Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fishers of Men

Yesterday, I witnessed a fairly interesting procedure.

My home region of Franconia has numerous carp ponds - small, artificial lakes in which carp are seeded when they are small, and drained in the fall when the carp have grown large and fat. My father's ornithological society is maintaining a number of such lakes and I witnessed how one such lake was drained. They opened the outlet and, when the water became shallow enough, they waded in and began to catch the all the fish - which were reduced to swimming in an ever-shrinking area - with nets and deposited them in containers. Some of the fish - especially pikes, which had proliferated to an astonishing rate (I was told that their eggs frequently hitchhike on waterfowl) - had injured themselves during the capture attempts and had to be killed. Others were deposited in other lakes and ponds. Finally, some fish were taken home and eaten.

Now imagine what this whole process must have looked like from the point of view of the fish.

Suddenly, some powerful, unknowledgeable entities are shrinking their world (or at least the part in it in which they can survive), herding them to an ever-smaller area, and then stalking them, picking them off one by one and removing them to an unknown place outside everything they have ever perceived. Even if they survive the process and are put into a new habitat where they can survive, many of their peers have simply gone missing.

When you think of "Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror" while reading this, your mind is on the right track.

So... let's say some vastly powerful aliens decide to remove humans from their native habitat (i.e. Earth) and put them somewhere else. What can we do with this for gaming?

First, let us consider the "herding" mechanism - the equivalent to draining the carp pond. It should start by isolating some part of Earth from the surrounding area. How large? A country? A state? A metropolitan area? A small town or village? And how fast will the carp pond train? Each choice will change the social dynamics of those trapped inside. A large area will likely have some kind of government which will attempt to retain control while desperately attempting to find the solution (or at least pretending that they have the solution).

And how isolated is the area from the rest of the world? If infrastructure remains largely intact by the draining mechanism, then they can communicate with the outside world and attempt to find a solution - or allow the outside world to watch in horror as the pond drains. On the other hand, if there is a total information blackout, then nobody will know what happened and the former inhabitants of the area seem to have simply vanished.

Furthermore, how does the draining mechanism work? Is it simply impossible to get outside - i.e. an actual wall of force or something equivalent? (And does it only affect humans, but also animals, objects and so forth?) Or means attempting to get out oblivion - a choking fog, a total lack of air, a shimmering wall that seemingly disintegrates anyone who touches it (but maybe they are just teleported elsewhere), or alien constructs just grabbing everyone in an ever-tightening circle?

Furthermore, is it possible to escape? This is important for deciding whether this scenario will be part of a one-shot or an ongoing campaign - if it is impossible to get out of the draining pond, then the player characters will inevitably either (a) get abducted by the aliens or (b) killed before they get to that point, and the adventure is about what will happen in the meantime.

If escape is possible, then it shouldn't be available to everyone trapped in the Circle, at least early in the campaign. If the draining pond is surrounded by a choking fog, then you can escape while wearing a gas mask - but only few in the area should have gas masks, and those few will be targets for other desperate victims. On the other hand, if the draining mechanism only affects the space close to the ground, then maybe the victims can be airlifted out - but how much airlift power do the surrounding areas have? If it's not enough, then the fight over space on the helicopters or planes will be very fierce indeed.

And maybe the countermeasures to the draining mechanisms aren't obvious at first - for instance, can you be really sure that the gas masks will protect you from the choking fog? Besides, maybe some further aliens will lurk in the fog, which means immunity to the fog itself is only the first part of the challenge...

Now, on to the aliens themselves. These should be all-but-impossible to defeat with weapons available to the victims, though sufficient abouts of force may be able to drive them away for short times. But how aware are the humans of their presence? Is the first sign of trouble a fish catcher appearing out of nowhere and dragging its victim into another dimension? Or are they townering figures that crack open nearby houses with brute force to see if any humans are hiding in there? Do they capture humans with rays that instantly teleport (disintegrate) them elsewhere? Do they grab them and put them into some kind of extradimensional container? To they shoot strands of some sticky material at them, which the humans will not be able to get free off - and which then drags them off into dimensional portals or up into the higher reaches of the atmosphere? Whatever the method used, it should terrify all who witness it.

And what happens after the pond is drained? Will the aliens revert the draining and allow other humans to return there? Or does the area become permanently uninhabitable, which means that the whole of Earth is essentially a draining pond? How will the remaining governments react? What countermeasures will they develop to convince their citizens that they have the situation under control, or at least convince them that it is worth continuing with life-as-usual? There is also the scope to consider - if only a few town-level incidents like this happen over the course of a year for the entire year, it will be much easier to prevent chaos than if a couple of major metropolitan areas are snapped up every month.

Finally, what happens to those who are snatched up? The campaign doesn't need to be over at that point, after all. Let us say that our aliens find humanity a fascinating species which they want to study, and for that purpose put sufficient numbers of breeding pairs into new habitats for long (which means that older humans might be considered unfit and removed from the groups). But from the perspective of the player characters (who should, of course, remain in the same group) they are suddenly put on an alien planet. Perhaps the aliens provide some tools (either devices snatched from Earth or alien technology) to help their survival - after all, while they are not particularly careful with individuals, they don't necessarily want them to die either. But perhaps not. They and the other abductees near them (which might not be of the same group that has been snatched up with them) will now have to cope with surviving on this alien world, and contemplate whether it is worth it to reestablish some veneer of civilization. Perhaps the aliens are simply content to let them run around until the next generation, when their descendants are snatched up and redistributed. Or perhaps they actively meddle and "correct" things according to their own strange criteria. Perhaps some of their fellow abductees are even secretly alien constructs or have otherwise been messed with in ways that are not immediately apparent. Or perhaps they have been modified and will start exhibiting strange powers....

Whether the humans will ultimately understand the aliens and perhaps be able to face them and take control of their own destinies again, or if they remain forever the playthings and experimental subjects of unknowledgable beings - in either case this could become the basis for an interesting Cosmic Horror campaign.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

[Urbis] Locations of the Cold Frontier - Forest Lanterns, Larval Spore, Wind Shrine, and Aranea Coven

In this fog-shrouded stretch of forest, unseen beings have hung up numerous tiny lanterns made out of branches and leaves and which are lit by magical lights in blue and green hues. Despite - or perhaps because - of the light, it is extremely easy to get lost in this area, and the weak-willed or tired might find themselves wandering off into random directions. Some characters may experience profound unease, while others become fascinated by the lanterns and stare at them as if hypnotized until distracted.

There is a small section of these plains - roughly 30 yards in diameter - which are covered by strange, tendril-like plant grows. These tendrils have buds which will release pollen that cause hallucinations and psychoses in those who inhale them. These growths emerge from an immature form of a mu spore which is growing beneath the soil. Within a few years it will emerge from the ground in its mature form.

North of the Spire City Ruins, a large flattened boulder, approximately 20 yards wide, is partially buried in the ground. The Wendigo symbol has been painted on its surface numerous times. This is an important shrine to Wendigo, and strong winds constantly pass over it which seem to sap the stamina from those nearby and replace it with a ravenous hunger. The Elk Tribe frequently stops at this location

In a side valley of the mountains south of the Zone of Silence, a coven of five araneas makes its lair. This is the main coven of which the lone aranea to the south is a member, and if she becomes more active in the workings of the colony, her fellow araneas might choose to become more involved involved as well. They otherwise distrust outsiders who stumble into their valley, and do their best to drive them away without forcing a direct confrontation. The araneas are all female - males only visit periodically.

Note: A list of all Urbis-related posts can be found here.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

[German Folklore] The Devil in the Fränkische Schweiz, Part II

Continued from Part I.

Further stories of the Devil in the Fränkische Schweiz:

- Near Leutenbach there is a small well next to a chapel dedicated to St. Moritz (Saint Maurice). It was used as an oracle by sick people by throwing a small stick into the well. If the stick floated, they would live for a long time, but if it sank to the ground they would die within the year. One year, during the local Kirchweih (a folk festival celebrated at the anniversary of the local church's sanctification), a group of young people decided to test this oracle on a lark. When the local village headman's beautiful daughter threw in her stick, the stick sank immediately, causing the girl to despair. Upon hearing this, the girl's grandmother told her that she should go to the well on the night of the full moon between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday and draw some water - which would turn to wine at midnight - and drink of it, which would banish her doom. But she should "leave her fear behind", as "horrible things happen this night, and the spirits of hell are abroad".

And indeed she saw uncanny signs on her way to the well - there was a fire on a nearby field, and as she drew from the well after a prayer, a horrible storm arose and the Wild Hunt rode through the sky. After she drank, she waited for the end of the storm and was about to go home when a huntsman with a green suit and a green hat stepped out of the woods. She realized that he was the Devil when she saw his horse foot. As she screamed for help, the huntsman said: "No one cam hear you and help you. You belong to me, and shall be queen in my realm!" She called out for St. Moritz, who then suddenly appeared and managed to drive the Devil back.

At the same time, a local young man who had a crush on the girl had a dream about his beloved lying helplessly near the well. He woke up and hurried into the direction of the well. On the way he met a wanderer and asked him if he had seen a young girl. The wanderer replied: "Satan has seen her!" But the young man also recognized the Devil by his horse foot and called out: "You have stolen my beloved! By St. Moritz, I will tear you apart!" After this second call to the saint, the Devil was banished, tearing a nearby pear tree in half during his departure. The young man found his beloved, managed to revive her, and (as it tends to happen in these stories) they married soon after. [100]

- Near Elbersberg the Devil once attacked a man, but couldn't defeat him because he had "Freitagsbrot" ("Friday Bread") in his pocket. However, the Devil was able to snap his neck once the bread fell out of his pocket during the struggle. (Note: I have been unable to determine what this "Friday Bread" is. The only other appropriate reference I have found is here, where apparently baking it is a taboo that humans who use local fey spirits must not break, or else the spirits will no longer work for them.) [108]

- Two similar stories revolve around Knight Kuno, a Count of Gräfenberg. In one story he came across a "fearsome knight in black armor, sitting on a frothing horse" who waited for him at a crossroads and challenged him to a fight. To his horror, Kuno couldn't harm him as all blows simply bounced off. Kuno was defeated but survived, and when he had recovered he swore revenge. "Let him come, if he is not a coward."

In the other story, Kuno (during a night of drunken revelry) had promised to sit down and eat with the Devil, as long as it wasn't "in my own home". In both stories the Devil arrived at Kuno's castle and invited him for a midnight meal at the nearby Eberhardsberg mountain. Not wishing to appear as a coward, Kuno accepted the invitation and arrived at the mountain. The Devil was waiting for him, and thrust a boulder into the ground which then became flat like a table and was filled with plates and food by an invisible hand.

In the first story, the church bells of the nearby monastery church banished the Devil at this point, while in the latter story Kuno banished the Devil with a heartfelt prayer. The boulder can still be seen today, and is called the "Teufelstisch" - the "Devil's Table". [154,155]

- A third story concerns a farmer who had to go over the Eberhardsberg at night. He passed the Devil's Table around midnight, and saw a group of "Fellows of Hell" sitting at the table and celebrating. He became curious, sneaked closer, and listened to them talk about hell and how they were torturing the souls of various rich people. After they had drunk their fill, they started to gamble with pure gold coins and were rather careless with throwing the coins around. One of those apparitions accidentally let a bag of gold fall to the ground, and the farmer sneaked closer and grabbed it out of greed.

Then the Devil appeared in his "horrible true form", smelling of smoke and bearing rolling eyes of fire. The Devil got the attention of the crowd, drew a blood-red piece of parchment from his pocket and read a list of names of people which he would soon claim for his own. The farmer recognized a lot of well-known and respected names, thinking "Now I know where those people got their money!". But then the Devil read the name of the farmer in a particularly loud manner, and the farmer became frightened. But he didn't dare leave his hideout and waited until the apparitions vanished before he raced home.

Then he realized he still had the bag of gold with him. While his conscience told him to give the gold to the church or to the poor, an uncanny voice whispered to him: "Keep the gold! Live a good life! Now you will be respected in your village and others will be envious of you!" As he made the decision to keep the money, he heard mocking laughter.

He invested the money carefully and eventually became the wealthiest farmer in the area and the mayor of his town. However, one day the cattle in town became sick from a plague, and the villagers looked for a scapegoat. An ancient woman in the local poorhouse was called a "witch" and blamed for the plague. She was tortured, with the mayor being the most eager interrogator. The old woman finally admitted being a witch in order to stop the torture, and as the villagers were about to burn her, the mayor demanded that she first told them of her helpers. The old woman only said: "The mayer has dealt with the Devil!" before dying from her injuries. The mayor remembered his experience at the Devil's Table and was so shocked that he was unable to defend himself against this accusation. Now it was his turn to be tortured, and when he finally told his story, the villagers burned him on top of the Devil's Table. [156]

- A fourth story concerns a Count Botho (of Weißenohe near Gräfenberg) who had drunken revelries with his followers at the same location "night after night". They also played with "metallic cards" which were adorned with "uncanny symbols". The final guest was the Devil, who brought a round table, and the group of revelers "mocked and cursed everything good and holy in the world". Flames shone out of "blood-red cups". Finally, a Benedictine monk banished the whole group - once again leaving a stone table behind. [158]

- At the old Breitenstein Castle near Hetzles, the Ladies of the Castle once had a grand washing day on Good Friday. Since it was very sunny that day, she hung them up to dry on the same day. But then the Devil arrived "with the rush of a storm", took all the clothes from the clotheslines, and departed with them. (Note: The three Ladies of the Castle were apparently capable of using magic and otherwise felt into the "Three White/Wise Women" archetype. But that will be a separate post.) [178]

- In Kainach two households were feuding with each other. A woman in one of the families was allegedly a witch. When the neighbor's wife wanted to milk her cows in the mornings, a small black devil sat on the backs of the cows, and the cows produced blood instead of milk. [193]

- In Krögelstein two huntsmen wanted to capture the Devil and hold him hostage for a lot of money. They agreed to meet under a huge fir in a nearby forest. One of them brought a "magic book" ("Zauberbuch" - this could also be translated as "spell book") with him, and attempted to summon the Devil as midnight approached. A large thunderstorm arose. The Devil arrived within the storm with a glowing red "hell hound" and saw the two men waiting. These were now so afraid that they abandoned the plan and fled in terror. They became deeply ill after this adventure and did no longer want anything to do with the Devil. [214]

Source: Heinz Büttner, "Sagen Legenden und Geschichten aus der Fränkischen Schweiz". Numbers in   [brackets] represent page numbers.

To be continued.

Note: For a list of all "Fränkische Schweiz" posts go here.

[German Folklore] The Devil in the Fränkische Schweiz, Part I

There are a few figures which loom large in German folklore, and the Devil is one of them, appearing in innumerable places and stories. While he does fulfill the traditional role of Tempter towards those weak in their faith, I found something surprising in his depictions in these stories. While entering into a bargain with him is a very bad idea, as expected - and so is taking his name in vain - making a bet with him is much safer, as he is easily tricked out of his price (i.e. human souls), and even priests frequently make bets with him (often involving speeding up the construction of a new church) without any apparent bad consequences.

But for now, let's see what the Devil has been up to in the Fränkische Schweiz. I will only list explicit appearances - magic powers derived from the Devil deserve a post of their own. He is also often identified with the Wild Huntsman, but again that entity deserves a separate post.

- In a manor in Adlitz there lived a cruel noble who oppressed his peasants and also terrorized the priests of the church in nearby Poppendorf, causing them to flee and the church to decay. When a new priest showed up, he was forcibly taken to the manor and eventually told he would be killed if he lost a debate with a "highly educated man" - the Devil, who appeared as a scholar "wrapped in red cloth". He first attacked the Christian faith, and then the priest's past sins as the latter countered every argument. After the priest won the debate and turned to leave, the noble begged the priest to banish the Devil for the sake of their souls, which he did. [17-20]

- A widow in Aufseß wished that the Devil "would turn the face" of a Jewish moneylender "on his back". The Jew tried to hide from this curse in a cave (taking his bag of money with him), but the Devil found him and not only rearranged his body but also trapped him there, where he still remains today, still sitting on his bag of money. (Note: Unfortunately, there is a strong trend of anti-Semitism in these stories, and Jews are generally portrayed in a highly negative light, with the implication that they deserve whatever grisly fate befalls them.) [23]

- Again in Aufseß, Karl Holley, a servant of one Christoph Ludwig von Aufseß, was said to be able to summon the Devil and get "advice" from him. But once he was caught by a horrible storm around midnight and sought refuge in a church - whereupon a huge gap opened in the earth and a "horrible dragon" appeared which caught Holley and dragged him into the Earth. After that, the gap vanished without a trace. [29]

- In Bieberbach, three rather drunk men returning from a pub crawl in nearby Egloffstein argued that money "was the most important thing in the world". They were then approached by a Stranger who promised them plenty of money if they could "walk over three different graveyards within one hour". Getting excited, they started in Thuisbrunn, moved on to the graveyard in Egloffstein, and finished at Affalterthal. There they met a "small man" who handed them a stein. When they opened it in their home full of anticipation for the treasure it must contain, a "black thing" emerged which caused terrible chaos on their farm and was identified as "The Devil". Only when the local priest came and sprinkled holy water into every part of the house did the creature vanish "with a terrible cry". [41]

- In Dürrbrunn, a farmer was tilling his field when the church bells called for prayer. The farmer didn't heed them and continued to till. Then a downpour started and the farmer called out: "I won't go back, even if the Devil fetches me for it!" Then there was a bolt of lightning and the farmer, his plow, and the ox before the plot were swallowed into a hole in the earth. The field is now called the "Totenacker" ("Dead People's Field"), and allegedly the filled-up hole can be found even today. [57]

- In Ebermannstadt a man frequently had problems with someone stealing his herbs, and he was desperate to catch the thief. One day, when he was out in order to catch the thief, he encountered a huntsman with a green hat - the Devil. The Devil presented him a book and told him: "Write down your name into this book and you will discover who the thief is". The man did so, and discovered the thief. A few day laters he (and the story is unclear whether this refers to the man or the thief) hanged himself. [65]

- The devil was said to lurk at a waystone near Effeltrich at midnight and help people coming to him with money if they sold him their souls in exchange. [69]

- "A devil" was said to lurk on a path in Eggloffstein during the night. At one point it attacked a farmer walking on this path around midnight, but the famer hit this creature until it fell to the ground. Since then it is called the "Teufelsgraben" ("Devil's Ditch"). [79]

Source: Heinz Büttner, "Sagen Legenden und Geschichten aus der Fränkischen Schweiz". Numbers in   [brackets] represent page numbers.

Continued in Part II.

Note: For a list of all "Fränkische Schweiz" posts go here.