Friday, December 31, 2010

Humanspace Empires

In the early 21st century “Western Civilization" and the nations of Terra are obliterated by the Atomic Armageddon. Over thousands of years, the surviving peoples of Earth rebuild a technological civilization atop the radioactive ashes. Humankind again reaches for the stars and eventually encounters an advanced insectoid race near the star Procyon. This ancient alien race, the Pé Chói, gifts the peoples of Earth with the Three Light Drive and many other wondrous devices, and accepts the Terrans as members of interstellar society.

The human space age is now fifty thousand years old. Humanity has spread across hundreds of light years of space; stellar empires have risen, endured for millennia, and fallen. The migrations and imperial expansions have ebbed and flowed, resulting from wars, commerce, religious impetus, and other mysterious compulsions. Countless alien species have been contacted, some have become friends and trading partners, some have been enslaved or decimated, and others persist as inimical foes of man across galactic space. Thousands of worlds have been colonized; colonies have been lost in deep space and developed strange new civilizations and even pocket star empires in the Beyond, the fringes of Humanspace.

The year 62000 AD is the 6071st year of the Great Humanspace Empire and the 833rd year of the Dynasty of the Veritable Autocrator. Mankind and its alien allies have reached a state of unprecedented technological advancement. Starships cross vast distances in days by travelling between dimensions, trade routes thread space like capillaries in living tissue, computers, androids and robots are built with advanced positronic brains, molecular machines reshape matter and interplanar power is tapped to transform worlds and even stars. Still, it is not a time of tranquility and ease. Some feel that the Great Star Empire is crumbling under the weight of its bureaucratic and authoritarian excesses and its decadence; human and alien foes of the empire are emboldened and active across the Orion Spur. Others know that the greatest threats lie in the unknown regions of deep and inter-dimensional space.

Anyone familiar with the background of the various Tékumel games will recognize this as history of the great spacefaring ancients that terraformed and settled that world. There are few canonical details for this period which makes it particularly appealing as a setting for an old school space opera campaign.

Many of the alien races, both friends and enemies of man, are known, as they survived on Tékumel into the time of the Empire of the Petal Throne. Sources indicate; however, that numerous other alien species and star empires were known to man prior to the inter-dimensional disaster that isolated Tékumel within its own pocket universe. Hints of the technological level of the ancient Humanspace Empire are also present in the artifacts that remain; lightning guns, “the weapon without answer,” eyes, the spaceships on the Plain of Towers, androids, tubecars, etc. It is clear that the Ancients possessed almost unimaginable power; terraforming, FTL travel, control of inter-dimensional energies, and genetic manipulation.

The inspiration for such a science fantasy campaign setting also stems from pulp sci-fi of the first half of the 20th century, likely the same sources that originally influenced Professor Barker. I’m thinking rayguns, needle shaped spaceships, odd headgear, and alien monsters. It is also important to note that the one world empire that arose on Earth after the atomic apocalypse was dominated by groups from Meso-America, India, and the Arabian Peninsula; indicating, that a pulpy “orientalist” and exotic flavor might be appropriate.

I will be developing this setting further in subsequent posts and would like to publish a free* sourcebook of some type prior to the end of the world around 2012-2013.  I’m definitely looking for ideas, contributors, and perhaps artists, as time is running out…

Of course as this is an entirely non-commercial fan project, I don’t anticipate being able to pay for any contributions.

*Tékumel and its related products and materials are copyright © 1975 and 2010 by Prof. M.A.R. Barker.
This work is not intended in any way to infringe upon that copyright or other intellectual property rights of Prof. M.A.R. Barker.

Public domain illustration above appeared uncredited in WEIRD TALES  March, 1947  Vol. 39, No. 10.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Unknown Gods

As previously noted the Petty Gods book is envisioned as a tribute to Judges Guild’s The Unknown Gods, published in 1980; written by Bob Bledsaw, Mark Holmer, Paul Jaquays, and Mike Petrowsky; and illustrated by Paul Jayquays and Sheryl England. The Unknown Gods was essentially an alternative to Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods, & Heroes containing D &D stats, descriptions, and illustrations of 83 original fantasy gods including Margonne, the God of Evil Plans, Dorak, the God of Peace; Tika-Nahu, the God of Campfires; Suthak, the Goddess of Fertility; and Tar-Ark, God of Invisible [sic?].

Retrospective reviews of The Unknown Gods published online in recent years have been generally very positive; frequently the work is praised for its open ended, bare bones, or raw treatment of the subject matter. I suppose that this is the same quality that the Old School  finds most appealing about OD&D. The published work, certainly the color or background material, exists primarily to fire the imagination of the game players.

I probably purchased The Unknown Gods shortly after it was published in 1980. During this time I was primarily playing AD&D, Runequest, and Traveller. It was the fact that relatively few supplements of any kind were available for these latter games in 1980 that led me to purchase a number of JG books including Hellpits of Night Fang, City of Lei Tabor, Dra'k'ne Station, Ley Sector, and a few of the D&D aids such as Temple of Ra Accursed by Set, Tegel Manor, Book of Ruins, and Unknown Gods. I was, in 1980, 13 years old and as I recall the JG books were appealing due to their very low price points.

I must say, at this point, that I was not a fan of the JG books. I have vague memories from 30 years of opening a package full of JG books and over the following days becoming increasingly disappointed in the quality of the material. I'm sure that I never used more than a few of these books in play. Further, I found the books generally uninspiring.

I also began to DM more frequently than I played around this time. Although I preferred running RQ in a Glorantha that only slightly resembles what Glorantha has become, our core group usually wanted to play either AD&D or Traveller. Unfortunately I lost, long ago, all of the maps and notes of my original fantasy setting. I remember that the map was very similar to the RQ map of Dragon Pass, that Dhallak m’Thorsz Carn ruled Ardonirane from the Castle of Lead, and that across the orc infested Red Plains stood the port city of Anchorite. This world was a place of thieves, blood, sand, ancient evil, lost dungeons beneath the temples of half forgotten gods; very much a Swords and Sorcery milieu.

The gods were not terribly important in this campaign, except as the patrons of enemy cults such as the Black Seers; few players ran clerics. Unlike my friend who had served as DM throughout our first year or so of gaming, I chose to use no gods from real world mythology with only a few exceptions; the most powerful of the Neutral Wizards was Math and Set was the God of Ultimate Evil. I, having read a bit of Howard, Moorcock, Lovecraft et al, found great inspiration in certain parts of Supplement IV.  Tsathoggus, Hanuman the Accursed, the Blood Stained God, Yezud the Spider God, and Moorcock’s gods of the beasts and elementals existed in my campaign. None of the Unknown Gods; however, seeped into this world's myth and that book gathered dust on a shelf like some forgotten ancient codex.

Clearly, my first fantasy campaign was highly derivative, one part Pavis, one part Sanctuary, a dash of Hyboria and name drops from Metagaming's Death Test. Perhaps The Unknown Gods was too raw or original for my aesthetic sensibilities at age 13. Looking through it now after all these years I find myself still somewhat disappointed in the book.  I guess it's just not my thing.

Actually, only after writing Tau, the Guardian of Tombs and Cemeteries, for Petty Gods did I crack open my copy of The Unknown Gods. Contained within was Mondorent, Goddess of Tombs…

Mondorent appears as a woman with a Dragon's head, Elephant's ears, Bat wings, and Cloven hooves. She can shoot a 5D10 Fireball out of her mouth 4 times daily. Her large ears allow only a 5% chance of the goddess being surprised, since they allow her to hear even the slightest noise. She can even hear a Silence spell. Her main weapon is her hooves, with which she can lash out for 1 - 10 points of damage each. Mondorent will only be found underground.  Any form of light will cause her to leave.

I can dig Mondorent.  She has a demonic Eldritch Wizardry vibe and it is actually very cool that she can hear a Silence spell…

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Petty Gods: Tau

It appears that Tau, the Guardian of Tombs and Cemeteries, will be included in Petty Gods, James Maliszewski’s crowd sourced tribute to Judges Guild's Unknown Gods.  This illustration of the terrible godling by Mark Allen appeared recently in Grognardia. The original (Open Game Content) text describing this petty god follows.

Name:  Tau, the Guardian of Tombs and Cemeteries
Symbol: Shears and a torch
Alignment: Law
Movement: 180' (60')
Armor Class: -4
Hit Points (Hit Dice): 126 hp (21 HD)
Attacks: 3
Damage: 1-4 +3
Save: C21
Morale: 12
Hoard Class: XV, XVI
XP: 12,500

Tau is closely associated with the god of the dead and is the guardian of tombs and cemeteries. He most often appears as a vaguely reptilian humanoid with a canine face, fangs, a forked tongue, three yellow eyes, and matted black hair. This form stands approximately five feet tall, has bluish-gray skin, four arms, frog legs, and sharp dorsal spines. He appears naked but heavily ornamented with earrings, bracelets, and anklets made from human bones.

Tau is surrounded by a perpetual stench of death and decay and his appearance is so frightening and repulsive that his mere presence will instill terror (requires an immediate morale check at -2). He casts spells as a 21st level cleric and may speak with the dead at will. Tau also possesses limited teleportation ability that functions as that of a blink dog. In his humanoid form, Tau bears +3 iron shears in three of his hands and carries a blazing torch in the fourth. He suffers no penalties for executing multiple attacks and is not subject to standard spell casting constraints. Tau cannot be surprised, is immune to charm, hold and sleep spells and can only be struck by silver or magical weapons.

Tau lives in a terrifying cemetery high in the mountains. Although lawful, he is singularly concerned with the protection of burial places and delights in murdering tomb robbers. In some lands with ancient traditions, the Cult of Tau is more prominent; worshipers of Tau in such countries are known to police tombs.


Tau was inspired by the deities of Tékumel,  by Tibetan and Etruscan mortuary gods, and by the chupacabra, the well known cryptid that reportedly inhabits various regions of Latin America.

The influence of the gods of Tékumel and the source mythologies of Mesoamerica and the Indian subcontinent likely resulted in the terrible demonic form of Tau. In Tibetan myth, the yaksha Ksetrapala is a warden of cemeteries. He is often depicted as a fearsome demon with blue-black skin, adorned with human skulls and holding a curved knife and skull cup filled with blood. Like Tau, Ksetrapala dwells in a terrible cemetery high in the mountains.  His home stands at a gate to one of the many Tibetan hells and it is probable that Tau's abode is similarly situated near a portal to the underworld.

Clearly, aspects of Tau are quite similar to the chupacabra, literally from the Portuguese and Spanish,  goat-sucker.  That creature typically appears in one of three forms; the most common being a relatively small reptilian monster with leathery or scaly greenish-gray skin and a canine head. This form is said to hop in a manner similar to the kangaroo and is accompanied by a sulfuric stench. The second described form is predominantly canine, though bipedal with coarse grey fur. It also hops. The third form is described as a hairless dog with a spinal ridge and protruding eye sockets. The association of the monstrous chupacabra with Tau probably follows from the dog-like appearance of the beast in all its forms. Dogs, in Mesoamerican folklore and myth, are often presented as guides for dead souls; the Aztec underworld deity Xolotl took the form of a dog-headed skeleton with reversed feet.

Tau’s torch and shears; however, are derived from an ancient Mediterranean cemetery deity, Kulsu, often erroneously identified as Kulmu, an Etruscan Chaonian goddess associated with the guardianship of tombs. Kulsu is depicted on a sarcophagus from Chiusi emerging from a tomb with buskins and shears in one hand and a flaming funeral torch in the other.

The existence of a deity such as Tau and the cult's tomb police, might be problematic for the traditional party of dungeon explorers, essentially glorified grave robbers that they so often are. Tékumelani adventurers are certainly well acquainted with the patrols of capable, although often corrupt, Tomb Police that guard the underworld.  Mark Wigoder-Daniels in the Eye of All-Seeing Wonder noted:
 Before entering the underworld you must deal with the tomb police. The ideal is to avoid contact with them altogether, but in other circumstances you will have to come to a financial arrangement. It is best to do this before descending into the underworld, as the police are more likely to be content with a few kaitars if they do not see you with a sack freshly filled with antique loot.

Tau, himself, is not so easily placated. His hatred for tomb robbers is absolute and those that run afoul of the little god will likely end as bloody mutilated corpses on the dungeon floor. In rare circumstances; however, Tau may provide assistance to some adventurers.

Tau Reaction Table
(2d6; Use Wisdom as Modifier instead of Charisma; +10 to tomb robbers and defilers)

2 or less Benevolent: Will Commune with or Raise Dead party members or character if properly propitiated.

3 Positive: Will Bless or Cure character or party if properly propitiated.

4-8 Indifferent: Ignores character or party.

9-10 Negative: Will Quest character or party if not properly propitiated. The quest will involve the protection of burial places or the restoration of defiled burials or looted grave goods.

11 Hostile: Will attack character or party if not properly propitiated.

12+ Enraged: Attacks character or party.
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