mantis is not simply the Order's heraldry, it is what they ride into battle.

Giant Mantises are natural creatures, native to the northern reaches of the Shielding Mountains. The Order of the Mantis captures them young and bonds them with adept candidates, who must master the magic necessary to control them before the creatures become so large that they can devour their captors.

Those who survive the Order's training develop a cocky swagger, and are treated by the people of TBD as superstars. Though even with the Order's magic, death in the belly of a giant Mantis is only a matter of time, giving the Knights of the Order a live-for-today energy that only heightens their mystique. Despite the dangers, the Order of the Mantis has never suffered from low recruitment.

Ledaal Kes
Ledaal Kes is probably a spy. That's what most people who meet him conclude. There is no way someone with such an incisive mind, such improbable scientific abilities, such effortlessly seductive joie de vivre could possibly be satisfied as an investigator for the Sheyaugh Treasury. He must be hiding something.

Ledaal Kes just smiles and keeps his secrets. It's so much easier getting the beautiful boys into his bed if he has an air of mystery.

The Prince's Folly
The Prince's Folly is a carnival's carnival. It stages greater spectacles, it hosts more esoteric mystics, it offers more elaborate games, it is more riddled with thieves than any other show on the world of Ukss. It is run by the Tainted, M. Corona, a refugee from the spirit courts of the magical world.

M. Corona is, by strict taxonomy, a demon, but that mainly manifests in an unrepentant pragmatism. They employ thieves to keep the Folly afloat, they sabotage rivals to make it easier to acquire key talent, they use their androgynous good looks to seduce yokels questioning their sexuality because it's fun, but they hold no malice for humankind. They took over this struggling carnival in order to hide from their enemies in the magic world, but it has become their passion and their obsession. They want nothing more than to astonish and amaze the mortals that attend the Prince's Folly, shaking their small minds out their limited perspective by showing them something they've never seen before.

All demons are inherently genderless, but unlike most of their kin, M. Corona does not disguise themselves as either male or female. They prefer to tread the line as closely as possible, presenting as mostly masculine, in their frock coat and starched collar, but adding feminine touches like a floral print cravat and dangly diamond earrings. They especially delight in awakening the latent desires of small-town gay and lesbian visitors, and will offer unconditional refuge to any LGBTQ person who wants to run away with The Prince's Folly.

The Wardens of the Sky
Large-scale air travel is still very new to the word of Ukss, but there is great enthusiasm for it among the world's cognescenti. So much so that the most daring among them have gathered together to create an adventurer's conspiracy - a vigilante organization devoted to hunting down and eliminating threats to the expansion of air travel, especially those who misuse it for criminal ends.

The Wardens of the Sky mostly work alone, booking passage on flights to intercept pirates and hijackers as they strike or hanging out in ports, listening for rumors of trouble from the air. They recruit mostly from those that have the wealth and leisure to travel frequently, and while few are full magicians or dedicated ritualists, all must be capable of casting the Cloud Chariot spell, the better to make the Wardens' traditional spectacular entrance.

The Aerial Excellence Squadron
In the rolling hills of western Capet, they breed the world's heartiest destriers. Of these, the strongest and the swiftest are chosen to become the steeds of the Aerial Excellence Squadron.

Using ritual magic, these horses are fused with a form of living metal, growing 20-foot long wings of glittering steel. From then on, the horses must eat iron filings as well as grass, but the transformation seems to have no other ill effects.

Unlike the Order of the Mantis, the knights of The Aerial Excellence Squadron are lightly armed and armored (aside from their steeds' steel skin, that is), but they make up for it in speed and acrobatic skill. Because the transformed horses are indigestible to a giant mantis, the Squadron is one of the only groups that can meet the Mantis Riders on their own terms. The two groups each consider the other to be their greatest rivals.

Juno Eclipse
Captain of the Black Squadron, Juno Eclipse has a fearsome reputation among the world's fliers as the deadliest woman to ever pilot a biplane.

But she has an even more terrible reputation among those conquered by the Lowlands' imperial expansion, for her Black Squadron is the last thing a village will see before being bombed into
oblivion.

Dark, the Blade
He used to have it all. He was the best cop in TBD's elite Special Investigations Unit. He had true love, and a family on the way. Then Baron Von Hendriks took everything from him.

Now he goes by the name of Dark, his soul as black as the funeral clothes he's vowed to wear until his wife and child are avenged. He stalks the shadows, bringing his blade of justice to Von Hendriks' criminal associates, eliminating them one by one until he finds the perfect opportunity to not just kill the Baron of Fort Doom, but to destroy him.

The Crypt Rangers
There are many forces in Ukss that would disturb the places where the dead are interred - Mad scientists, sorcerers, and vampires all have their own uses for human remains, uses which would not meet with the approval of their original owners. The Crypt Rangers are the self-appointed guardians of these sacred places, patrolling graveyards for intruders and using their famous tracking skills to bring back escapees.

The Crypt Rangers often come in conflict with necromancers and the undead, but they are not intrinsically opposed. They will inter any necro-automatons they find in the course of their duties, but will often act as protectors and patrons for those sentient undead that have no desire to cause havoc among the living. Though they are not allowed in positions of leadership, many of the most effective Crypt Rangers are themselves vampires and ghosts.

The Serpent Company
Most infamous among the mercenary companies operating out of the Bay of Blood, The Serpent Company markets itself as discreet, professional, and willing to take any contract, no matter how small.

Its detractors call it a gang of assassins-for-hire, and they're mostly correct, but people who go up against them expecting a group of petty criminals are in for a rude surprise. The Serpent Company's discipline and loyalty are second to none. Though they are pragmatic about losses while on assignment, they will go to any lengths to avenge a comrade killed or captured outside the lines of duty.

Given their usefulness and disproportionate vindictiveness, the Serpent Company has attained a sort of defacto legitimacy among the coastal states and the more ruthless lowland empires. No one will admit to tolerating them, but it's an open secret that they are often hired at the highest levels of government.

Nebt Bhakau, the Necromancer
Magicians of all sorts play outsized roles in Ukss' history, but few names have the power to strike dread into nearly any soul who hears them. Nebt Bhakau is one of those names. Quite possibly the greatest Necromancer to ever live, he is the only person to have attained true immortality. At the height of his powers, he was indestructible by any blade or gun or wand wielded by lesser hands. It was a feat attained only after a century of atrocities performed in the name of "research."

Though he was never a great conqueror or tyrant, his outrages against the dignity of both living and dead made him an enemy of every decent person on Ukss. In the end, an alliance of the five closest nations, from which he drew the bulk of his victims, laid siege to his spectre-guarded tower, and though they lost nine tenths of their forces, the survivors were able to bind him in chains of meteoric iron.

With ritual techniques gleaned from his own notes, his captors were able to dismember Nebt Bhakau and bind his six most essential organs (eyes, tongue, heart, hands, genitals, and spleen) into special ceramic jars. So long as the bindings for all six endure, his regenerative capabilities are sealed away. But if even one of the jars is opened, he will be free to live and work his evil once more.

The only blessing is that each jar contains a separate aspect of Nebt Bhakau's full power, so even if he's reborn, he will still need to find the five other jars to assume his true strength. For that reason, each of the five nations holds one of the jars, with the sixth, containing his heart, entombed in a secret location known only to the ones who buried him.

Knights of the Tongue
Not a true martial order, The Knights of the Tongue nevertheless have a complex system of ranks and etiquette that is only half-joking. The Knights are a social club based in TBD city and composed of explorers, adventurers, and the respectable bandits of the gentry who share a singular passion - to discover Ukss's most unusual flora and fauna and sample their taste.

For some, this is but a decadent hobby, for others an important form of scientific and agronomical research. Both types are fond of haunting goblin markets and stalking through yokai-haunted wilderness, looking to buy any vaguely food-like substance the locals might be selling (when they're not hunting the locals for game, of course).

Dog-Eater
The terror of the grassy, unpolluted fringes of Mu's Spectrum Lands, Dog-Eater is a warlord-scavenger who has made his fortune raiding the ruins of cities destroyed in the Prism Wars (and, rumor has it, looting kaers that had managed to make it through the crisis intact).

The struggling villages that have had the misfortune to play host to his horde of reavers view him more as a malevolent force of nature than a man. He seems to have little interest in conquering territory, but he has no tolerance for anything that could be interpreted as disrespect or defiance. He earned his name through his habit of finding the most pampered, beloved pet in any new town to slaughter and consume as a form of psychological dominance.

Dog-Eater is beloved by his followers for his extravagant generosity when it comes to the spoils of his looting. Whenever he must address his followers or intimidate a recalcitrant village elder, he dons a glittering coat made of strung-together coins of a hundred different denominations and governments. He claims it's strong enough to stop bullets, but conveniently, he only wears it in situations where gunplay is unlikely. 

The Phantoms
Existing in the fringes of the Lowlands most fabulous and opulent night-life, the Phantoms are a secret society of gentleman-rogues, committed to liberating the plundered treasures of the region's most decadent capitalists and brazenly-lawless crime lords (on those rare occasions anyone can tell the difference).

The Phantoms are anything but radicals. They steal for both personal profit and the thrill of the game, but they have a code. They abhor violence, and will never steal from charities, churches, or museums. They are themselves members of the Lowlands' upper crust and view their activities as nothing more than a harmless way to embarrass those who give their class a bad name. If, in the course of their work, they discover evidence of truly unforgivable crimes, they will not hesitate to deliver it to the proper authorities.

Because of this, they have made some very powerful enemies over the years. Every ambitious police captain in the Lowlands dreams of making their career by being the one to finally unmask their leadership and end the organization once and for all.

The Wanderer
The grasslands of Mu are struggling under the depredations of scavengers and warlords, but it has its share of heroes too. One such hero is an intense goblin woman of indeterminate age. Known only as the Wanderer, she is an expert swordswoman who travels from town to town riding a giant lizard. A great foe of injustice, she will accept no payment but room and board. In peaceful times, she lives off the land, but it's been a long time since she'd known peace for more than a few days at a time.

The Sword of the Wanderer is as clean and as sharp as any goblin-forged blade, but it bears a unique inscription that gossips are sure must have a profound occult meaning, "WEAR ME UNTIL YOU FIND A BETTER."

The Priests of Truth
On the Eastern slope of the Shielding Mountains, in a high valley, overlooking the plains, there is a hidden spring. Legend has it that its waters pour forth from the still-bleeding heart of a long-forgotten god. If a mortal being bathes in the crystal-clear waters of the source pool, they will emerge with the ability to unfailingly recognize falsehood in all its forms.

A sworn fellowship of mystics guards this place, both from those who would exploit it and from honest seekers who are not yet prepared for its power. They allow only those who have spent a lifetime in study and contemplation to brave the waters of the spring, for the first lies it reveals are invariably the ones you tell yourself.

Few survive this revelation.

The ones who do, the monks who have spent decades purifying their minds and souls of all self-deception (and even for those such as they, the waters can pose a terrible danger), are highly sought after as judges and arbitrators. Only the greatest of injustices will induce them to leave the monastery, however, for they are as incapable of speaking deception as they are of hearing it and the outside world weighs heavily on them.

For aspirants who seek their wisdom, and ask if it's worth the risk to experience pure truth for themselves, they always give the same answer - "It's almost always better not to know. . . Almost."

Lady Harden
As literacy grows more common in the Lowlands, cheap pulp novels have begun to proliferate. Among the most popular are the serialized adventures of Lady Harden - magician, adventurer, and elegant Omphalos Coast heiress, who travels to the most far-flung reaches of human settlement to battle slavers, smugglers, and those who would prey upon the most innocent of the Yokai. Featuring over-the-top action, lush descriptions of exotic locales, and a healthy dollop of . . . ahem . . . romance, they are the favored escapist fantasy of socially conscious dreamers, trapped in the industrial hell of the Lowlands' slums. So far, they've been translated into 11 languages and sold more than a million copies.

Little do the readers suspect that every word of the Lady Harden books is 100% true. There really is a Lady Harden, and she really does spend her days thwarting the worst of the Lowlands' imperial excesses. Numerous governments would love to have her head, but they fear if they acted openly people will realize that the atrocities depicted in the books are real as well. Maybe that's why she writes them.

Lilith
No adept in Ukss is more storied than Lilith. Though she lived before humanity tamed magic wands and before the invention of all but the most basic of rituals, she is said to have bargained with the gods for a hundred types of wild magic. She was a mentor to heroes (especially women) and a foil to authority (especially kings, fathers, and overbearing husbands). Civilizations on all three continents have stories of Lilith introducing them to some vital craft (Sheyaugh says she taught them the cultivation of millet, Mu that she tamed the first horse, and The Kingdom of Bliss credits her with the soul-reading ritual), though how many of these stories are true is impossible to say. It's likely that for every false accomplishment, there are two more where her contributions have been forgotten.

Magic has confirmed that Lilith was a real person who lived approximately 1000 years before the adoption of the written word, but attempts to trace her origin or identify her final resting place have been futile. Mystery cults that worship Lilith believe that she bodily entered the Magic World and is even now exploring its farthest reaches for new discoveries to share with her children.

The God-Emperor
Buried in the sands of the Reliquary Desert, there is a tomb that is not a tomb. Once it was a place of glory, the throne room of a sorcerer whose unsurpassed power was almost enough to satisfy his ambition. Now it is a monument to his failed ascension.

The mummified body of the God-Emperor still sits on the Golden Throne that was to be vehicle of his transformation from human to divine. Its forbidden magic keeps him trapped between worlds, the spark of his life-force still burning after hundreds of years. Not quite ghost and not quite god, only his legendary willpower has kept him from going completely mad. Destroying the Throne will surely release him, though whether into death or something else, no one can say.

The Sorcerers' Benevolent Association
A charitable organization with branches in every major city in Ukss, their mandate is to use ritual magic to improve their communities and identify and support talented young people who may not otherwise get to study the magical arts.

They are fantastically corrupt.

Though they do indeed donate their services in a desultory sort of way, their real business is almost entirely off the books. They are the people you go to when you need a spell cast by someone who won't ask any questions. At their most benign, they are a gray market for highly regulated transformations, enchantments, and summonings that allows their customers to sidestep government paperwork and its accompanying scrutiny. At their worst, they sell curses, demon contracts, and assassination spells to ruthless criminal gangs.

They are, however, sincere in their commitment to educating young sorcerers from underprivileged backgrounds, though those who accept their aid have a way of finding themselves deep in debts that can only be paid back by a lifetime of "favors."

The Daughters of Gabrielle
There once was a brilliant, vibrant young woman named Gabrielle, and life was not very kind to her. Her parents were important people and they were determined to marry her to the son of one of their rivals, to secure an alliance that would make both houses stronger than ever before. But Gabrielle found she could not love any man, and so one night she ran away from home.

Gabrielle had many adventures and met many people, most of whom were cruel and corrupt. Time and again, it seemed like her fate to confront demons in human form, destroying their host bodies or collapsing the gates through which they entered the world. She eventually became quite good at it.

Until one day, she took one wound too many. She nearly died, but she was nursed back to health by a beautiful, kind woman. After a turn of the seasons, the two were wed.

Though her adventuring days were behind her, Gabrielle found other ways to help. It gradually became known that her home was somewhere lesbians could go to find safety. And though she would never have wished such a life on her surrogate daughters, Gabrielle's stories enchanted her young wards. After she died, they vowed to carry on their mother's mission.

That was nearly a century ago. In the years since, the Daughters of Gabrielle have achieved fame to eclipse even their founder's great deeds. It's even become fashionable for well-off families to send their lesbian daughters to serve a few years in the Gabriellite mission.

Though they have more of the air of a boarding school these days, the Daughters of Gabrielle still fight demons with unusual effectiveness and fervor. Being chosen for a hunting team is something the younger girls train for years to achieve and no one wants to be the one to let down "Mama Gabrielle."

The signature weapon for the Daughters of Gabrielle is the meteor hammer - a fist-sized ball of pure meteoric iron at the end of a long rope. Demons find getting struck with these to be so painful that they will often voluntarily retreat back to the magic world rather than face them in combat.

Events
The Prism Wars 
Fifty years ago, the magician TBD, holder of The Wand of Illumination, became unsatisfied with her lot. She held one of the Great Wands, tools of the Creators, each one a key to unlocking some facet of reality, but over time, she came to resent its limitations. She had absolute mastery over elemental light, but deep in her soul, she knew she was capable of more.

And so she broke the Wand of Illumination into seven pieces. The shards could no longer be used as true Wands, and with the breaking TBD lost a lot of her immediate power, but when they were set as the focus for slower, ritual magic, they had profound and far-reaching abilities, unlike anything the world of Ukss had ever seen.

Thus began the Prism Wars. Through the shards, TBD reached into a realm of pure magic and drew out seven legions of warriors - the Rainbow Knights - each one empowered by a different primordial power - from the Red Legion, who could heal themselves by drinking the blood of their enemies all the way to the Violet Legion, who marched in shadow and were never seen until it was already too late.

The people of the continent of Mu were able to band together and defeat the Rainbow Knights, but at a terrible cost. Even now, their kaers - underground shelters, woven with many protective spells - still stand as monuments to their brush with total extinction. They say some kaers still stand undisturbed, their inhabitants refusing to believe that the Rainbow Knights could ever be defeated.

Vine Day
Set for the 11th full moon of the year, just as autumn is giving way to winter, Vine Day officially marks the end of the grape harvest and a celebration of a job well done. Unofficially, it's an excuse to get drunk and act like a fool.

Vine Day is a day sacred to the God TBD, but is primarily celebrated in the more heterodox cities of the Omphalos coast region. There it is an excuse to release inhibitions and express passions that have been suppressed the rest of the year. The more decadent trade cities compete with each other to throw the grandest parade, and in places with a strong Vine Day tradition, anything done while wearing a carnival masque does not count against the year's tally of sins.

Some of the more staid priests of TBD try to shut down Vine Day celebrations, but rulers and subjects alike view it as a necessary release valve for pent-up tensions. This lavish celebration of excess is going nowhere anytime soon.

The War of the Thirded Crown
In the northern reaches of the Bay of Blood, near the Reliquary Desert, the Sorcerer-King Zarub brooded in his growing paranoia. He held a wand that could fracture souls and break wills, but though his might was unquestionable, his cruelty had earned him many enemies among both his neighbors and his own people. He needed champions and protectors, brilliant minds that could lead his armies of golems into battle, but were so loyal they would never betray him.

It was a problem that plagued him for many years until he realized there was only one person he trusted with preserving his life and his rule . . . himself.

And so he turned to dark and terrible sorceries, summoning ancient demons to advise him and sacrificing a hundred lives to gather his power. In the end, he split his own soul into three parts. The bulk of his mind remained in his own body, perhaps a little more fragile, and certainly a lot more unstable, but nonetheless in full possession of his powers. His two shadows, he placed in exquisitely designed golem bodies of incredible beauty and physical might.

The hope was that, as lesser copies of his own mind, his Shadow Generals would serve him willingly. And for a time, they did. But even souls can heal, and as the years passed, the Generals regained a portion of Zarub's ambition. They became the very threat he feared and each sought to claim the throne for his own.

Zarub eventually prevailed, but the people of his kingdom suffered greatly in the crossfire. Zarub was anything but humbled by the near-loss of his crown, and he's since become obsessed with the idea that it was some rival magician that turned his creations against him.

The Feast of Blades
A custom originating in the city-state of TBD, around the Bay of Blood, it has since spread to several major trade cities as an excuse for gambling, excessive drinking, and the spectacle of grievous bodily harm. The real Feast of Blades is only held on festival days sacred to the war god TBD, but knockoffs tend to gravitate to whatever the local drinking holiday happens to be.

Before the Feast of Blades begins, aspirants drink a special potion that gives them the ability to chew and digest metal. Then, they are presented with a table laden with swords, knives, and daggers. Whoever eats the most before the potion wears off wins.

The potion lasts about an hour, but differences in metabolism, body weight, and other factors can vary that time by up to 15 minutes. The first sign that it's wearing off is usually bloody lips, cheeks, and gums. The truly determined (or demented . . . or drunk) can push past that to scarf down a few extra inches of steel, and this usually throws the crowd into a raucous frenzy, but it is inevitable that someone is going to take it too far and wind up in the hospital or, rarely, the morgue.

Wonders & Terrors
The Roc
Over the years, many have tried to tame the Roc. The reward is obvious - she is a giant eagle, capable of lifting an elephant in each of her mighty claws. Anyone who controlled such a thing would have uncontested mastery of the skies. Certainly, even the mightiest hunter quails at the thought of confronting the beast, and every general, warlord, and king in the shadow of the Shielding mountains, where she makes her lair, has planned for the nightmare scenario, where she is drawn into battle against them.

Yet the Roc is too wild, too pure to ever be tamed. The mountain folk revere her for it, seeing her as a symbol of freedom against the encroaching rule of the lowland empires. Though it would be condescending to say they "worshiped" her, they do occasionally leave her offerings of ox and yak. And they keep secret a fact that would draw fortune-seekers from around the world - the Roc's nest contains an egg. A chick is on the way.

Awakened Rats
Sometimes, for reasons unknown, a rat will grow to giagantic size (for a rat - about 2-3 feet tall), develop articulate fingers, and gain the power of speech. These mutations invariably breed true, and when these Awakened Rats find each other, they form tight-knit bands that stay together generation after generation.

Unlike most other Yokai, Awakened Rats do not separate themselves from human society. Instead, they live at its fringes, finding work as mercenaries, thieves, and, occasionally, heroes. Rat culture is very keen on the idea of the rogue adventurer, and many Awakened Rats seem like they belong to an older, more chivalrous age.

Sandcrawlers
Living in the Reliquary Desert, the Sandcrawlers are a community of Awakened Rats that rejects the romance and chivalry of their brethren for a pragmatic philosophy of survival . . . or so they claim. More mainstream rats point out that they are scrupulously honest in their dealings, but the Sandcrawlers claim it's so their word will have value. They'll point out that the Sandcrawlers rescue stranded travelers and the Sandcrawlers will protest that dead men can't pay a reward. They'll point out that they are meticulous recyclers and careful stewards of the land, and the Sandcrawlers answer that in the desert, you can never afford to waste resources.

The settled villages along the border of the Reliquary desert have a harsher opinion of the Sandcrawlers, viewing them as scavengers and sharp dealers, but even the harshest of their critics would be hard-pressed to say that they are a dangerous threat.

The Sandcrawlers live collectively in massive junk-gathering caravans and wear thick robes to protect themselves from the desert sun. It's said that a Sandcrawler can repair any sort of technology, but only for long enough to pass it on to an unsuspecting customer. 

Dream Beetles
Invasive pests from the world of magic, Dream Beetles enter this reality through the minds of potential magicians who have not yet found a wand to channel their budding magical energies. They rarely stay confined there for long, though, spreading from mind to mind like a plague.

Dream Beetles are not a deadly threat, but they are highly disruptive. They take images from sleepers' dreams and extrude them into the real world to create repulsive nests of rapidly decaying dream-matter. These can cause quite a shock to those not used to the phenomenon, seeing, for example, a hive that appears to be made of the rotting corpses of the infested's friends and family, but which are merely the dream bodies of such people, absent their real-life animating spirit.

Hungry Stones
The people of Ukss have a rudimentary understanding of magnetism. They know it is the operating principle behind the compass and that it has some relationship to the production of electricity. But they still don't know where it comes from or how to create it directly. Instead, they make magnets by bringing iron to the Hungry Stones.

The Hungry Stones are natural magnets of incredible size, capable of pulling an armored man off his feet at 30 paces. There are about 50 known Hungry Stones, but more are being discovered all the time. The best theory that scholars have is that they were ammunition in a weapon used by the gods to defeat some invading creature of magic. Evidence for this hypothesis is scarce, but it is undeniable that Hungry Stones are found mostly in magic-dead areas. Anyone who could unlock this mystery would have a weapon that governments would pay dearly for.

The Questing Beast
No one knows exactly what the Questing Beast looks like, but most hunters agree that it definitely exists. They can hear it when it taunts them in the woods. Its call is like the ringing of bells and its footprints are always clear and distinct. But it has never been caught. Somehow, when the hunters know they are right on top of it, it vanishes, to find new pursues to play with.

Chasing the Questing Beast is not without its rewards. It always leads its pursuers to somewhere they didn't know they needed to be. Legend has it that if you catch the Beast it will grant a wish (or perhaps simply reveal an important truth - these legends are pure speculation), but no one has any idea about how such a feat might be accomplished.

Shinobi
They look human, but they're not. Never forget - they are not human.

Maybe they were once. Maybe they were simply so devoted to the worship of the powers of night that they lost the daylight aspects of their personalities. Maybe they were so obsessed with becoming the perfect adepts of shadow that they ultimately became shadows.

Because that's what they are now. Stare at them all you want and you will see only a flat thing, so black its contours vanish into the whole. That doesn't seem so human, sure. But when they come for you and you're fighting for your life, you might see a cock of the head, a tilt of the posture, some small gesture that makes you think there might still be a person inside. You might be tempted to show them mercy.

Don't be fooled. They gave up their voices long ago. They surrendered themselves utterly to their dark patrons and it is those gods who act when the Shinobi come upon you. They will kill you for your mercy. Any glimmer of humanity you might see in them is as substantial as the smoke they leave behind when they're slain.

Typhonian Peacocks
These elephant-sized birds are surely very wise. Most people who meet them agree that they are very intelligent and know many mystical secrets. Nobody has an unkind word to say against them.

Nobody.

A Typhonian Peacock is definitely as smart as a human. Some of them are even as smart as a clever human. But they lean on their beauty. They are conversationally skillful. They evade questions they don't know how to answer and speak so confidently that none dare gainsay them. They do have magic, often quite potent, but they are Prodigies. Each one is born able to manipulate a particular element (usually sky or flame), but there is no trick to it. They have no secrets to share. They are simply vain enough to imply that they do.

A tail feather from a Typhonian Peacock can be used as a Wand of Splendor, but it is fragile and quickly disintegrates under repeated use.

Fenris, the Dog
Fenris doesn't mean to cause so much trouble, really.  He's just a big, clumsy oaf of a puppy . . .

Wait! That thing is a puppy?! That 20-foot-tall slavering hellbeast, with teeth like scimitars and paws the size of a grown-man's torso is a puppy? It's going to get bigger?

And so Fenris was betrayed. As an immortal, he could be slain by none but the gods, but he could be bound. Lured with succulent treats and kind words, he bounded after his human friends into the deepest, darkest cave anyone could find. While he was distracted with a freshly-slain yak carcass, his captors dynamited the entrance.


You can still hear Fenris' howls on a quiet night. They are apologetic and full of sadness. One day, maybe one day soon, the apologies will stop and the sadness will turn to anger.

Kitsune
The glittering stars of the Lowland empires' cocktail party circuit, the Kitsune cut an impressive figure wherever they go. Fox spirits who have taken human shapes, they have an instinctual knack for the predatory social environment of Ukss's elite capitalists.

Many of the ultra-wealthy value the Kitsune as political advisors and personal companions. They are thoughtlessly ruthless and effortlessly beautiful. Only their fox tails (of which they gain more as they age, up to a maximum of nine) mark them as inhuman, but they have the charm to play them off as a fashionable accoutrement.

Kitsune have no sort of organized society or culture. When two fox-spirits meet, if resources are plentiful, they may bond over their shared hustle, but once they come into direct competition, they instantly become deadly rivals.

Earth Anchors
These ancient megaliths appear all around the world, usually in the shadow of volcanoes. Initially taken as mere monuments, it is now theorized that they are ancient magical artifacts, created to protect the surrounding areas from earthquakes and lava flows. All that is known is that areas which have lost their Anchors will usually succumb to natural disasters within a few decades.

Disturbingly, some Earth Anchors appear in areas that otherwise appear calm and stable. Whether they suppressed volcanic activity in the past or were merely built later, in imitation of the more functional monuments, is currently unknown.

The Forester
This unique creature has a hundred names among the people of Ukss, though those who study it most just call it "The Forester." It is a giant slug, at least 60 feet long, that is capable of hardening its slimy skin to become as tough as the strongest steel armor. It is drawn to places of devastation and ecological collapse, where it will crawl in complex spiral patterns, a "dance" with meaning known only to itself.

Something about the dance speaks to the memory of plants in the soil, and within a season, everywhere its trail of slime remained undisturbed will sprout new growth to replace the old. Scientists have studied the slime itself and found it to be a remarkable fertilizer, but not inherently magical. The ritual of restoration is the slug's and the slug's alone.


Glass Boats
The Sorcerer-Artisans of Vaporia produce these elegant sea-going vessels for a select clientele of discerning customers. Made from a form of enchanted glass that is "grown" into the proper shape over the course of years, the glass boats are lighter than wood and harder than steel. Only dedicated warships are better under cannon fire, and there is not a cargo vessel in the world that can carry more weight, faster. Plus, a glass boat need never worry about barnacles or water termites.

Yet for all their meritorious qualities, glass boats are ludicrously expensive, and thus nearly every one in service acts as a personal yacht for some sorcerer, monarch, or lowland industrialist.

The Field of Spheres
In the vast, flat plains of Mu's savanna, there is a place where the grass thins and the landscape is dominated by hundreds of stone spheres, each the height of a full-grown man. Legend has it that they were created by the god TBD in a single night of drunkenness. Even now, the spheres are sacrosanct, perfectly resistant to axes, hammers, and picks and highly resistant to dynamite and destruction magic. As near as anyone can tell, the spheres have no function or purpose. The god simply likes them.

The Gold Harvest
On the slopes of the Dragontail mountains, grows a most unusual plant. Small-leafed and hardy, it climbs up cliff faces and takes root on any old patch of bare rock. It would be a terribly invasive weed were it not for one miraculous property - its roots contain gold! Through some process not yet understood by scientists, the Dragontail Cliff-clover draws in heavy metals as part of its normal life cycle. Though the amount in any one plant is minuscule, villages in Cliff-clover country can make a decent bit of extra money by harvesting them in the thousands and burning them in specialized kilns. The kilns run hot enough to reduce the plant matter entirely to ash and leave behind only a modest, but profitable stream of molten gold.

The Book of Tales
From time to time, a lonely soul in Ukss will find a strange book among their possessions. They won't remember how they came to possess it, but it will seem familiar, like something they owned in childhood (or if they themselves are children or otherwise too poor to have ever owned a book - then as something they've dreamed of one day owning).

Regardless of the form it takes, The Book of Tales calls to its chosen. Even the most illiterate of them will feel drawn towards reading the book, and after just one or two pages, they'll be hooked. The main character will be immensely relatable, like the sort of strong, resilient, and principled person they wish they could be.

As the readers get deeper into the story, they'll find it takes on a curious applicability. The main character's trials and tribulations are exaggerated, allegorical versions of the problems they face in real life. And if the reader emulates the main character, borrowing their unconventional strategies to overcome challenges with courage and integrity, then things will generally work out.

The Book of Tales doesn't do anything as blunt and direct as prophecy, but in its pages, lost people discover a way to become found. It never fails to change a reader's life for the better, and those who best absorb its wisdom have a habit of becoming legends.

The Dream Twister
Among magical prodigies, telepathy might be the most frequently manifested power. But prodigies of any sort are rare, and telepaths who survive childhood rarer still. That's why the nation of TBD, in the heart of the Lowlands, created the Dream Twister.

The Dream Twister is a work of ruthless cunning and clinical, industrialized evil. It is also the only way anyone knows of consistently creating telepathic adepts. It takes the form of a squat pyramidal structure of eye-watering, geometrically impossible asymmetry. The building both amplifies and taints ambient magical energy, channeling it into a central chamber. Prospective adepts are placed into medically-induced comas, wheeled into the room (in batches of as many as 24, though it is rare for there to be enough volunteers to meet capacity), and left to dream.

Over time (and it may takes days, weeks, or months, depending on a wide range of psychological factors and the subjects' latent magical potential) those placed inside the chamber begin to . . . change. Their dreams no longer connect to their own subconscious, but rather to certain ominous parts of the magic world. At first this manifests as nightmares (and failed subjects never advance beyond this stage), but as time goes on, the dreamer makes peace with the dark realm and their dreams become chillingly functional - not quite lucid, but unfailingly focused on solving their personal problems with sociopathic pragmatism. Once they've reached that stage, they may wake themselves from within the coma, and become telepathic adepts in truth.

Any telepath created with The Dream Twister is fundamentally tainted by its dark energies. They are experts at prying information from the minds of the unwilling, but leave only mental wreckage in their wake. They make poor spies, but excellent assassins. They also find use on the battlefield, cloaking themselves in an aura of fear that will devastate ally and enemy alike.

Cat Suits
These enchanted jumpsuits are made of the tanned skins of captured cats, scrubbed and treated so the origins are not apparent. When the zipper is pulled up all the way, the wearer is transformed into the exact type of cat the skin was taken from (usually, because of the use of multiple skins, this has the appearance of a calico domestic cat, but the higher-quality cat suits are made from the hide of a single lion, tiger, or other great cat). Favored by spies and thieves, they are usually worn half-zipped to allow for a sudden escape. Removing a Cat Suit requires the assistance of an accomplice who can speak the code-word that causes the zipper to appear on the feliform's chest (and, of course, provide the human hands necessary to pull the zipper down).

Red Groves
In the forest to the south of the Omphalos Coast, there live many dangerous Yokai, but over the years, explorers and mystics have identified a few dozen patches of neutral ground, places where human beings are tentatively permitted, provided they stay on their best behavior. The most hallowed (and harrowing) of these places are the Red Groves, where the devoted and the desperate may come to make offerings to the powers of the woods. It is said that the trees there get their distinctive color from the centuries' worth of blood that they've absorbed through their roots, but whether that is fact or embellishment, it unmistakable that the Alfar who watch over these groves are strange and wild, and disembodied spirits who hear the petitions grant enlightenment only to those who have a bit of the predator inside them.

The Terracotta Warriors
Though they have fallen out of favor in the Lowlands since the invention of the cannon, magically enchanted clay statues are still a favored strategic weapon in the Bay of Blood and Omphalos Coast. Relentless, pitiless, and utterly loyal, their only weaknesses are an inability to use firearms (though they are themselves essentially bulletproof) and the expense that goes into their creation. Most city-states can afford to field no more than an elite unit of about 100 or so, though rumor has it that the Republic of Mu had two full divisions that they dared not deploy lest they be subverted by the spell-twisting of the Indigo Legion of Rainbow Knights.  

Dragon Mice
Native to the lower slopes of the volcanic Helltooth Mountains, these small, furry creatures are as dangerous as they are cute. In the days of the old Republic of Mu, they were considered a major pest, creeping into farmlands to steal grain and hunt insects and scaring off predators by breathing fire.

Though the flame of a Dragon Mouse is not enough on its own to do more than startle a human, it is perfectly capable of igniting flammable materials in a human residence. More than one granary was burned entirely to the ground by a Dragon Mouse that was trying to intimidate a fox, cat, or dog. They haven't had quite the same range since the Prism Wars destroyed their major food sources, but in the western reaches of the Spectrum Lands, there are many scorched ruins that never actually saw battle.

The Poison Book
There's a book where if you read it, it will kill you. Not quickly, and not inevitably, but slowly, page after page, you'll get weaker. Most can make it through a single chapter and come away with nothing more serious than the worst flu of their life. The exceptionally strong of will can get through a second chapter with survivable vomiting and paralysis. Nobody has ever made it through a third. 

Experiments in spacing out the reading have been disappointing. Apparently whatever contamination you get from the book lingers in your system for decades. Scholars have fully recovered from their book-imposed illness only to immediately suffer fatal hemorrhages after reading a single additional page.

Why even bother? Some do it for the bragging rights, others to test the potency of their magical wards, but the real reason is because The Poison Book is an encyclopedia of weakness. If you can endure long enough to find it, you may learn to kill anything that lives. It is speculated that even the secret dooms of the gods can be found within its pages, though if that's true, they are surely in the later passages, the ones that burn your eyes just for looking at them.

The Unquenched
The Priest-Kings of TBD rule their city with an iron fist. None dare oppose them, lest they be forced to drink the anti-waters of the Dark Spring. One sip will afflict a victim with a desperate thirst, as if they'd gone days without water. A belly-full of the anti-waters will destroy a person utterly. They will dry up within minutes and go screaming into death. . . if they're lucky.

Those with the talent for magic - magicians mostly, but also the stronger sort of prodigies - may use their connection to the Magic World to survive. They become the Unquenched, undying ghouls who seek any moisture they can find, whether it be water or blood or crude oil, and drink it down with a disturbing ferocity.

It is possible for a magician of strong will and pure intent to stay ahead of the thirst for some time. They will still drink every liquid they can find, but they retain enough awareness to warn away strangers and prioritize pure waters over filth. However, in the end, everyone succumbs eventually. The echoes of their screams, rising up from the caverns of the undercity, keep the rest of TBD's citizens on the straight and narrow.

Sword Schools
Though rifles and pistols are the preferred weapons of Ukss' great militaries, the world's most powerful warriors still prefer to use the sword. Passing down ancient adept techniques, these masters combine magical skill and martial prowess into deadly fighting arts.

The School of the Gunblade
The most modern of the sword schools, it finds favor in semi-modern nations like Capet and the Kingdom of Bliss. Gunblade adepts wield swords with pistols built into the hilt. These pistols are integrated into many of the style's katas and can be used to add power to a thrust or to punish a careless parry. Naturally, they can also be used to attack enemies at a distance, but the short, unrifled barrel on a typical gunblade makes this a desperation move at best.

Gunblade masters can weave strikes and shots into a complex ballet of carnage and are renowned for their ability to handle multiple opponents at once. A common quip is that half of all gunblade training is spent on learning to manipulate the forces of luck, and while that's not quite true, the school's advanced awareness techniques do lend its practitioners an air of the uncanny.

The School of the Chain-sword
A brutal, uncompromising style, it originated in Laconia, but soon spread to a number of widely-scattered academies that envied its unparalleled might. Chain-swords require utmost discipline to master, as their spinning, toothed blades can pose as much threat to a careless wielder as they do to the enemy.

For those who master the chain-sword, however, the style offers the promise of overcoming any single foe, no matter how mighty. There is little an enchanted chain-sword can't cut through, and against the few creatures capable of withstanding its might, the adept's unnaturally powerful arms and highly focused fury become powerful weapons in their own right.

The School of the Fractal Sword
In the barrens of Luna's northern hemisphere, far from places any human finds fit to settle, there grows a peculiar species. Half crystal and half plant, these strange formations take the shape of large, serrated crescents, ranging in size from a dagger to an office building. Close examination of the teeth of the crescents reveal that each one is a smaller copy of the whole (and the teeth on those copies are themselves copies of the entire structure, and so on, down as small as anyone has cared to look).

A crescent of the appropriate size can be harvested from its parent growth, fitted with a hilt, and used as a high-quality sword. These blades have the strength of fine steel and the weight of pumice stone. Masters can wield them with devastating efficacy, creating lingering wounds that are unnaturally slow to heal. Fractal Adepts are also highly skilled at creating layered defenses that leave their enemies baffled and helpless.


Any tooth of a fractal sword may be broken off and replanted in its native Lunar soil. Given enough time, it will eventually grow into a duplicate sword. Students of the school imbue this process with sacred meaning and when it is time for an apprentice to leave the master's service, their first blade will have been grown from a shard of their teacher's sword.


Yokai Villages
"Yokai Village" is a collective term for the hidden settlements of lesser spirits and near-human monsters. The classic Yokai Village is a refuge for any supernatural creature strange enough to to be shunned by human society and smart enough to honor the Village truce. These Villages usually reside in "cursed" wilderness, where humans fear to tread, lest they get hopelessly lost . . . or worse. It's unclear whether these curses are caused by the Yokai enforcing their borders or if the Yokai simply seek out the most dangerous lands in which to hide. Either way, a mixed Yokai Village will welcome any of the Old Peoples who need to flee the encroaching hand of humanity.

Not all Yokai Villages are so diverse, however. Some contain only a single species. They still tend to be isolated and well-protected by secrecy, but any unfamiliar monster that wandered through will be treated with suspicion, at best.

Sasquatch Valley
High in the Shielding Mountains, there is a valley that dips below the tree line. Inside is an old-growth forest containing gorgeous hardwoods and fragrant pines that have otherwise been logged into extinction. There are magnates down in the Lowlands who would pay millions to secure the rights to the valley . . . and profit to the tune of millions more as they stripped it bare. But they cannot, because the Valley has powerful protection in the form of its own native band of Sasquatches.

Despite their size and fearsome demeanor, the Sasquatches are peaceful herbivores. They speak a simple language of grunts and howls, but their knowledge of the valley runs deep. They mostly spend their time observing the valley's animals, tending to the health of the trees, and maintaining the rituals that keep their home hidden from the outside world.

The magic of the Sasquatches is unlike anything else on Ukss. Though it is no match for a true magic wand, it has spared their lands from scrutiny for hundreds of years. If discovered, it would inspire even more greed than the valley's untapped natural resources, but only someone as gentle and humble as the Sasquatches themselves could ever hope to master it.

The Giant Lynx of the Alpine Woods
Though, as solitary predators, the Giant Lynx do not live in villages, as the term is commonly understood, they do try and keep in touch with each other, meeting at the intersections of their territories for trade, mating, and news. The most frequently trafficked points on the network are called "crossroads" and the Lynx name them with smell-signs that only partially translate into spoken languages.

The Giant Lynx prefer to have as little to do with humans as possible. They will sometimes negotiate with isolated mining, logging, or furrier camps, trading their services as scouts and guides for recognition and protection of their favored hunting grounds. However, like all cats, they can see nascent magical energies and will often go out of their way to warn others of major magical threats.

Goblin Markets
Yokai villages are hidden, but that doesn't mean they are all isolated. Some Yokai maintain a tentative contact with the outside world, staging elaborate traveling markets that bring a little of the wonder of the supernatural to the towns and cities they visit.

Goblin Markets do not advertise, but they are not difficult to find for the determined seeker. Most people don't bother, because the wares for sale mostly appeal to the appetites of the Yokai - a Giant Lynx might find a variety of exotic rats at the concessions stand. A Vampire might find a mirror enchanted to show their true reflection. A Kitsune might find an incense that smells exactly like fox piss, for the rare times she is feeling homesick.

Nonetheless, humans do sometimes find the Goblin Markets, whether they are ritualists looking for rare components, adventurers looking for material to lay or break a curse, or simply drunkards and fools, stumbling in by accident. Few leave entirely unsatisfied, but rumor has it that some never leave at all. 

Most Goblin Markets are not directly owned or operated by the goblins themselves.  Goblin craft is simply the most attractive lure for human visitors, so that is what humans call them.

The Spider Bazaar
The intelligent spiders of Ukss are not all dedicated enemies of human-kind. Some appear to have a code, or at least are wary enough of humanity's magic and military might to want to coexist. One such group runs a traveling bazaar. Carried from town to town by a colorful swarm of tame servitor spiders, the Spider Bazaar is the best place in Ukss to buy silk and venom. Many of the spiders are themselves enchanters of great skill, and the clothes, tents, and rugs available for purchase will sometimes bear strange, inhuman magics.

The Spider Bazaar never stays in one place for long. Over the course of only a couple of days, its merchants can exhaust the surrounding countryside of any prey animal larger than a rabbit. In the more profitable towns, they will avoid livestock, but rumor persists that some of the smaller villages of the Omphalos Coast have been consigned to ruin by a Bazaar that overstayed its welcome.

Gloomshire
At first glance, Gloomshire appears to be a normal, human village. A bit too bucolic, maybe. The people a little too friendly, too eager to extend hospitality to strangers. But, fundamentally, a nice place. What visitors don't realize, not until it's too late, is that Gloomshire is not a human village. Gloomshire belongs to the spiders.

Using a combination of threats, venom-derived narcotics, and obscene magical rituals, the spiders of Gloomshire keep their captive humans tightly under control, forcing them to play-act the role of cheerful welcoming villagers, the better to lure travelers to the spiders' larders. Sometimes, one of these captives will break free of their control, but that just means the spiders don't have to look so far for their next meal.

Gloomshire has existed as a trap for the better part of a generation, and it has worked well, but the locals are starting to catch on. It is only a matter of time before the spiders abandon the "village" and start again somewhere else. They likely won't let any of their prisoners live to tell the tale.

The Dargonesti
As intelligent dolphins, the Dargonesti do not build shelters, nor do they stay in one location long enough to call it a home, but their Pods are as tight-knit as any human community and last generation after generation with a fixed name and identity.

Some describe the Dargonesti as the playful jokers of the sea who rescue lost seafarers and entertain ships with their acrobatic antics. Others as sadistic brutes who torture the helpless and take pleasure in cruelty. Both assessments miss the mark. The Dargonesti are people, for all the contradictions and complexities that entails. Nonetheless, they are heavily influenced by the local culture of their pod. If it is led by a craven bully, then that's what they become. Otherwise, most Dargonesti culture hews to the hedonic principle - if it makes you happy, do it.

Dargonesti have an affinity for the magical arts. Their natural form precludes using a wand, and most rituals do not work underwater, but they have a knack for wild magic and are some of the few people to become adepts multiple times over. Most Dargonesti magic is what you would expect from an aquatic creature (summon fish, protection from drowning, etc), but they are eager students and a pod with access to highly-trafficked shipping routes will collect an eclectic variety of talents from friendly land-goers.

The signature Dargonesti magic, though, is the ability to shift into a human-like form. This too is an adept ability, taking years to master, but it is so widespread, appearing even in the most antisocial pods, that outsiders tend to mistake it for an innate power. Dargonesti disguises are good, but rarely completely perfect. They usually overdo the ears, though whether this is because hearing is such an important sense to them or because they don't have external ears of their own (or, as more likely, because it's some private joke at humanity's expense) is currently unknown. 

The Frog Nation
The hundred or so frog-person villages of the Twilight Forest are not a nation-state in the modern sense, but they do have a shared national identity. They speak the same language. They share many of the same customs and traditions. Until recently, they shared a common religion and values.

But the Frog Nation has become riven by civil war. Radical new ideas have shaken the normally staid frog people. A growing faction, calling themselves the Bullywugs, is preaching a violent doctrine of racial supremacy and hatred for the outside world.

Opposing them are the Grippli, traditionalist Frog People who believe they should live in harmony with nature and ignore the outside world.

The conflict is largely generational. Frog People are biologically immortal. If they can escape cancer, they may live for hundreds of years. The Grippli is a philosophy of the old - deeply spiritual, conservative, and cautious. The Bullywugs are a movement of the young. They believe their longevity and regeneration make them superior to other forms of life and are eager to go out into the world and prove it.

It is a chaotic time in the Frog Nation. The ideological split is tearing apart not just villages, but families. There have been only intermittent flare ups of violence, but no deaths so far. Over time, the factions will migrate so that Gripplis live in Grippli towns and Bullywugs among Bullywugs, but for now, it is a dangerously unpredictable environment for outside visitors.

The Chromatics
Deep in the deadliest reaches of the Reliquary desert, where even the Sandcrawlers fear to tread, there lives a culture of nomadic lizard-people. Though they have no name that would translate into a human tongue, the few travelers lucky enough to see them and survive have dubbed them "the Chromatics."

The Chromatics are masters of light. They need no clothes, because their spells can divert the hottest of the sun's rays. They need no weapons, because they can hurl lances of solar fire with pinpoint accuracy. They can make themselves completely invisible or weave complex illusions in the air. They are so attuned to the nature of light that they don't even speak. All of their communication is done through complex patterns of color, many of which are invisible to the human eye.

Because they are so difficult to find (let alone communicate with), scholars mistakenly believe that the Chromatics are Prodigies. And while they do have superhuman vision and the ability to change their skin color, those traits are purely natural. Their magical control over light itself is a form of wand magic.

The Chromatics produce only one kind of wand, polished over years from a certain type of desert crystal, but the number of wands they've accumulated over the years would absolutely stagger the various imperial strategists, were it to become known. Every Chromatic child receives one as a rite of adulthood (whether carved by their parents or handed down from an honored ancestor). Aside from wands, they use little other technology. Mostly bags, belts, and pouches, but also occasionally flint knives for when they need to cut without heat and spearheads for when they wish to fight their own kind.

The City of Illusion
In the heart of the Chromatics' territory is their most sacred site. It is the repository for their cultural memory. It is here that they record their legends and deeds. It is here that they recreate the ruined buildings they find half-buried in the desert, imagining what they must have looked like when they still stood tall. It is here that they share the faces of travelers, both friend and foe. Everything the wandering Chromatics felt worth preserving has been woven into vibrant moving images and then permanently anchored with a bit of the Sun's own generative power.

At some point, the Chromatics began to understand that their use of life energy had . . . side effects. The most ancient illusions broke from their programming, and began to act out new stories, as if they were in truth the characters they were drawn to be. The mystics among them pronounced this a blessing, saying that the living illusions, as they became aware of each other, would reveal paths of meaning between their stories. They say the center of the city is their racial unconscious, and that the dream-like chaos found therein represents the dreams of the Chromatic people.

For their part, the living illusions are unaware of their role in Chromatic culture. The newly awakened still believe they're real, and rationalize the City as a waking nightmare. The oldest ones worship the god they're certain they'll become.

Goblins
From a distance, goblins appear to resemble humanity. They have the same basic body plan - two arms, two legs, an upright posture and hairless skin. Yet there are certain crucial differences. They are smaller than humans, rarely exceeding four feet in height, with three to three and a half feet being more common. Their skin is also not quite human,  possessing a mineral luster even in its most human-like shades of earthen-brown (slate grey, jade green, and sapphire are more common, though). Their extremities tend to have exaggerated proportions, with long, clever fingers at the end of their spindly arms and big, floppy feet at their dramatically bowed legs. Their eyes, ears, and noses are proportionately larger than a human's, and their senses are sharper as a result.

Goblins excel at crafts, especially working in metal or gems or with complex mechanisms. There are very few goblin magicians, but they have a special gift for weaving magic directly into the items they create, sometimes without consciously realizing it.

Goblins are instinctual nesters, and are uncomfortable living above ground or in nomadic groups. Goblin homes are usually well-fortified and far enough underground that the surface's light and noise cannot penetrate.

Goblins have an undeserved reputation for avarice. Rather, because they tend to bond very strongly to particular fixed homes, they are very vulnerable to anxieties about scarcity. Many goblins become compulsive hoarders, but this is an illness analogous to depression in humans, and is usually brought on by the same sort of stresses.

Deep Goblins
Deep Goblins hold themselves apart from other Goblin peoples. They live much farther underground than their kin, often hundreds or thousands of feet below the surface in cavernous cities that have been meticulously carved over the centuries.

Conservative to a fault, Deep Goblins eschew most forms of mechanical and electrical technology, instead relying on their own, long-cultivated magical crafts. Though they use only the traditional arts of stone-cutting, blacksmithing, and carpentry, their tools and weapons are coveted by the wealthy and powerful on Ukss's surface. Any goblin-forged blade will cut effortlessly through armor. An axe made by a Deep Goblin will cleave an engine block in half.

The Deep Goblins pride themselves on being fierce warriors who will never back down from defending their own. They are slow to anger, but their stubbornness has drawn out many conflicts far longer than the surface goblins think wise.

The culture of the Deep Goblins often strikes outsiders as bleak and depressing. It is shameful for a Deep Goblin to publicly show emotion or to flaunt their wealth in any way. Thus they dress in practical browns and greys and adopt a gruff, stoic demeanor. Inside the home is different. A Deep Goblin's lair is almost always decorated with exquisite craft that catches the light of the hearth and echoes the sounds of the family's laughter. 

Vampires
Vampires in Ukss are no mere bloodsuckers. They are the harbingers of the end of the world. The vampires themselves are either unclear or deliberately evasive about their initial origins, but they know one thing for certain - they are the only thing that can survive the coming apocalypse. Some vampires look upon the apocalypse with horror and seek to delay it. Others look upon it with glee and seek to hasten it. One thing both factions agree upon is that they will be in no danger of running out of blood.

Clan Tremere
 Most of the Tremere vampires were magicians and ritualists in life, and retain those abilities even in death. Though only the most corrupt and death-tainted wands will function for the undead, the Clan has learned to substitute the mystical energies of their blood. As a result, they are less physically potent than other vampires, but make up for it in versatility and precision.

Clan Tremere is more hierarchical than other vampire families, organizing itself as a perverted mystery cult where deeper circles of initiation grant access to ever more potent mystical secrets.
 
Clan Tremere is despised by most other vampire families because they tend to operate semi-openly, making deals with corrupt civic officials for sanctuary in exchange for providing their mystical services to the upper class. A city inhabited by Tremere vampires is extremely hostile to other vampires, with hunters frequently tipped off when the trespassers arrive.

The Tremere oppose the coming apocalypse and will preemptively attack rival vampires rather than risk their doomsday cults taking root.

Morbus
Most vampires are ambivalent about the coming apocalypse. They identify with one faction or the other and pursue its goals in a desultory sort of way, but mostly they just exist night to night, with little thought to the future.

Not so the Morbus.They have fully embraced the end of the world. They work to disrupt human civilization and weaken the guardians of order. Their weapon of choice is indiscriminate pestilence, stored in their immortal bodies and spread through their infectious bites.

No place visited by the Morbus escapes disaster for long. The Morbus don't just spread a single disease. As immortal blood-sucking creatures who feed exclusively off of sick and dying humans, they tend to collect a wide variety of infections over the years. The older Morbus will host a greatest-hits selection of all of history's most terrifying plagues.

If mortals knew of their existence, the Morbus would be the most hunted vampires in existence. Unfortunately, few who come into contact with them survive long enough to spread the word.

Benthics
Vampires are immortal. The thing no one tells you about immortality is that as time goes on, it becomes increasingly likely that you will become trapped. A building will collapse on top of you. You will be buried in a concrete tomb. You will sink to the bottom of the sea and have your bones crushed by the unbearable pressure of the depths. . .

Benthic vampires are those who have adapted to the deep sea. Down far below the surface, where the sun never shines, they have honed their innate vampire powers to withstand the terrible environment. They are stronger, swifter, and more vicious than surface vampires, but can no longer pass for even remotely human.

Warm blood is rare under the sea, especially at the depths that Benthics favor, but they have learned to listen for whale song. A single whale can feed a whole pack. The monsters swarm over them en masse, dragging them to the sea floor and draining them dry before they can drown.

The Dargonesti hunt Benthics whenever they can, but they are no match for them one-on-one and usually wind up being chased away from the choicest Benthic feeding grounds.

The Inconnu
Less a faction of vampires than a title, an Inconnu is an elder vampire who has shunned the trappings of family and temporal power and focused entirely on exploring the vampiric condition. For the most part, "Inconnu" is a past-tense sort of title, something you say about a vampire who has disappeared, but who you dare not proclaim as dead.

Sometimes, though, an Inconnu vampire will reemerge, wielding strange powers and espousing strange philosophies. It is clear that they learned something in their extended absence, but whether such knowledge delays the apocalypse or hastens its arrival is something beyond the comprehension of lesser minds.

Magic
Magic on Ukss comes in three types - wand magic, ritual magic, and wild magic. Wand magic is faster, flashier, and more adaptable - able to be used in seconds, rather than the hours or days required for serious magical rituals - but it requires the use of a special magical item of incredible power.

There are a few thousand magic wands currently on Ukss, but new ones are rare. Historically, they were made only about once per century, by none but the greatest practitioners of the mystic arts. In recent years, the pace has picked up, as scholars come to understand the natural laws that govern magic. Now, the world will see a new wand once every 2-3 years.

It is a misconception among laymen that wands create or power spells. Rather, they act as a bridge between the magician's thoughts and the magical realm. Each wand is attuned to a rather narrow range of elemental and/or spiritual energies and thus is limited to creating spells in line with the wand. A Wand of Fire, for example, can shoot sparks or stoke bonfires, but could not summon frost or heal wounds.

Wands work through a combination of gestures and focused visualization. Some magicians use chants, poems, or keywords as part of their spells, but these are purely aids to concentration. Wand magic does not require such measures.

Most wands are patterned after one of the Great Wands, used by the Creators to make the world. Great wands have a higher ceiling for mastery than their more common imitators, but reaching those heights requires just as much study and learning as mastering a lesser wand. A magician who has not yet reached the limits of their current wand would gain no extra benefit from wielding a Great Wand (aside, perhaps, from prestige).

Ritual magic, by contrast, tends to be broader, subtler, and farther reaching. It can have long-lasting effects and may call upon multiple energy types at once. Each ritual is unique and most require exotic ingredients and elaborate ceremonies to perform. Skill in rituals does not grant one the ability to wield a wand, nor vice versa, but the two disciplines are often taught together for the sake of convenience.

Wild magic is controversial as a category. It is not entirely arbitrary. It describes a real phenomenon - creatures and people of Ukss who have some extraordinary magical ability that they can just do. Wild magic requires neither wand, nor ritual behavior, nor any sort of external aid. To those who possess it, wild magic is as natural as moving their limbs.

The controversy comes from the fact that wild magic is incredibly diverse, and not necessarily innate. Some forms, like the clock magic of the Seekers of the Hour can be studied and learned. Those who come by their wild magic through practice are called adepts, whereas those who are born with their magic are called prodigies, but many dispute that there should be categories at all.

The Tremere have learned to tame the wild magic innate to vampires, making it operate more like wand magic. This renders it vulnerable to the same sorts of detection, warding, and disruption, but since their wands are their own bodies (well, technically, the blood inside their bodies), they tend to have highly personalized and versatile skill sets.

Those who have reason to fear magic (and to be fair, that's most anybody) favor cats as pets. They can see partially into the magical realm and will notice rituals as they are being cast and the tell-tale aura that surrounds an experienced wand magician at all times. Wild magic is hit or miss. Certainly, no cat will tolerate the presence of a vampire, but they tend to be completely indifferent to the presence of gods.

Clones
A newer ritual, originally devised in the city-state of Yennin, it is gradually spreading among the elite of every land who can afford its exorbitant price. Using only a thimble-full of blood, or a similar amount of flesh, from a recently-dead body, the Clone ritual can create a perfect duplicate of the donor, complete with all of their knowledge, memories and skills. The clone is the same age as the donor was when they died, but cured of all wounds, magical afflictions and infections (certain diseases, like cancer, carry over, but scholars aren't sure why.)

A secret, known only to the ritual's inventors and a few trusted co-conspirators, is that the Clone ritual works even on the living. The age and memories of the clones are the same as the donor when the sample was taken, and while the cabal has not yet figured out a use for this information, it is working on methods of long-term flesh preservation and spells to transfer the soul from one body to another. In the future, the wealthy of Ukss may need never to die.

Cloud Chariots
The ritual to create a Cloud Chariot is known only to the Wardens of the Sky and they take its protection very seriously. Most of the time, the Wardens travel incognito, hiding among normal travelers, the better to lure out aerial threats, but sometimes, they need to act openly, and when they do, the Cloud Chariot acts as a badge of office. When you see an armed warrior descend from the sky on a fluffy white cloud, wreathed in the golden light of dawn, then you know that you are dealing with a genuine Warden of the Sky.

Origami Vessel
Widely considered the most elegant of the travel rituals, the caster folds a piece of special silk-threaded paper into an elaborate origami boat. Then, speaking a specially composed poem about their hopes for reaching a particular destination, they place the boat into the water, where it grows to full size. As soon as the caster steps aboard, the Origami Vessel will start sailing itself to the destination named in the poem, traveling day and night at a constant speed and ignoring prevailing wind conditions. When the caster steps off the boat, it disintegrates into a cloud of swirling confetti, announcing to all that a sorcerer of considerable power has arrived.

The Tainted Bargain
There are some on Ukss with an urgent need for power. Not for its own sake, and not for themselves, but to accomplish some goal or defend some principle that will live on long after their death. The boldest and most desperate of those seek out The Tainted Bargain, offering their lives to a creature of the magic realm in exchange for securing a powerful champion for their most cherished ideals.

When the ritual is complete, the summoned creature takes possession of the caster's body. This is a one-way trip. For as long as the body's physical integrity endures, it will belong to the entity. In exchange, the entity is afflicted with a compulsion to work towards whatever goal the caster offered - whether as concrete as "rescue this particular prisoner from captivity" or as abstract as "work towards equality for all". The entity does not gain control until it agrees to these terms, and it has a last opportunity to back out, causing the ritual to fail, but generally having a physical body and acting in the material world is seen as desirable enough that nearly any offer is going to find an interested taker.

More powerful entities tend to be more discerning, but sometimes even they rush into ill-conceived deals that transgress against their morals and preferences. Nonetheless, once the bargain is made, it is iron-clad. For all but the most knowledgeable entities, the death of a body means they die along with it, so there are very few loopholes for a trapped and tormented creature.

The authorities are constantly trying to suppress knowledge of The Tainted Bargain, but the ritual is relatively simple to perform and widespread in the magical realm. Whenever a creature does break through, it usually makes it a priority to spread the knowledge far and wide. Such a service is worth many favors among the spirit courts.

The Clockwork Gods
It all began when the Tainted General, Measured Cube, lost a hand in the Battle of White Shores. The people of Galat were so grateful for his sacrifice that they commissioned the finest prosthetic Lowland science could create. But though Measured Cube was only a minor spirit, barely able to shape the flesh of his vessel, when the surgeons attached the hand, something extraordinary happened - the magic of the prosthetic somehow grafted itself onto his spirit. His very nature was thereafter permanently transformed so that, years later, when he finally lost his mortal body, the clockwork hand somehow followed him back into the Magic World.

The magical engineers of Galat discovered many wonderful and terrible things in the subsequent decades. That the Tainted can survive having 100% of their flesh replaced with steel, lightning, and enchanted crystal. That a divine being that is bound into a human body, grafted onto a piece of industrial machinery, and then . . . released back into the magic world will forever after retain a connection to that same machinery, not just in form, but in function, so that you might take a simple Geometrical and make it into a patron of the autoloom (and protector of the capitalists who own them). 

This technology proved to be too recklessly blasphemous even for the Lowlands, and by convention it is reserved for the most desperate of military applications (no empire can consider itself a true naval power if it does not have at least one demon-bound dreadnought chained to its docks . . . just in case). 

In the end, though, treaties are just paper and no nation would dare risk being the only one to not have an answer to this technology. Clockwork gods are still being built in secret, for uses both civilian and military. Some of the more foolish nations have even begun using Clockwork Gods to design newer, more powerful Clockwork Gods. These creations are invariably quite powerful, but with additional undocumented functions that human engineers can only barely understand. The paranoid (or perhaps merely sensible) believe that there is a third- or fourth- generation creation these Gods are searching for, a true Machine God that will rework the mortal world the way that humans have transformed the Magic World.

Freeing the Primordial Flesh
While exploring the limits of transmutation rituals, scholars at the University of TBD made a stunning discovery - the stones of Ukss were not created as stones, but as something else. Something . . . fleshy. 

It is still unclear at this time, whether the earth was transmuted from the massive body of a single being or the mingled bodies of an unimaginable charnel-pile. Different types of stone will revert to different types of . . . meat, but there is no way currently known to determine if these meats come from different donors or from different organs of the same donor or from a once-uniform primordial flesh-stone subjected to aeons of geological alchemy.

What is known is that consuming the flesh produced this way is . . . unwise. It will nourish a body, but it will also change it. It is as yet a mystery what the endpoint of this process might be, as the unfortunates subjected to this experiment have all been mercifully dispatched, but no one who knows of this lore thinks it leads anywhere good.

The more dedicated vampire scholars know the nature of the earth from another source - their ancient apocalyptic prophecies, which predict that an eternal vampire kingdom will thrive when the primordial's flesh reverts and fills the seas with blood.

The Rod of Teeth
Ranking among the most infamous of recently-created wands, the Rod of Teeth is abnormally thick for a wand, almost like a small club or baton. It needs the extra girth because it is studded with human teeth of every type - molars, bicuspids, incisors - young and old, from at least a half-dozen different "donors."

The Rod of Teeth can channel the magic of identity. With it, a magician can steal the traits that make a person unique, removing physical imperfections, stealing memories, erasing names from the skein of history. Once removed, these traits can be bestowed upon others, cast into oblivion, or manifested as half-mad wraiths with a hatred for all life.

The Wand of Dreams
The Great Wands are always a little perilous for mortal magicians to wield. Not because they are cursed or trapped, but because the minds of the Creators moved in spirals. Coming at their powers in a straight line can lead you to places you never meant to go.

It is unclear what the original purpose of the Wand of Dreams may have been. Every magician who has ever wielded it has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Yet people are still drawn to its power, for many of its wielders created wonders.

The Wand of Dreams connects a magician directly to the portion of the magical world that corresponds to their own subconscious mind, allowing them to manifest illusions that are, to them, completely real. More disturbingly, they may edit real things out of their personal reality. These things still exist, but cannot affect the wielder in any way.

To onlookers, wielders of the Wand of Dreams look half-magic and half-mad. They will undeniably float through the air while claiming to climb a staircase only they can see or touch. They will act completely nonchalant as an enemy's blows harmlessly glance off them. Everything seems to go their way . . . until the day that it doesn't and they disappear into their own solipsistic pseudo-reality.

The Wand of Shelters
This eccentric wand targets and manipulates personal domiciles. It can raise a cottage from the ground, add or subtract rooms from a house, change the facade of a tenement building or otherwise enact any conceivable architectural change. Though it affects everything from shacks to palaces, it works only on places where people actually live. How and why it does this is a frustrating mystery for serious scholars of magic.

Buildings created or altered with the Wand of Shelters can later be repurposed for other functions, but the Wand will not work if the magician does not use it with the sincere intent to create a home. It also won't work if the magician is deceived about the purpose of the building by an employer or other proxy (though it will work if the person telling the magician about the project has themselves been deceived by some other patron, which scholars agree is just plain weird).

The Wand of Shelters can also create, destroy, or alter items within a home, provided they serve a domestic, decorative, or architectural purpose. It can add new gaslights or toilets, clean carpets, place dishes back into a cabinet or even cook a meal. It could move a piano, but it could not tune it. Nor could it do things like stock an alchemical laboratory or repair a bicycle, just because they happened to be in a home.

The Wand of Shelters can harness the massive energies necessary to turn an asteroid into a cylindrical homestead, but it really must be intended as a new home for some intelligent creature.

Skullshot
While cannons remain Ukss' premier weapons technology, the advanced nations of the Lowlands and the more necromantically inclined city-states of the Bay of Blood (as well as anyone willing to pay any of the above a fortune in trade) have access to a more potent weapon of mass destruction.

Skullshot is made by performing certain dark rituals over a human skull and then coating it in lead. Strictly speaking, the coating is not necessary, but the items thus created are called "Spirit Skulls," and they are never fired out of a cannon - the metal merely keeps the skull from disintegrating in the barrel of the gun. Despite its limited purpose, iron or steel must never be used, as they block the magical energies.

When fired, the skull inside the skullshot breaks apart, releasing the murderous specter trapped inside. For a day and a night following its release, the spirit will rampage indiscriminately, slaying any unfortunate enough to fall beneath its claws.

The skullshot specter is not the ghost or embodied soul of the skull's former owner. Rather, it is a spiritual construct made from the lingering energies of the owner's death. Thus skullshot may be made from the remains of almost any person. Only when the skull's owner was truly at peace in the moment of death does this ritual fail.

Primessence
This glowing, golden liquid is extremely precious . . . and extremely dangerous. It is a catalyst for magic. Nearly any sort magic user, be they magician, adept, or prodigy (but not ritual casters. . . usually) can use Primessence to dramatically boost the power of their spells. And if Primessence were merely a weapon, that alone would justify how tightly it's controlled by the governments of the world.

The most dangerous thing about Primessence, though, is the way it's manufactured. If a small dose of Primessence is injected into a living creature's bloodstream (and it must be a regular creature with a regular circulatory system, the process does not begin until the Primessence is pumped through a beating heart) then the serum initiates a complex alchemical transformation, turning all of the subject's blood into more Primessence.

This is not necessarily fatal, but it is highly upsetting. The victim's blood vessels become visible through their skin as a complex network of light. Any incidental bodily fluids like tears or saliva become luminescent, even if they are not true Primessence themselves. Survivors have described the physical sensation as a mix of cocaine high and being set on fire.

Usually, those injected with Primessence are quickly killed and exsanguinated before their natural magic resistance asserts itself and the Primessence reverts to blood (a process that takes about a day and leaves behind "only" psychological trauma).

Using Primessence safely involves placing small amounts on the palms, eyeballs, tongue, or genitals (depending on the particular magical application) and then immediately casting the spell. It is possible, however, to inject it into your own veins. This is exponentially more "efficient," but it is highly reckless. Each use of magic would burn up a small, but significant portion of your own blood. Magicians have dropped dead after an hour of nearly god-like power.

Most non-magical people who have experienced Primessence poisoning are quickly killed. However in the day or so where they are transformed, they may attempt to use magic. This doesn't really work except in times of extraordinary need (although, if you've been injected with Primessence, it's likely that you're in a pretty bad situation), but assuming that they don't accidentally kill themselves, there's a chance that the magic will stick around, even after the Primessence fades (the cruel calculus here is that the odds of acquiring a new permanent magic talent increases the more a particular effect is used).

The Skindancers
The Yokai forest to the south of the Omphalos Coast has been a potent barrier to human expansion, but there are some humans the Yokai fear. These depraved hunters stalk through the woods, running down any physically manifested Yokai they can find. Any unfortunate enough to be caught are skinned alive so that their murderers might steal their visage. It can take several attempts for a form to "stick" (this mainly depends on the precision of the skinning technique and complex astrological factors of which the Skindancers are currently unaware), but once it does, the Skindancer can take that shape for the rest of their life. The most powerful Skindancers can take up to five forms, though it's unclear whether this is a hard cap or just the limits of the cult's current knowledge.

The Skindancing ritual can be used against humans just as well as Yokai (but not against any animal incapable of speech), but so far the cultists have dared not risk the wrath of human law enforcement. As they become more emboldened by success and drunk on the blood of their victims, this may change.

Sleepteachers
The precursor technology to the Dream Twister, these magically enchanted beds are potent tools of torture and indoctrination, but they also have some benign and even therapeutic uses. When a subject sleeps in a Sleepteacher, they have unusually vivid and memorable dreams. If there is no sorcerer-technician operating the Sleepteacher's controls, these dreams are semi-lucid, but otherwise normal. However with the proper rituals, an overseer may use the Sleepteacher to cause the subject to dream whatever they desire.

Ostensibly, the main use of these devices is rapid education, allowing a dreamer to cram a month's worth of training into a single night. Unofficially, governments often keep several Sleepteachers in the blackest of their black sites, for purposes best left unspoken.

The Magic World
Magic in Ukss functions by connecting the magic wielder with a nearby shadow-realm, known to scholars as the Magic World. The rules of the magic world are not well understood. It seems to have its own forms of space, time, and matter . . . except when it doesn't. The thoughts of creatures in the realm of matter appear to affect the landscape there . . . except when they don't. It is impossible for a mortal creature to enter the magic world and survive . . . except for those that have.

It is a world without near and far. Whose landmarks are idea and whose inhabitants are gods. It is also a source of raw energy, enough to crack mountains or hurl a traveler to the moon. Most magicians come to accept it as a mystery, but the scholars of Ukss have vowed to try and tame it.

Alfar
In the magic world, the term "Alfar" does not describe a race so much as a particular set of material circumstances. There are demon-Alfar and god-Alfar and strange-things-which-have-no-human-name-Alfar.  To earn the title, one must pass through a sacred gate and take a human-like form. They range in power from minor magicians to lesser gods, though unlike the Tainted, they are tied to the specific place or time that allowed them to cross over. They can only exist in places of unusual magic - ancient groves and barrow hills, seasides and salt flats, or among seasonal storms like hurricanes, blizzards, and siroccos. Being inherently ageless, they can stay in the material world for as long as their gateway endures - sometimes just a few hours, but potentially thousands of years.

Alfar are known for their incredible skill in magic. Technically, they are Prodigies of unusual versatility and power, but their way of using magic is very similar to that of wand magicians. So much so, in fact, that many wand wielders will seek out an Alfar to mentor them in the art. If the wand is sufficiently in tune with the Alfar's normal magical themes, the Alfar can master it almost instantly (the Alfar describe it as "writing poetry in a foreign language"). It is rare for an Alfar to gain new powers by wielding a magic wand, but those that do figure prominently in human legends.

The Alfar sometimes honor their best students with Alfar-crafted wands. They are invariably quite powerful, but also extremely idiosyncratic.

Most Alfar will bear strong marks of the gate they passed through to enter Ukss. This shapes their appearance, their powers, and even their attitudes. It is unclear whether passage through the gate changes them or whether only those beings with the proper affinities may pass through any particular gate.

Dark Alfar
The Dark Alfar have an unsavory reputation among humankind, but they are not really "evil" so much as "spooky." They cross into Ukss during the witching hour or, more rarely, during certain portentous astrological conjunctions. They are invisible in darkness and in starlight or moonlight. The touch of the sun will instantly send them back to the magic world in a puff of black smoke, but is otherwise harmless (and does not prevent them from crossing back when the time is again right).

Under artificial light, the Alfar have skin as black as the space between the stars. Hair ranges through a variety of colors, from moon-silver to aurora-green to rich purples and blues that evoke the complex palette of night.

Dark Alfar best love lonely and misunderstood things. They have a special affinity with spiders and even the intelligent predators of Gloomshire will let them pass unmolested. Their favorite season is winter, when the trees no longer hide the sky. They are especially drawn to abused and neglected children. They will whisper in the young ones' ears, inspiring them to act out, run away, or get revenge. If an abuser is strong and well-respected, or otherwise tries to punish the Dark Alfar's charge, they will lure them into the wilderness, never to be seen again.

The Dark Alfar consider themselves friends to humanity, but their ways of expressing it often bring terror and confusion. Wherever they take up residence, sleepers will begin to have vivid nightmares (that bring personal enlightenment or foretell an avoidable disaster), long-buried secrets will bubble to the surface, long-suppressed desires will find sudden and spontaneous expression, and orphans, outcasts, and hermits will receive forbidden tutelage in the arts of witchcraft.

Dust Alfar
These peculiar Alfar cross through the mystic gate that forms when a meticulously planned venture fails spectacularly due to some unforeseeable quirk of chance. They endure until an investigator discovers the particular factor that opened their gate and solves the mystery of the disaster. Some Dust Alfar are hundreds of years old, the circumstances of their arrival lost to history.

Dust Alfar are drawn to magic that manipulates probability and fate, especially if it's used to cheat at games of chance. They seem to disapprove of the use of this magic in general, though they rarely express this disapproval with anything more than a stern scolding. For truly severe cases, or when they need to defend themselves, they have potent magic that can cause any inanimate object to crumble to dust (or even curse other to destroy everything they touch) or age a living creature in the blink of an eye, but they've never been seen to use these abilities frivolously.

They are generally serious, conscientious people with a strong faith in the natural order. They get their name from the cloud of dust and grime that surrounds them at all times. It's unclear, even to the Dust Alfar themselves, whether the dust is attracted to them or whether they subconsciously create it with their powers, but it embarrasses them greatly and offends their orderly sensibilities. The eldest of them believe that their aura exists to keep them humble and focused on correcting the fault that allowed them to enter the world.

The Lonesome Train
Everyone on Ukss hears its call sooner or later. The Lonesome Train. The train that comes for you when it's your time to die. Some have returned from the Station of the Lonesome Train, pulled back to life from the very brink of death, usually through powerful magic. They report an abandoned train station, shrouded in mist, with no audible sound but the distant whistle of their oncoming passage.

No one has ever encountered another soul in the Station of the Lonesome Train, but its anyone's guess whether that holds true for the train itself. No one who has boarded it has ever returned.

The Great Mother
She is the source of all life, the primordial principle that drives all growth and reproduction. She is transformation and there is a mystery at the heart of her. She hungers.

The Great Mother takes the form of an undifferentiated orb of flesh. Her surface ripples as eyes, mouths, and . . . other organs emerge and recede in endless seething tides of adaptation. Size is more or less meaningless in the Magic World, but she grows. Anyone who sees her understands. She is always growing.

The Great Mother requires fathers for her numberless children, but she does not mate in any conventional sense. She consumes. She devours. Anything that touches her skin is enveloped, trapped in a cyst of flesh as it's slowly taken apart to fertilize new hybrids and stranger creations still.

It is said that the Great Mother cannot create life energy on her own, but that her divine magic can make optimal use of any she absorbs. Perhaps as many as two births for every cell in the donor's body, though sometimes she births new gods, made from the interwoven power of a thousand lives.

One need not be male to father a child on the Great Mother. Sometimes sorcerers will call an extrusion of her power into the material world, so that women may donate to her a strand of hair or a drop of blood. The children born this way have a hint of the monstrous about them, but many have created great things from the ashes of their enemies.

The Great Mother is the tutelary deity of Yennin. It is from her that they learned the art of flesh-weaving, and their great champions can all trace their lineage back to her.

The Weaver and her Astral Web
The intelligent spiders of Ukss have stories of the goddess who bestowed upon them the power of speech. They call her The Weaver and say that she has become so set in her ways that she can no longer leave her lair, and thus she spins an elaborate web of refined soul-stuff in order to bring the world to her.

The Weaver is not well-respected among spiders. She is cunning, yes, but she lacks the killing instinct that is what spiders value most about themselves. As their proverb has it, "Prey disturbs the web," and for the Weaver, that is unacceptable. Her Astral Web touches nearly every mind on Ukss, but only lightly. It cannot catch anything as powerful and as willful as a conscious thought, but it does snare dreams and nightmares, ideas that have never been realized, and knowledge stripped of all context.

It is possible, through a specially prepared ritual chamber, covered in the thin, spindly runes of The Weaver's first script, to contact the Astral Web. The sorcerer enters a fugue state and their senses depart their body, attaching themselves to a fine network of threads that rests directly on the border between Ukss and the Magic World. From there, they may travel to any other active ritual chamber or query the Web itself for information about nearly anything (it is good at answering factual questions like "how many people live in Laconia" but terribly confusing when it comes to speculative judgements like "would Laconia beat Sheyaugh in a war?")

Sorcerers may also place their thoughts directly onto the Web, allowing any who ask to hear whatever it is they have to say, even centuries later. Some particularly skilled and malicious travelers may even encode infectious spells into their thought-forms, delayed-action traps which can harm, distract, or even control less savvy visitors.

With the right knowledge, sorcerers can bind dream-stuff into the pattern of their ritual chambers, creating entire fantasy worlds for those who visit them through the Astral Web. These thought-palaces often seem like paradise, but they are no more substantial than any other dream. Some become obsessed with them nonetheless and seek to shut out the real world in its entirety, but these unfortunates are regarded with pity and disdain.

Telepaths can learn to perceive the Astral Web without the need for a chamber, but it is a delicate and difficult discipline that only really works in heavily populated cities. In the wilderness, the Web is too thinly spread for anything less than a dedicated ritual working to contact. The Astral Web does not reach into the Cosmic Sphere at all. Many of the more paranoid Homesteaders have moved there for exactly that reason.

Dream Hacking
This dark art gives all explorers of the Astral Web a bad name. The more staid sorcerers get incredibly defensive when it is brought up. They say that the threat is overblown and that there is at most one Dream Hacker for every hundred honest travelers.

That may well be true, but it mostly just means that the average person's defenses are woefully inadequate.

Normally, the flow of information on the Astral Web always goes in one direction - towards the insatiably curious spider goddess with no particular interest in any specific human being. Without the deliberate effort of a sorcerer, any particular fact or dream fragment is nearly-anonymous, stripped of all but the vaguest of identifying details.

Dream Hackers, however, are experts at collecting these fragments and painstakingly reassembling them. With enough effort, they can assemble a profile of nearly any person connected to the Astral Web (i.e. everyone who does not live in total isolation or the cosmic sphere).

If this were all they did, it would be bad enough. Dream hackers can learn any number of shocking or embarrassing secrets from their studies. But that's not all they can do. Hidden in a person's thought fragments is the key to their dreams. With such keys, they can visit a sleeping mind exactly as if it were an active connection chamber. While they are powerless against anyone who is awake and conscious, inside dreams there is almost no limit to what they can do. Many people, both innocent and guilty, have been driven mad for offending the wrong dream hacker.


The Cosmic Sphere
Though air travel on Ukss is increasingly common, there is a realm above the sky that has barely been explored. Actually ascending into the Cosmic Sphere is not especially difficult. Any form of magical flight that does not rely on air resistance will eventually lift its user beyond the reaches of Ukss' atmosphere. The real difficulties come when the traveler is exposed to the Stellar Medium. Not only is the Stellar Medium airless, it is full of raw magical energy, capable of roasting an unshielded traveler alive or grotesquely mutating one whose wards are only against the heat.

Pure elements will block the worst effects of the Stellar Medium, though most dedicated cosmic explorers prefer to sheathe themselves in elemental air, so that their shelter will also let them breathe.

The rituals to maintain a sufficiently strong elemental pocket are delicate and fickle. They require constant monitoring to maintain their potency. The ritualists who specialize in this work must also be powerful warriors, for there are monsters capable of surviving the Stellar Medium who like to preface their attacks by sabotaging their victims' protection.

Tessers
One of the key challenges to exploring the Cosmic Sphere is the vast distances involved. Ordinary magic can take months or years to fly an explorer between even the nearest celestial bodies. Tessers are gigantic fauna native to the Stellar Medium with the power to slip in and out of the magic world at will, allowing them to traverse truly mind-boggling distances in the blink of an eye.

Tessers resemble a mix between a squid and a mollusk. They have thousands of wire-thin tentacles that can stretch for miles outside their soft, squishy bodies. These tentacles harvest energy directly from the Stellar Medium and convert it into power for the Tesser's massive brain. It's debatable how intelligent a Tesser truly is. Most psychics who have bonded with one say that they have the intelligence and demeanor of a small puppy, but those who have worked with them for extended periods often come to believe that they think deep thoughts on a scale too slow for humans to register.

Tessers will burrow into asteroids, using them as protective shells for decades or centuries until they grow too large and are forced to seek out new homes. Their teleportation abilities are more than strong enough to carry millions of tons of rock and metal with them over celestial distances. This is a fact that has not gone unnoticed among Cosmic explorers. Coaxing tessers into adopting star ships as their temporary shells (given their slow growth, a large enough ship could last a century or more) and then telepathically binding them to magical navigation thrones is the main way to build a vessel capable of traversing the Cosmic Sphere.

 
The Dagger Moon
Looking like nothing so much as a slate-grey arrowhead, the Dagger Moon is among the most accessible of Ukss' celestial bodies. It is a mere 19km across, but orbits so low that it looms as large as the more distant Luna.

Magicians who have visited the Dagger Moon report that it is, incredibly enough, a massive spacefaring vessel, put into orbit a long time ago, by visitors from far, far away. Deciphering its inscriptions, they have determined that the aliens called it a "Superior Star Destroyer," which seems consistent with the thousands of cannons they've found scattered about its surface.

No one has yet figured out a way to enter the interior of the vessel and explorers of the Cosmic Sphere will move rapidly to stop anyone who is appearing to try. Those who know of the Dagger Moon's true nature have nightmares that some reckless or ambitious scavengers will wake it from its quiescence and unleash destruction on a scale Ukss has never seen.

The Celestial Embassy
The greatest spirits of the Magic World, the gods, demon princes, and other primordial powers, have difficulty communicating directly with Ukss. It would be beneath their dignity to enter the Tainted Bargain or pass through a gate to become Alfar, but dreams and omens are too imprecise and too subject to interpretation.

It is for this reason that they created the Celestial Embassy atop the Ascension Tower. This vast, kilometer-tall dome takes advantage of the thinness of the border between the magic world and the Cosmic Sphere to allow greater spirits to project shadows of themselves into the human world (the massive scale of the audience chamber is to accommodate the often surprising bulk of such shadows).

Though technically, only the audience chamber is the true Celestial Embassy, the term has expanded to include the small city that has grown up on the "bottom" (Ukss-ward side) of the dome. Populated by the lesser spiritual entities who may project their entire being through the Stellar Medium, it exists to serve the gods by sorting petitions, judging their worth, and performing the rituals to call the gods to answer the worthiest requests. It is considered neutral ground in the factional conflicts of the magic world and is one of the few places where gods and demons may be found side-by-side without open warfare.

Closest to the diamond cable are the Four Direction Palaces, the only buildings in the Celestial Embassy capable of descending down to Ukss. They are the temporary home of any humans, goblins, and non-spiritual yokai who might be visiting the Embassy. By tradition, three of the Palaces remain at the Embassy, while the fourth lies on the surface of Ukss. In ancient times, when congress between humans and the gods was more common, each of the Palaces was specialized to hear a certain category of petitions, but now, the custom exists mainly to discourage too much mortal traffic at any one time.

Because the Celestial Embassy exists at a stable point over Ukss' surface, it is a major navigational hazard for would-be explorers of the Cosmic Sphere. The god-forged material of the cable and dome are impervious to any normal collision, but that is scant comfort to the sorcerers who can't move quickly enough to avoid getting splattered along their sides.

The Homesteads
There are locations in the Cosmic Sphere that attract miniature worlds. These tiny planetoids range from a few hundred meters to dozens of kilometers across. Most are empty and unexplored, but there are hundreds which have attracted settlement from Ukss, Luna, and stranger places still.

These settlements are small villages, on average, housing two or three dozen families. However some homesteads are the isolated estates of powerful individuals, and a few are magnificent cities, every bit the equal to anything on the other celestial bodies. 

Each homestead requires its own technique to protect its residents from the Stellar Medium. The easiest and most common is to hollow out the asteroid and live in air-filled caverns in the interior. The thick elemental earth serves to act as an effective shield. More sophisticated constructions will smelt the iron out of the rock and spin it into a cylinder that is often several times the length and diameter of the original world. Obscure rituals will create a gravitational pull towards the exterior of the homestead, allowing settlers to build farms, towns, and temples on its interior walls. The most extravagant homesteads eschew the inherent protection of metal and stone and build on the world's surface, relying on thrice-fold runes of binding to capture an envelope of elemental air that leaves the settlement open to the majesty of the cosmic sphere.   

The culture of the Homesteads values privacy above all else. It is the one value they have in common. Most will come to the aid of a neighbor, in the event that they have a life-threatening emergency, but any issue less critical will rarely rouse their attention. Almost without exception, people homestead the cosmic sphere because they seek to do things they can't do on Ukss - like perform strange or forbidden experiments or create new societies that follow a full expression of their ideology or simply hide from hide from their enemies in a place impossible to sneak up on.

One social tradition common to the Homesteads, for the rare occasions when they wish to socialize with their neighbors, is formalized martial arts. Every asteroid has its own signature martial arts style, and it is a common ritual of greeting for guests to challenge their hosts to a friendly sparring match. Every couple of years or so (the calendar has little meaning in the Cosmic Sphere), one of the larger Homesteads will host a grand tournament. Competitors and spectators will travel as much as a month through the interplanetary void to attend. Though for most it is no more than a sport or a means of cultural expression, there are enough genuine masters to make it a spectacle worth seeing. 

Every asteroid homestead was created with powerful magic, but it's not necessarily the case that anyone who calls the Cosmic Sphere home is a potent magician. Many Prodigies are born from exposure to the stellar medium, but even communities where the populace is innately magical may wind up performing their maintenance rituals by rote, without true understanding (when they even remember it all - a few have forgotten entirely that their ancestors have ever called Ukss home). 

Clarin Station
Thirty years ago, Ukss reckoning, the magician Clarin grew disgusted with terrestrial society. He came to the conclusion that the problem with life on Ukss, the reason it had so much war and poverty, was that most people were not blessed with his abundant natural gifts. If only everyone were as intelligent, dispassionate, and magically talented as himself, surely they would work together to create a paradise.

Clarin Station is his attempt to attempt to make that vision a reality. Using specially-built chambers he bought from Yennin, he is able to incubate clones of himself in batches of 50. These artificial wombs predate the Clone ritual, so each "generation" of Clarin-clones are merely infants with his genes, rather than full-fledged physical and mental duplicates, but to Clarin's thinking, this is the superior way. Of course a society made of nothing but himself would flourish, but the point of the experiment is that his powers, distributed evenly among the people, would allow them to thrive even without his specific brilliance.

After raising the first generation himself, Clarin turned the station over to them, to administer how they see fit. Clarin occasionally stops by, to both check in and to rest in the only place in the universe he feels truly at home, but by and large the clones have become accustomed to independence. There are only a half-dozen wands on the station, meaning that the bulk of their natural aptitude for magic has gone to waste, but seeing as how they are more than sufficient to maintain the population's material needs, most of the clones content themselves with exploring science or the arts.

The station as a whole is approximately 500 acres on the interior of a cylinder. It houses fewer than 200 clones, half of which are under 15 years old. Most live in a brick and ivy manor house near the entrance chamber, but a few of the older clones have cottages out in "the country" It is magically cultivated to have a temperate, pastoral atmosphere, with rolling woods-covered hills and small streams that flow in an eternal loop. The clones themselves have an air of the aristocratic natural philosopher. They lack their father's single-minded megalomania, but their upbringing and environment has deeply instilled the idea that they are the universe's most blessed form of life.

Clarin Station practices Hundred-Fist Style martial arts, which emphasizes rapid punches from unexpected directions, and synergizes extremely well with their natural inclination towards teamwork.

Luna
A full celestial body in its own right, Luna possesses a thin, but breathable atmosphere and enough warmth to support sparse native life. Because Luna has less protection from the Stellar Medium, the surface is subject to strange energies that spawn bizarre and powerful Prodigies.

Disembodied eyeballs, the size of ripe pumpkins float through the air, skimming off the psychic energies of the life down below. Sentient Lunar Kelp uses its innate telekinesis to lift its foliage into the air. Contrary to popular belief, it is not carnivorous, but it will brutally attack any animal that threatens its shallow system of roots. Other, stranger creatures live in the crags and crevices of the seemingly barren Lunar landscape, the only thing they have in common that they cannot survive in the lesser ambient magic of Ukss itself.

Victory Station
The self-appointed "Gateway to Luna," Victory Station is the largest and most cosmopolitan homestead within easy reach of Ukss itself. A massive construct of wood and glass, it resembles a small city built within a giant train station. It is roughly cylindrical in shape and open at both ends to allow space vessels to dock in the massive shipyards that take up the middle third of the station, but unlike a true cylindrical homestead, gravity pulls in only one direction, towards the local "ground." Victory Station is protected from the Stellar Medium by an envelope of elemental air that extends for more than a hundred meters past its exterior walls.

Victory Station is run by the consortium of Sorcerers who built it. Despite the immensely profitable trade and industry that comes with this control (more than half of all space vessels currently in service were built here), no one dares challenge them. Every day this improbable place stays in operation is an extravagant display of the level of magic that would be turned against any usurpers.

The people of Victory Station have a very stiff and formal style of boxing that draws derision from outsiders . . . until they're on the receiving end of a sledgehammer-force punch. 

The Lunar College of Prophets
Located in the balmy equatorial regions of the Sea of TBD, The College of Prophets is an organization that seeks to gather all true seers under its umbrella, so that they might use their powers for the advancement of all humanity. The College accepts anyone who can magically foresee the future, regardless of whether they Prodigies, Adepts, or Magicians.  Even Yokai are welcome to join, provided they are of good will and honest intentions (in fact, College doctrine declares that Yokai must be included in their definition of humanity so long as they are not inherently and irredeemably creatures of malice - and even then there's always hope).

The College helps prospective seers hone their talents, though many find their tutelage frustrating and vague. There is no formal hierarchy and no official teachers or students. Rather, everyone is both. As they are fond of saying, "you never leave the school, the universe is our classroom." This ethos of equality and humility is fostered in the College's members to try and keep them from setting themselves up as humanity's rulers. Many of the more devoted students will renounce all material wealth and national citizenship and come to live at the College full time.

Those who seek out the Prophets' help often find themselves stymied by their seeming lack of urgency and indirect way of addressing requests. Yet the College exists precisely to turn vague prophecies into real benefits for humanity, and they are experts on tugging lightly at the strings of destiny.

The only thing that really seems to rile up the notoriously imperturbable prophets is when they learn of a true seer who abuses the gift of prophecy to exploit or manipulate the unsighted. Rumor has it that the College maintains an elite squad of psychic assassins to deal with such troublemakers, though, of course, if such a group exists, no one has ever been able to find evidence of its existence.

The College is a largely pacifist organization, but they do practice Crane Style martial arts as a form of meditation. 

The Cult of Ecstasy
Though they operate primarily on Ukss, the Cult of Ecstasy began as an offshoot of the Lunar College of Prophets. These renegade seers believe the College's project is not only doomed to failure, but also that it must inevitably infringe on humanity's free will. As a result, they seek chaos in all things, hoping to muddy the chains of cause and effect so much that the future becomes impossible to see.

The leaders of the College take no direct action against the Cult, saying only that "they are on their own path." The younger seers are not quite so sanguine, however. Though both organizations are avowedly non-violent, there exists something of a cold war between the two groups. The Cult is constantly trying to monkey-wrench the College as a matter of principle, and occasionally groups of young College hotheads will visit Ukss against the advice of their elders to return the favor.

The Cult uses a variety of methods (such as sex, drugs, and loud music) to overwhelm the physical sense and achieve spiritual clarity. They use the insights of their prophecies to find nexus points in destiny and then work to complicate these situations as much as possible (without violating their own oaths to respect the sanctity of human freedom).

The Cult of Ecstasy practices drunken fist style martial arts.

The Living Island
There is a small island almost perfectly centered in the middle of the Sea of TBD, at Luna's warmest, wettest point. Unlike most of the moon's surface, life thrives here, even if the magic has made it . . . strange.

Though there are many animals on The Living Island, none are predators and none are prey. They eat only fruit, and never living bark, leaves, or seeds. Similarly, the Island is lush with blue-tinted foliage, but the broad-leafed trees do not compete for sunlight. On the rare occasions when one drops a seed, it will be picked up by a bird and gently deposited on a bare spot of ground. Animals will come from all over the island to fertilize it with their leavings, not one daring to disturb its germination.

Everything on The Living Island acts with the same singular purpose. They are all connected, joined by psychic bonds carried through the magic-rich air of the Lunar surface. Explorers who've studied the island have so far been unable to locate its controlling mind. Some say it's in the plants, others in the animals, a few even say it's in the rock itself. The best guess is that it's all of the above, a collective mind, acting in perfect concert, to create a paradise for its constituent organisms.

The growth of The Living Island is limited by the boundaries of the sea. Its trees will not take root on the mainland, and any animal removed from it will sicken and die before it reaches the nearest shore. In all likelihood, they have adapted to require the Island's psychic energies as part of their normal metabolism. Moving a significant portion of the Island all in one trip might suffice to create an offspring colony, but freed of its geographic limitations, it would probably overwhelm any world it was transplanted to.

The Living Island is hostile to most visitors, though a few Lunar seafarers know a ritual that will trick the Island into thinking the caster is part of its collective. This ritual is completely safe to use . . . unless you are a rare psychic prodigy who has not yet mastered the art of mental shielding. Then the ritual will serve to open your mind to the collective in truth.

Aetheria
This distant gas giant is visible as a pale, yellowish-white dot in Ukss' southern hemisphere. Even with powerful travel rituals an explorer without a tesser will take at least a decade to reach it. Up close, it is a very pleasant lemon-cream color, with bands of clouds ranging from pure white to tan.

The depths of Aetheria are as hellishly wind-swept as you'd expect any gas giant to be, but in the upper layer of the atmosphere, at roughly the same altitude as its fluffy white clouds (give or take a few thousand meters), there are hundreds of magically floating continents. Born aloft by some inherent magic in the stone, they are perfectly suitable for human life. The temperature ranges from crisp to toasty, though it can get positively frigid in the higher altitude continents. Presumably, they also get sweltering down in the lower altitudes, but for some reason, any continent that sinks below a certain level can no longer maintain its lift and inevitably crashes into Aetheria's core.

Air pressure and gravity are roughly the same on the continents as they are on Ukss' sea level. There is a persistent stiff breeze almost anywhere that is not sheltered from the East, and these winds can sometimes elevate into dangerous gales, but strangely, extreme weather events like tornadoes and hurricanes are rarer than they are on Ukss.

Human civilization thrives on Aetheria, though there are deep cultural divisions between the two major "waves" of human settlement. The more recent arrivals descend from a colony established by the Republic of Mu about 100 years ago that was cut off from Ukss-side control during the height of the Prism Wars. They are stereotypically high-tech and imperious.

The "native" Aetherians are descended from various ancient expeditions and the wide range of human magicians who have visited the planet over the millennia. They are too culturally diverse to classify, but by and large they do not have the technology to resist the newcomers.

Aetheria has a dizzying variety of native flora and fauna. Between the various continents, it has almost 100 times the land area of Ukss and strange creatures have evolved in lands never before seen by human eyes.

A dangerous, but lucrative industry on Aetheria is cloud-mining. Traditionally, this is done by using tree-trunk thick ropes to lower huge baskets containing up to 30 workers from the floating continents to the alchemically rich yellow cloud layer. Needless to say, casualties on these trips are massive. In recent years, the Mu-descended peoples have taken to using increasingly-large airplanes. These are scarcely more reliable, but their mechanical harvesting tanks allow a much greater yield per worker.

The gasses harvested from Aetheria have a variety of magical and industrial uses. The most valuable is called by locals "The Seven Year Condensate," because while it has the miraculous ability to extend life, it is so dangerous to acquire that they say the workers lose seven years of life for every one gained by the user.

The Crystal Cities
 The first Human explorers to reach Aetheria discovered these curious, yet elegant homesteads already in orbit around the mighty gas giant. They could only speculate who built them, as the original architects had long vanished.

Since then, the Crystal Cities have become home to a thriving culture of squatters, pirates, and magicians. Some will trade with the gas miners on Aetheria, acting as transshipment ports for alchemical substances of great value throughout the Cosmic Sphere. Others are devoted to pure research, with scholars trying to learn as much as possible about their alien builders. Most, however, are havens for the stranded. People who lack the means to return to Ukss, but for whatever reason cannot or will not dare the descent to Aetheria's floating continents.

There are 12 known Crystal Cities, ranging in size from 1km to 15km and housing populations as high as 3 million souls. Thanks to the magic of their ancient creators, they are self-sustaining. There are no wards or seals that any human magic can identify, the waste-water pools into purifying reservoirs, and there are long galleries near their exteriors where the crystal is clear enough to act as a greenhouse.

The Crystal Cities all exhibit 3-dimensional symmetry and are so uniform in their layout that most humans find them difficult to navigate. Colored paints and cloths are prized imports, both from Aetheria and Ukss itself. Not only do they allow for the marking of passages, they help offset the near-blinding luster of the walls, ceiling, and floors. The scientific outposts preserve the original white color, but even they mark passages with color-coded ropes and flags.