Monday, February 27, 2012

Bestiarum vocabulum - T'lan Imass

Here’s another monster from the Malazan Book of the Fallen, adapted (again) without any regard to cannon sources (particularly because I’m still reading Reaper’s Gale). So, this take on the T’lan Imass is based on my impressions from the first books – mainly Gardens of the Moon and Memories of Ice – besides my ideas on how they should integrate with Pathfinder.

T’lan Imass are one of my favorite aspects of the Malazan universe. They were the first thing that really hooked me in the novels – undead armies created by a Stone Age proto-human culture, bound to the command to whomever possess a mythical artifact (the mysterious First Throne that Emperor Kellenvand found). It’s a cool idea, especially if you consider the personality given by Erikson to the Imass characters – like Tool (in the first book).

The T’lan are also a perfect example of the scale of these novels – they’re things created around 300.000 years ago. Erikson not only mixes Sword & Sorcery with High Fantasy, but also takes High Fantasy’ traditional “biblical ages” (worlds with 5.000 or 10.000 years) and skyrocket it to historical and geological levels. In the Malazan novels, the Elder Races are really “elder” things and the various ages between conflicts easily reach hundreds of thousands of year (if not millions or more, if you take the Tiste races and the K'Chain Che'Malle).

T’lan Imass


"Tell me, Tool, what dominates your thoughts?"

The Imass shrugged before replying, "I think of futility, Adjunct."

"Do all Imass think about futility?"

"No. Few think at all."

"Why is that?"

The Imass leaned his head to one side and regarded her. "Because, Adjunct, it is futile".


-          Tool and Adjunct Lorn, Gardens of the Moon

T’lan Imass                                                                                      CR 10 (9.600 XP)
T’lan Neanderthal Barbarian 8
CN Medium undead (augmented humanoid)
Init +6; Senses low-light vision, darkvision 60ft.
Aura elder magic (30 ft., DC 25)

AC 22, touch 14, flat-footed 13 (+5 natural, +2 Dex, +5 hide armor +1)
HD 96 (8d12+44)
Fort +10, Ref +4, Will +5 (+7 against illusions and enchantments)
DR 10/magic and bludgeoning; DR 1/--
Immune electricity, fire and undead traits; Resist cold and sonic 10; SR see aura

Speed 30 ft. (20 ft. in armor)
Melee 3 orc-bane greatsword +20/+15 (2d6+13, plus 2d6 fire) or slam +16/+11 (1d6+8, plus 1d6 fire)
Special Attack Fires of Tellann, Hatred (orcs and ogres), Rage (21 rounds)
Rage Power Guarded Stance, Intimidating Glare, Knockback, Clear Mind

Str 26, Dex 14, Con -, Int 9, Wis 16, Cha 18
Base Atk +8; CMB +16; CMD 28
Feats Improved Bullrush, Improved Initiative (B), Power Attack (B), Toughness (B), Weapon Focus (greatsword), Vital Strike
Skills Acrobatics +9, Intimidate +19, Knowledge (Geography) +5, Knowledge (History) +4, Knowledge (Nature) +5, Knowledge (Religion) +4, Perception +8, Stealth +11, Survival +7, Swim +11
Languages Imass and Common
Special Qualities Dust to Dust, Fast Movement, Forged by Tellann, Hardy, Improved Uncanny Dodge, Mental Fortitude, Trap Sense +2

Environment any
Organization solitary, unit (3-5) or army (500+)
Treasure none


T’lan Imass resemble zombies or even skeletons with parchment-like skins, dressed in tattered armors made of the hide and bones of creatures that were dead long before the first human empires were raised. They traditional use leather horned helms and moldy fur cloaks, using as weapons spears, javelins and protoswords made of stone (however, these primitive items are lethal in their hands, besides being usually enchanted).

The T’lan Imass are an ancient race of humanoids, perhaps the original people from which today’s myriad of human cultures and races came (some sages include in this roll halflings and even ogres). Very little is known about the Imass. In fact, if not for the existence of the T’lan Imass nothing would be known.

The T’lan Imass – when one of these silent creatures can be made to talk – allude that an ancient oath, ritual or sacrifice, made by their entire race to escape from the tyrannical clutches of a vastly older race of evil Sorcerer Kings. After this massive dweomer or pact was establish, the Imass were no more, and the undead T’lan Imass came into being. They probably were the world’s first humanoid undeads. Forming huge armies or hordes, the T’lan advanced against their nemesis, driving them to extinction (at least according to them).

After the last Sorcerer King was killed – still during the world’s Antiquity – the T’lan armies dissolved and disappeared, quickly becoming the subject of myth. Once or twice lonely T’lan Imass were seen, sometimes a few more. Sages claimed that these were probably “renegade” T’lan – whatever that means. From these individuals came what little is known about this race. That the T’lan armies still exist and that they’re still hunting the last Sorcerer Kings. That there are arguments among the T’lan leaders about the “taint of Jaghut” and talk of marching against races like orcs, half-orcs and even humans. A more sinister legend tells of an old human emperor who managed to control one entire T’lan army through an ancient artifact known as the First Throne. Finally, there’s a story of a T’lan Imass renegade Bonecaster (their oracles) searching for a “lift” of the race’s curse.


"T’lan" is an acquired template that can be added to any living humanoid creature with 5 or more Hit Dice (referred to hereafter as the base creature) and human blood. Most T’lan were once Imass (see below). A T’lan uses the base creature's statistics and abilities except as noted here.

CR: Same as base creature +2.
Type: The T’lan’s type changes to undead (augmented, but see below). Do not recalculate class Hit Dice, BAB, or saves.
Senses: A T’lan gains darkvision 60 ft.
Aura: A T’lan emanates the following aura.

Elder Magic (Su)

A T’lan emanates is surrounded by a 30ft. radius aura of elder magic. This aura is sensed by detect magic as overwhelming and is treated as an effect with a caster level of 15 + the T’lan augmented CR. It can, however, be surpassed by antimagic field.
This aura nullifies all spells and spell-like abilities indiscriminately (it can’t be surpassed). To activate a spell-like ability or to cast a spell, a creature must succeed at a caster level check (DC equal to the T’lan augmented CR + 15).

Armor Class: Natural armor improves by +4.
Hit Dice: Change all racial Hit Dice to d8s. Class Hit Dice are unaffected. As an undead, a T’lan uses its Charisma modifier to determine bonus hit points.
Defensive Abilities: A T’lan gains channel resistance +6; DR 10/magic and bludgeoning; and immunity to fire and electricity. They have resistance 10 against cold and sonic.
Attacks: A T’lan gains a slam attack if the base creature didn't have one. Damage for the slam depends on the T’lan's size.
Special Attacks: A T’lan gains the following special attacks. Save DCs are equal to 10 + 1/2 the T’lan's HD + the T’lan's Charisma modifier unless otherwise noted.

Fires of Tellann (Su)

A T’lan Imass’ natural, melee and ranged attacks are imbued with their elder Tellann magic. They ignore all types of DR, except when the type of damage requires is unnamed, adamantine or epic.
Any weapon a T’lan wields seethes with this Elder Fire, and deals an additional 1d6 points of fire damage for every 4 Hit Dice the T’lan has. Creatures healed by negative energy suffer 50% more damage.
Finally, every time a T’lan Imass hits and damage a foe, his Tellann magic unravels any dweomer affecting the target. Treat this as a targeted dispel magic cast by a caster of a level equal to the T’lan Imass’ HD. This last ability doesn’t work against creatures with a caster level higher than 20th, because they also channel Elder Magic.

Special Qualities: A T’lan gains the following.

Forged by Tellann (Ex)

T’lan are undead powered by the primordial force of Tellann, which may be another name to positive energy. T’lan are immune to fire damage and are healed by positive energy and damaged by negative energy. Except for this, they retain all traits of undead creatures.

Dust to Dust (Su)

T’lan Imass can let their eons-old forms crumble to dust as a move action. While in this form they can’t communicate, attack or execute any action besides moving and using their senses. They can fly with a Speed of 60 feet (Perfect). T’lan Imass commonly use this ability for long-distance movement, covering 300 miles in an 8-hour period of flight.
While in dust form, they’re invulnerable to damage from targeted effects and suffer only ¼ damage from area effects. They also gain a +10 bonus to Stealth checks and pass through even the smallest cracks.
Reassuming their form requires a full-round action and solid ground.

Human’s Forebearers (Ex)

T’lan Imass are treated for all effects as humans.

Ability Scores: Str +8, Wis +4, Cha +4. As an undead creature, a T’lan has no Constitution score.
Skills: T’lans gain a +8 racial bonus on Intimidate and Perception checks.
Feats: T’lans gain Improved Initiative, Power Attack and Toughness as bonus feats.

The Imass
I always saw the Imass as a type of Neanderthal-like race – the forebearers of the human race. You can use this information for creating living Imass – I just suggest that you change Hatred, limiting the Imass’ bonus to ogres and orcs. Actually, these stats are quite strong. If you add Powerful Build you could easily create a Barghast.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Augury – Dragon Empires Gazetteer

The Dragon Empires Gazetteer gives us a first taste of Oriental Golarion – Tian Xia – and act as a support book to the Jade Regent Adventure Path. Oriental fantasy settings are a polemic topic – some people are simply obsessed with them; others hate the intrusion of any non-European element in their fantasy campaigns; while a few find them grotesque caricatures of ancient Asian legends. One of Golarion’s selling points is the “New Old World” – a traditional fantasy setting seen through new eyes. A strong part of Paizo’s setting is its homage to the hobby’s pulp elements (or even to famous old modules, like the country of Numeria, designed in the vein of Temple of the Frog and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks). Doing something “pulpish” with oriental fantasy (if there’s such a thing) is definitely harder. Paizo’s sources are thus reduced to Asian and Pacific literature, myths and history (besides cinema and pop culture). Let’s see how they accomplished this without simply resorting to the old “this is Japan with a new name”, “this is China with a new name” etc.

Dragon Empires Gazetteer starts in the right track with an “oriental” Appendix N. The authors’ sincerity about their inspiration’s sources is appreciated and makes for a nice introduction.

Next are the new races, probably the Gazetteer’s biggest selling point for players. Following Golarion’s pulp style, we’re given the description of the human races/cultures of Tian Xia – Tian-Dans, Tian-Dtangs, Tian-Hwans, Tian-Las, Tian-Mins, Tian-Shus and Tian-Sings. I don’t know Asian’s history and geography so I’m quite lost with the references here. There’re also short texts about the presence of Western races at Tian Xia. Finally, we get the new races: kitsune, nagaji, samsaran, tengu and wayang.

Kitsune are fox humanoids based on the famous Japanese legend and are probably widely known by most players and Gamemasters these days. They can shapechange and summon dancing lights, filling a social and trickster role.

Nagaji are totally new. They’re a warrior servitor race of the naga empire of old. Nagaji are thick reptilian humanoids, besides being tough, orderly and good candidates for sorcerers, making for a unique concept.

Samsarans are humanoids with pale blue skin, solid white eyes with no pupil or iris, and dark hair. Their blood is crystal clear, “like the water of a pure mountain spring”. They’re born from humans but remember flashes from their previous incarnations. They’re a great concept and have probably the best flavor among the new races, however I believe that they’re poorly represented in Tian Xia (although they do get a country) and should have been left for a future Impossible Kingdoms Gazetteer (the India-like realms of Golarion). Their art and themes in a certain way remind me the Deva race, from D&D 4th.

Tengu are old acquaintances of D&D (and Pathfinder) – a race of roguish crow-headed humanoids (wingless). I admit that I never liked Tengu much. They seem to me a poor take on a much cooler legend. However, Kobold Quarterly did an amazing job on the Tengu, on issue 14.

Wayangs are another completely new race occupying the same niche of Gnomes. While Gnomes (in Golarion) come from the bright and mad First World (demesne of the fey), the Wayang came from the Plane of Shadow. They have the most interesting race mechanic (the Light and Dark ability) but, except for their cool looks and origin, wayangs are, unfortunate, just “Shadow Gnomes” (coincidentally a concept already done in the excellent Nyambe).

After these initial 14 pages, we finally get to the Gazetteer’s heart – the one page description of Tian Xian’s nations and regions. Before that there’s a short timeline with the important events of the Orient. In the West, Aroden’s death marked the last age; in the East, this is represented by the collapse of the colossal Lung Wa Empire.

Ok, time to check the new stuff.

We have a “western nation in the east” in the form of Amanandar, created when the Eighth Army of Exploration (from the Taldor Empire) landed on the coast of Tian Xia, at Shenmen, during the chaos of Lung Wa’s fall. The Taldorans reestablished order and founded this small nation. It’s a cool concept and probably the last thing that the players expect.

On the silly side we have a nation of elven samurai – Jinin. Yeah, your heard it right, elven samurai. I’m completely fine with those that like the idea, but personally I just can’t stand it. It’s stupid, it doesn’t’ make sense and smells too much of fan service for me. On the other hand, we have Shokuro, Land of Exiled Samurai, which fulfils the same “bad-ass samurai” concept, but with a vastly better presentation.

Tian Xia has a medieval North Korea (Bachuan), a Hong Kong (Goka) and Mongol steppes (Hongal). There details on the various successor-states of Lung Wa, like the Empire of Minkai (ruled by the Jade Regent) and the oracular-ruled nation of Po Li.  Tian Xia also has a region with lots of potential for PC-ruled dominions – the Wandering Isles of Minata. One of my favorite nations is Quain, Land of a Thousand Heroes – this is the kung-fu/wuxia country.

On the fantasy side we have places like an oni-ruled country, a realm ruled by sorcerer bloodlines (finally!), a very cool hobgoblin kingdom (idem), the forbidden jungle empire of the naga, a cursed land ruled by demon-spiders, a Tengu nation and the best implementation of aasimars that I’ve seen so far (Tianjing, Beloved to the Heavens).

There are certain oriental elements that are too cool to let pass, so, obviously, we have a nation with an army of terra-cota warriors (controlled by the ghost of fallen soldiers).

The Dragon Empires Gazetteer also describes Tian Xia’s Darklands and the local wilds (like the kami-ruled Forest of Spirits, clockwork-controlled caves, the exotic desert of Shaguang, the Valashmai Jungle and the Wall of Heaven).

Talking about names, the championship goes to Wanshou, for its “Post-Apocalyptic Kraken-Ruled Swampland”.  Pure awesome! Only Numeria, “The Land of Superscience”, beats this one.

Ironically, only one nation in the entire of Tian Xia can be called a true “Dragon Empire” – the realm of Xa Hoi, ruled by a dynasty of imperial dragons. It’s a great concept, fully in line with Golarion’s flavor, and I wished it was better explored (perhaps linking it with sorcerer noble houses).

The Dragon Empires Gazetteer also dedicates a few pages to its Lost Empires (my favorites are the pulpish Taumata and Valashai), languages, society, calendar, organizations, philosophies and deities (I wish there’re more new divinities). The book has two beautiful color maps (one showing the political/regional divisions).

Dragon Empires Gazetteer holds a lot of potential. It hearkens back to the Kara-Tur approach (instead of the limited setting of Rokugan, used during D&D 3rd), but with a broader scope. There’re nations that don’t inspire much (like Bachuan and Jinin), but that can be better developed in the future books. For D&D and Pathfinder players, the Gazetteers is undoubtedly the best resource on print for oriental fantasy lands. Unlike Golarion’s western lands, Tian Xia is a more traditional setting (which can be good or bad) – you don’t have strong-themed nations living side by side, like a “Horror-movie country” (Ustalav), a “Demon-tainted land” (Wourldwound) and a “Science Fantasy realm” (my beloved Numeria). Because of this, Tian Xia is a lot more user-friendly for Gamemaster seeking oriental realms to use in their home campaigns.

These critter should've appeared more.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Still the best campaign setting

I’m slowly reading all of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar cycle. It’s something that I should have done a long time ago, but I only managed to track the books last year (in this case, the Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterwork Omnibus editions). Last week I read Adept’s Gambit, probably Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser’s weirdest tale as it takes place on Earth, in Seleucid ruled Tyre. It’s a real change of pace to their most common’s stories but it’s an excellent one, filled with its own unique flavor and good times (and probably the best portrayal of Ninguable of the Seven Eyes).

Adept’s Gambit is likely an earlier incarnation of the famous characters – maybe written originally as adventurers of the real world’s Antiquity, traveling through the ruins of Alexander’s fragmented empire. I don’t know. It’s the first story of the Twain written by Leiber and it carries a strange mix of Lovecraftian horror (or references to it) mingled with Leiber’s  clever dark humor.

It’s hinted in the tale that, thanks to their wizardly patron, Fafrhd and the Grey Mouser could be (or had been) sent to adventure in the future or past ages; so one could argue that Leiber was thinking on the possibilities of future stories set – maybe – during the Medieval Age or even the Renaissance.

Anyway, that’s not point of this post. THIS is the point – for me – of Adept’s Gambit:

Had it ended here, two weeks would have seen Fafhrd claiming that the incident of the wine shop was merely  a drunken dream that had been  dreamed by more than one – a kind of coincidence with which he was by no means unfamiliar. But it did not. After the ‘business’ (which turned out to be much more complicated than had been anticipated, evolving from a simple affair of Sidonian smugglers into a glittering intrigue studded with Cilician pirates, a kidnapped Cappadocian princess, a forged letter of credit on a Syracusan financier, a bargain with a female Cyprian slave-dealer, rendezvous that into an ambush, some priceless tomb-filched Egyptian jewels that no one ever saw, and a band of Idumean brigands who came galloping out of the desert to upset everyone’s calculations)…

The incident mentioned above is a strange curse whereby any unfortunate lady kissed by Fafhrd was polymorphed into a swine. There’re also funny remarks to similar curses “in the annals of magic and thaumaturgy” about an “…Assyrian warlord whose paramour was changed into a spider between the sheets, an a impetuous Ethiop who found himself hoisted several yards into the air and kissing a giraffe…”.

This richness of references to some of the various cultures that existed at the time; that meet and traded in that region of the Mediterranean is – for me – incredibly fascinating. It reminds me of the potential for weird and heroic adventures – in the best D&D style – that can so easily be ported to our Earth without the (each time harder) prospect of creating analog/mixed cultures that are there just to mask some cool legend or myth from our own world.

Of course, Leiber could easily have swapped the names, like most fantasy authors (and he eventually does that with his future stories), replacing, for example, our ‘impetuous Ethiop’ with ‘impetuous Kleshite’, but he kept that tale’s setting in our old real world. He not only kept it, but he made Seleucid Tyre cool – an a perfect place for adventure.

The thing is that our world’s history (and legends, folklores etc.) is a lot more exciting and interesting than most fantasy settings out there. It’s ironic that few authors (both of literature and RPG books) manage to transmit how easy and user-friendly our ancient Earth can be for fantasy campaigns.

The most common barrier mentioned is that Earth’s history and myth are just too detailed and extensive for the common Gamemaster to use. This is the same bullshit that people keep saying for running away of settings like Middle-Earth and Tekumel.

The second reason is the natural fear of every Gamemaster of looking unprepared in the face of his players. Using old Tyre (or Byzantium, or Rome etc.) can be daunting if one of the players at the table has a History Major (with a specialization on the Alexandrian Era!) or is a History hobbyist. Again, the argument is balderdash. I have players that know a lot more of Forgotten Realms or Dragonlance than I do, but when I’m running my campaigns in these settings they are my Faerun and my Krynn – and I let that quite clear to my players (before the game starts; as this is also important). It’s a part of the social contract at my table. This same rule should hold for Earth-based campaigns.

Finally, the argument that there is simply “too much stuff to read” should be actually taken on reverse: as a bonus! – you have tons of “free scenario supplements”. Take the elements that you need for your game and kick the rest out. The key here is explaining that to your players. You’re not giving a History class – especially if you’re using Circe-like curses on Tyrian taverns; you’re just running a game. While approaching these games it’s important to establish to your group that you’re not aiming for accuracy, but for flavor (although nothing really forbids your group from creating a campaign with a level of detail and minutiae like The Name of the Rose).

A good place to start – at least for me – is with the famous GURPS supplements (like GURPS Middle Ages), the AD&D 2nd Edition “green” books (like A Mighty Fortress) and the excellent Military History Books of Osprey Publishing. All of these aren’t probably totally accurate (most “serious” History books aren’t), but they are easy to read and have tons of good information for a Gamemaster starting a Historical game.

Going back to the “seek the flavor, not the facts” part, Adept’s Gambit is (again) a wonderful example of real places and ‘historical’ myths mixed with a lot of sword & sorcery tropes – like the Twain’s encounter with Ninguable in his multidimensional cave and their quests for items like Socrates’ Cup and the powdered mummy of the Demon Pharaoh. There are even Viking-like references to Odin, something that may be a little too early for Seleucid Tyre (though this is pure a guess of mine).

Leiber reminds us that creating new stuff even for our old Earth’s mythos can be as fun as elaborating pantheons for far fantasy worlds. Take this expert (also from Adept’s):

After Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser emerged from the Bottomless Caves into the blinding upper sunlight, their trial for a space becomes dim. Material relating to them has, on the whole, been scanted by annalists, since they were heroes too disreputable for classic myth, too cryptically independent ever to let themselves be tied to a folk, to shifty and improbable in their adventurings to please the historian, too often involved with a riffraff of dubious demons, unfrocked sorcerors, and discredited deities – a veritable underworld of the supernatural.

If there’s any orderly way of summarizing what I’m trying to say with this post, it’s idea expressed by the words above. [Damn!, just by reading them I want to create an entire campaign on Earth where the heroes are low-lives of the “supernatural underworld”, dealing with all kind of weird and left-out deities and spirits that live at the borders of classic myths. Perfect for a grim-n-gritty sword & sorcery game mixed with History.]

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Tower of the Mind Lord is open!

For those searching new blogs to read I can’t recommend enough Steve Winter’s Howling Tower. Steve Winter is a living legend of the hobby as he has worked for TSR, and later Wizards of the Coast, from 1981 to December of 2011. That’s a lot ground and it’s hard to find another professional with such experience and –most important – insights at the industry (and D&D).

Steve Winter is also – for me – the ultimate Psionic Dark Lord. For all its criticism and possible mechanical issues, the Complete Psionics Handbook, for AD&D 2nd, was my gateway into psionics, besides been a book responsible for hours of entertaining – both at the table and as reading material. The Complete Psionics Handbook felt as something new and completely different from anything I had read before and it’s still a book that I read from time to time.

I look forward to Steve Winter’s material and insights. His posts on Attack Bonus are a good preview of the material that I hope to read at the Howling Tower.