Monday, August 7, 2023

Crystal Frontier - Ongoing Campaign - The Forest

“There are many worlds. Some have passed and some are still to come. In one world the Lui all creep; in another they all walk; in another they all fly. Perhaps in a world to come, the Lui may walk on four legs; or they may twist like snakes; or they may swim in the water like fish. Perhaps this is that world already."

 - Woundsmens’ Fable

The deep forests of Blackacre, now known as the Blackwound, are older than humanity, and perhaps older than the world itself. While the Old People of the deep wood are either extinct, mythical, or retreated into some unbreachable fastness within the mountains, the forests are still no friend of humanity. Rough Imperial logging towns and camps of prisoners, heretics, and undesirables under inquisitional and military rule are the limits of civilization, even close to the canal that tenuously connects the province to the Capital.

Along the Grande Gracht canal, noble and merchant dynasts once attempted to build hunting lodges or retreats, usually with the hope of being granted dominion when Blackacre finally “civilized”. Centuries after settlement Blackacre remains a brutal penal colony, despite minimal magical pollution, flowing wealth, and a ecclesiastical zeal. Blackacre, and especially the fecund Blackwound is winning... As the trees spread their gloom, the forest people are losing the trapping of Imperial culture, slinking back into fur clad obstinacy, and mere subsistence as they embrace cultic superstition and invent “old ways”. The province seems doomed to wither before it blooms into the bastion of Imperial faith that the province’s Nuncios aspire to.

The Blackwound resists the dreams of Imperial theocrats, devouring or transforming the young missionaries and curates that the See pours into it each Spring. Even generations of logging have failed to check the forest’s growth and tracts cleared mere decades ago are again choked with tall straight trees. Flash floods in the Autumn destroy camps and mills, ferns erupt among the stumps to devour fields, and in high summer, lightning fires rage through undergrowth to wash nutrients back into the soil allowing the trees to grow taller and encouraging the undergrowth erupt with new vigor.

Yet the Blackwound is simply a forest, perhaps unlike any other, grown on a grander scale grander, where the ferns, lichens, moss, and brambles of the floor often rise to near the height of a man, and the Great Trees sore until they are lost in the permanent green twilight. Entering the Blackwound is entering a hostile universe where paths lead in circles, the mists muffle sound, the trees confound invaders with their scale and conceal sudden obstacles: chasms, torrential creeks, deadfalls, sheer cliffs and bramble basins of wire strong thorn. The forest resents change, resents humanity’s dream of conquest, and resents intrusion.


“In the world before the world the forest gave all it had to the Lui for the Lui were the old trees’ people. But the Lui did not have to work, so the ate and ate, they had many many children. Still the forest gave and the Lui grew greedier and more numerous until the striped the trees of leaves for food and bark to wrap themselves in. This is why the other people invented death, so there would be enough to eat and fewer of the greedy and foolish. The forest has not forgiven the Lui, and now the Bear is the tree’s favorite”

- Woundsmens’ Fable

The Blackwound is ruled by the Imperial Cult, as an ecclesiastical claustra, a prison colony. While dictates from the Capital sometimes demand policy changes and adjust the nature of the province's laws, they are rarely heeded or enforced. The Imperial See cares little as long as the Blackwound’s lumber, furs , amber, and medicinal plants move South. Instead Nuncios rule each of the lumber towns in wildly varying style.

The Nuncio of the trade depot of Primus is know as a productivity obsessed brute who works his subjects to death and punishes descent with antiquated barbarities and executions drawn from the auto-de-fe that followed the fall of the Demon Emperors. In contrast, to the Northeast the mill town of Deadman lives in relative freedom, held by a former abbess of the Poor Sisters of Hydria of the Jug, while the fortified town of post 18-7 has lacked a Nuncio for eight years, under the sway of the undermanned, under-equipped, and arguably mutinous 5th Imperial “Battle”, the Larks.

Ultimately army brigands, ecclesiastical enforcers, and just governesses all govern at the whim of Blackacre’s true rulers, the Carceral Templars of the coast. Dynastic and doctrinal squabbles have kept the Prison Spires apart, a self-absorbed universe -- until recently. Now both Redemptionist agitators and Mercenary detachments issue often from the prison monasteries to enforce the Templars’ will upon the Blackwound.

Within the stockaded wood’s towns and their satellite logging, hunting, farming, and mill camps (themselves often small walled settlements), seven out of ten residents are hereditary prisoners or newly sentenced heretics (common criminals go to the spires). They are toilers of the lowest status with few rights except those granted by the whim of their overseers. The other three in ten are either traders, ecclesiastical wardens, priestly functionaries, or travelers. A small number of free imperial citizens constitute the remainder of the towns’ populations.

This pattern varies only in Post 18-7, with the town’s population of prisoners outnumbered by soldiers: the 600 soldiers (4,200 on paper) and 200 officers of the Larks, their families, and followers. This makes 18-7 the closest thing to a typical Imperial border town one can find in Blackacre, though the 5th Battle’s lack of discipline, preferences towards brigandage, and open hostility to the Church make it more akin to a bandit camp.

Beyond the towns, within the vastness of the forests, the older culture, or at least an earnest reinvention of it, survives. Escapees and renegades from the prison monasteries, work camps, and towns struggle to reinvent themselves as true Woundsmen or “Lui”. They are not an ancient people so much as a nation brought together by the demands of their environment and the stories about the people before them who are now destroyed, displaced, and absorbed by the Empire.

Semi-nomadic, the Woundsmen clans roam a network of deer paths and dry streams through the forest following signposts and trails invisible to outsiders. They say this is what the forest demands of them, just as they hunt only the approved animals and gather the roots, nuts, berries and plants that the forest "allows". It is unclear if this is simple superstition or true commune with the Blackwound, but their restrictions tend to be practical, preserving resources and avoiding dangers. Equally unclear is the degree that the Woundsmen culture is purely an invention of the escapees’ dreams, if those dreams are written by some outside force, or if some trace of an ancient inheritence from the forest’s past (or perhaps future) inhabitants, human, beast, and otherwise still lingers in their carefully recorded (and often fabricated) lineages. Woundsmen are however a distinctive people, who make themselves clearly different from the Empire where most of them were born. Culture, knowledge and attitude are part of it, but most visible and permanent are their practices of markign themselves. The Lui intentionally scar themselves with wood gall ink, rubbed into wounds, or applied by thorn and knife. It’s rumored among the cutting camps and mill barracks that should the Woundsmen find you lost, shivering, and hungry in their forest they will refrain from killing you only if you present a wood gall scar. Most in the camps, even among the overseers and warders, find ways to mark themselves.


“We are not men, we are beasts in the forest, though we are imperfect, not yet of the forest. Once in the world before the worlds this wasn’t the case, but now the greater creatures barely tolerate us even when we show the greatest respect. Ghost Stags, Death Owls, Bullybak, Thorn Eagles, Stump Wives, Unkind Things, and the Trees may kill a person by right, that is the forest’s price for us having abandoned it in the last world and dared to return.”

- Woundsmen’s Fable

The forest holds a great many forgotten beasts and ancient horrors. To the Woundsmen they are also Woundsmen, their past or future selves in new forms better made for the forest — but even the Lui aren't convinced that these other forest dwellers aren't also monsters. A varieties of fel beast few are widely feared and well known, but other "Unkind Things" are still unrecorded even in the folktales of the Woundsmen.

Principle, and most understood, of the known threats is the BullyBak, the “Bear who talks”. Bullybak are gigantic shaggy bears with blackish red fur and long bright tongues. Unlike most bears it pleases them to walk upright, to speak, and to arm themselves with clubs when they fight each other. Myth holds that once all bears were like the Bullybak, but that the ice bears offended some ancient god by marrying one of its lost children to one of their own, and the god cursed all bears to forget speech … except the Bullybak who were so hidden by the Blackwound that the angry god couldn’t find them. The Bullybak general abhor humanity over some slight they remember but humanity does not. This means that most Bullybak will be aggressive, and some consider man’s flesh a delicacy. Only the Lui have a somewhat less hostile relationship with the Bullybak, though why, especially given the Lui’s artificial, recent creation is a secret the bears don't share. Still, Lui are rarely killed by the Bullybak, and some clans share hunting ranges and stored food with the bear folk or even protect their dens while they sleep in the winter.

Other large dangerous creatures of the forest include Thorn Eagles, child-sized almost flightless raptors that run on strong, clawed legs and have a near-human sort of cunning. Thorn Eagles hunt in organized family flocks, sometimes hundreds strong, and build their “castles” in great thornbrakes, encouraged and tended by the birds to make effective fortresses. Many have sought to reach a concord with the Thorn Eagles, and they do seem to appreciate gifts of meat, evergreen beer, or even jewelry (which they will wear), but they offer nothing in return, refuse to acknowledge human speech, and will almost always attack if they think they have the advantage.

Death Owls are far more dangerous, patrolling above the treetops on vast wings and plunging through the canopy at night to snatch man sized prey. They are blind, hunting by sound and some magical oneric sense that leads them to thinking and imagining beings. Scholars and the Lui both claim that Death Owls also devour their prey’s dreams and fantasies, aided by their disorienting scream which sets the mind reeling down paths of creativity and hallucination.

The great white stags that hunt with uncanny agility between the boughs, past bramble and fern without entangling their huge racks of jagged antlers are known as Ghost Stags. They are not deer, but some cervine horror: solitary, voracious, razor-fanged, and carnivorous that can move nearly silently through even the densest undergrowth. In both Lui legend and lumber camp tale Ghost Stags are merciless predators who impale the bodies of their prey on their blood red antlers and return them to their lairs to hang as trophies or devour over time. Ghost Stags are most often found in the overgrown green glass ruins of “Old People”, and unlike other creatures the seem immune to the mind twisting curse of those place. All the same they are territorial, and make inadvertent guards for the gold, amber, ancient artifacts, and entrances to labyrinths that these ruins hide.


"One can look into the eye of even the Unkindest of things, feel its breath and know that it is your sibling.  It hunts and kills for the reasons you do: hunger, the joy in killing, power or sacrifice. That you are its prey is bad, but immaterial. You and the beast that kills you are the same, part of the same order. When the forest kills you there is no solace, the universe has struck you down, it is you alone that must die, justice for some crime that you will never know in any world."

- Woundsmans' Fable

The Lui say that beasts are a lesser threat in of the Blackwound, and that its huge trees, the eons old "Great Trees" that rise up to 1,000 feet, are it’s greatest danger. While the even the Great Trees are not strictly ambulatory or animate and do not communicate, they are incalculably ancient (antecedents to any and all worlds according to the Lui) and magically potent. This makes their iron hard wood quite valuable, but given the reverence almost every forest dweller holds them in as well as a cursed reputation, they are near impossible to harvest now.

They are magical, but if the trees work sorcery, it is subtle, slow, and vast with only echoes and side-effects in the present — the most obvious being “Tree Ghosts”. Great Trees rarely die at least until the early logging camps, and they are no longer harvested despite the value of their wood as it requires great effort and terrible fates befall those that fell them: plague, lightning fires, flash floods or inexplicable disappearance. Yet lightning, disease, and flood have killed Great Trees for untold ages and continue at the rate of one or two a year. Some trees though seem to linger. It may be that, like some puissant sorcerers, especially powerful trees can use their magic to voluntarily transform into and persist in and undead form … perhaps Tree Ghosts are akin to human liches. They are certainly just as unpredictable and destructive. Tree Ghosts also appear exactly as most spirits — spectral versions of the dead — huge immaterial trees, towering pillars of fog that glow with sickly bale-light and appear either as the tree did in full growth, or at the moment of their destruction. Unlike the living forest, undead trees act on human time scales and often with evident malice. The trees themselves can call lightning or lash out with whirlwinds of necrotizing, life-stealing leaves. More often Tree Ghosts create lesser corporal protectors perhaps “Tree Revenants” or “Tree Zombies”. These are the uprooted husks of more normally sized (though some can be very large) trees, spongy with rot and fungus or dry, pale, and hard that walk on their rotting roots and attack the living with jagged limbs, miasmas, and life draining magic much like other undead.

A less overtly hostile creature connected to the Great Trees are the Stump Witches. Each is singular and unique, a lumpy hunched figure part wizened human, part mushroom, moss, and dry leaves. Each is connected to a the stump of a specific Great Tree and rarely strays from it. Some among the Lui believe the Witches are ancestral spirits, or the ancient priestess oracles of the old Lu tribes subsumed by the forest to hide from the Empire. Others that they are a cursed infection in the great trees, a fungus slowly devouring their lingering spirits as they turn the ageless wood of the fallen greats into dust and slime. All Lui make sacrifices (including human ones) to the Stump Witches and heed their prophecy. It’s claimed that the witches will devour anyone who walks into their stump ring before or after dusk and that they are born anew each morning, rapidly aging from fiercely hungry strange beauty to doddering cruel decrepitude each day.

Regardless of the nature and lifecycle of Stump Witches, they are not human, though they often pretend to be and they are dangerous enemies, crawling or crushing with unfolding arm as long as a tree branch and thorny twisting hands, pulling victims into the earth, speaking soul-shattering words and ancient secrets that turn flesh to rot. The Stump Witch “Mother Barkless” is said to have slain the entire warband of Heartless Shelly, a renegade Templar turned war leader of the Nine Ferns band of Lui after Shelly mocked her slowness and vague prophecies — 85 warriors gone in less then five minutes. Shelly’s head, transformed into a wooden bust by Stump Witch sorcery is one of the idols of his former band, and tells of his downfall, crying tears of sap and begging for death, once a year.

Stump Witches are not usually so murderous, and Mother Barkless continues to give the Nine Ferns prophecies on weather, game, and approaching dangers even now. If approached peaceably in the proper manner and with the proper gifts (different for each) Stump Witches will aid humans or the Bullybak with advice, prophecy, and sometimes magical boons. Petitioners must be wary of trickery and deception while retaining the greatest decorum, speaking with great decency, and never lingering beyond sunset (difficult to gauge in the deeps of the Blackwound).

Parley with a witch invariably follows the pattern of initial gifts presented in one’s finest clothing followed by introduction with a recitation of lineage to show respect. If the witch is willing to talk it will ask about the forest and the season, often contradicting speakers (and always correctly), and allow one to five questions based on how well this small talk went (how few errors the petitioners made and how interesting their observations were). The witch will answer the question (or sometimes request for blessing, boon, or words of power) and then demand a price. The price must be paid and ranges from the life of the petitioner to inconsequential things like a handful of seeds or a bright orange dried leaf. Whatever it is, the price must be paid when and how the Stump Witch demands, or the witch will spend the rest of the season destroying everything the petitioner values.

“The Forest is/was/will be the entire world - stretching above the sky with its branches to seize the sun and moon and winding down with roots to grasp the deepest earth. That we people cannot see it and instead our eyes lie to us about silly things: cities, seas, deserts and empires is our curse. People betrayed the forest and it took what was real, striking out our true eyes, shackling us to time and giving us knowledge of pain. We are good to the forest not because it will return us to what we were, but because there is nothing else — the forest is the entire world, without end, without ages or beginning and so we still must be it’s children.”

- Woundsmens' Fable.

Seeking a fortune in the Blackwound is neither wise or foolish, and certianly no worse then plundering the Crystal Frontier. The forest is rich with valuables and lost treasures — not simply the crumbling remnants of the Empire: towns, garrisons, shrines and tomb complexes sinking into the loam, shrouded by fern, but also older treasures left by the First People and natural riches in hides, rare woods, powerful medicines, furs, narcotic honey, beast ivory, and red or blue amber. It is of course equally full of dangers, and deeply sinister forces linger in its shadows. Luck and knowledge of the forest’s way are the only path to survival and wealth however, and the forest cannot be conquered by humanity. It is too big, existing on a scale beyond even the Empire’s vastness and antiquity. In this, as the Capital crumbles, the Imperial armies fade, and petty rivals gnaw at the Provinces and hinterlands, the Blackwound perhaps represents a refuge, or even a way out, for those who can endure its vast gloomy indifference.

All art is modified from the 19th century paintings of Albert Bierstadt


  1. A lot of possibilities with this!

  2. Did you ever compile all your house rules/finish CRAWL? I've been browsing around and can't find it, but whether that's me or it not being there is hard to tell.

  3. I did finish them, but decided the world didn't need another retroclone.

  4. Hello, I enjoyed reading about the forest. Accounts of lich trees and stump witches leave me eager to explore these woods (or better yet lead a group of unwitting adventurers to the forest entrance). I also like the name change to Blackwound. Is the crystal coast duology still in development, or has the project been renamed? Either way, I am excited for your eventual follow-up to the Crystal Frontier.

    1. Everything is still in development - though with Crystal Coast I got a bit stuck designing the haunted mansion after playtesting. Bones of Bronze (a 54 key barrow that delves into the ancient history of the frontier) will be next though as it's through my playtesting and into editing and layout.

      For the Forest, the Blackwound, is just the name of the that 1/2 of Blackacre - the coast is the other 1/2. The province is still Blackacre. Not sure if I will do anything with it - but likely as it's sort of a meditation on the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. Mostly it's just my brain filling in the world around the Frontier on long plane and train rides.


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