Monday, June 17, 2024

Crystal Frontier - Ongoing Campaign - The Mud Isles

"Vpon the Seuentene Daye of the Seconde Moneth, that same daye were all ye fountaynes of the greate depe broken vp, and the wyir of ye heauens cast wyde."

- Late added marginalia in the Codex of Lead 7:11

Joseph Grady - The Bank of England - 1830
Imagining One's Capital in Ruins...

When the sky is clear and the rain breaks on the coast of Blackacre a brown smudge beneath dark clouds mars the horizon... The Mud Isles are scant miles away over the Silt Straits and Narrow Sea but they are a lost land. Now only known as home to the raft-borne raiders - bands of dozens or hundreds of “Ghouls” - who crash onto the shores of Blackacre almost every Fall. A watchword for cannibal horror and mindless barbarity, the Ghouls of the Mud Isles worship a vile devoured god beyond the understanding of any in the Empire or Resurgent Kingdom — except as a mirror reflecting the dark years of the Demon Emperors. The Ghouls are anathema, even more than the Blackheart cults they resemble and which still infect the Empire. Yet the the Mud Isles are not the waste of bone idols, stinking sucking mud, and festering midden of chewed bones that most imagine them to be. The Mud Isles were once a civilized place. A kingdom that traded with the Empire in ancient times, noted for its devotion to decorum, mercantile avarice, and delicate decor. Some few and foolhardy … or perhaps those who have made dark pacts allowing them the favor and acceptance of the rulers of the Mud Isles … trade there even now, pulling antiquities and treasures from the sunken ruins of the City of Lead.


When exactly the Old Kingdom of the Mud Isles fell, or exactly why are a lost secret, perhaps noted in crumbling dispatches locked in a bonewhite case on one of a thousand shelves in a forgotten vault beneath the Imperial Legate's Palace. Yet, any magisters who knows even rumors will claim the deluge has all the marks of sorcerous disaster and the are likely correct.  An account fished from a previously sealed archive of the Grande Mercantile  (burst open by a sewer blockage) appears to confirm it. The damaged text  attests:

“In the year of the Red Trumpets the high wizards of the Lead Metropolis feared invasion and commenced a Great Work to shroud the White Isle in a perilous fog, as the dead god of that isle surrounds the Ifferean Glas. The high wizards failed to account that the green hell is no regular isle, but the buoyant convex skull of the god … where the deluge that forms that isle’s fog wall runs over and down to the sea, and the isle rises with its floods. The White Isle could not. The White Isle is drowned, its substance draining into the sea and the City of Lud half sank beneath the swollen rivers. The Wizards of Lud ended their spell, but the rain will not cease. All wealth and science destroyed. Those who can flew over the Shallow Sea, and I follow. The greater part are of the peoples trapped. The price of the following is expected to rise ... lead ingot ... tin ingot ... finewares ... green gold ... fire brick ... chymic clay ... ”

Whatever the cause, the Kingdom of Lud, with its intricate aristocracies, geo-sorcerous obsessions, obstinate independence, and pretensions of rivalry with the Emperor vanished —green hills, wide fields, and low craggy cliffs replaced in months by a waste of cursed green-gray mud lashed by rain and cut by a million shifting channels. Rain without end as the Lead Wizards’ hubris has forever broken the sky above the Isle. The people suffered and drowned. Famine and hopelessness stalked them. On the Isles of Mud plantings wash away or drown before they can raise shoots, while both livestock and game sicken from damp or have been devoured to extinction. Great green famine wyrms were birthed from the tragedy, and many have carved their desolations from the ruins of the White Isle’s cities.

The survivors of deluge, famine, and wyrm lost their arts and knowledge but would not renounce their pride. What was left of the Mud Isles fell to petty wars between aristocratic wastrels — many wyrm ridden — until even the peoples’ sense of shared humanity crumbled away under factionalism.

Benighted and sunk into the hopelessness, misrule, disorder, and decline that the musk of the Verdant Wyrm spreads, the Isles reached a sad equilibrium. Any high point in the swamps and marshes built up into a mound, constantly renewed by toils and used to grow black and red swamp millet. The sciences of civilization - metal work, stone carving, sorcery (except for the foul hedge-magics of necromancy and demon pact) — even writing, were lost as material to practice grew scarce. Who can work metal or make bricks without wood or charcoal to burn and what use is stone work in a world of mud and water? The people of the tumuli claim noble lineages, though most are the saddest sort of subsistence farmers, and cloth themselves in pounded reed cloth, hides, wicker and the rusted remnants of their ancestor’s war gear. This misery has calmly carried on for generations.

In the marsh another people cling also to survival, living on reed rafts: fishing lamprey and newt, gathering, and hunting the huge semi-aquatic hogs known as “wallow beasts”. Clad in mud and reed wicker they have long been called animals by the tumuli dwellers and the two peoples hunt each other as game. Cannibalism is the custom on the Mud Isles since the fall, but between tumuli and raft dweller it is now a treasured tradition. 

The endless war of hunts and raids between hill and marsh has changed in the past century, as the practices of anthropophagy has grown to the status of religion. Oddly, horribly, this cannibalism is also becoming the unifying force and shared identity that has raised the isles from savage wilderness, ended civil unrest, and enabled the Mud Islanders to claw back a shared identity. In the last century and a half, the Mud Isle have grown to be recognized as a sort of lesser and repugnant Resurgent Kingdom, a looming threat to both the Imperial Province of Blackacre and the Bull Kingdom (though the two powers have so far refused to cooperate against it).

The Coming of the White God

The source of the Mud Isles’ growing power is their still living deity — the White God. He claims to be his own father and his own son, to be a god of both learned writing and barbarous destruction, life and death, freedom and bondage. Mostly the White God claims to be the only real god. All others are monsters, demons, power-bloated sorcerers and false deceivers.

It follows that the duty of every follower of the White God is to cast down the false gods and convert or kill their worshippers. Combined with the anthropophagic doctrines of his worship, this makes the White God’s worship unpopular everywhere except the Mud Isles, where they are fast becoming the sole and dominant creed.

All Art Allegedly by Gustave Dore

Like much of the doctrine of the White God, his birth or creation is contradictory even from its official sources. The myth that remains consistent is that the God and his followers were chased deep into the swamp, cast out by both the bands and tumuli, hunted and starving until the God fed his followers on his own flesh. Sacrificing his left arm and side to their hunger, the White God met his followers needs and filled them with power. A few of these “prophets” still remain and they seem to prove some part of this story. From it however the practices of both ritual and subsistence cannibalism were sanctified, making the eating of human flesh a religious duty.

Despite its horrific aspects, the White God’s church has been largely beneficial, creating unity and a renewed sense of purpose. The size and number of Wyrm desolations has been reduced at a great cost in lives, though many vile beasts remain. The Tumuli and raft dwellers of the marshes are largely reconciled and their energies combined to destroy the few who resist the White God. The written word has been reintroduced in the Mud Isles as monks and priests both teach and learn a new script of the god’s own creation. The cannibal theocracy’s advancements are otherwise limited - the Mud Idle still use wood and bone tools, or scavenged odds and ends from their drowned ancestors. However, cohesion, written language, and new (foul) religious sorcery that the White God brought has allowed the Mud Isles to regain some consequence in the world. Mud Isle raft fleets filled with starving warriors and the blessed of the White God, a condition of abdeath similar to the Blackheart contagion, threaten the province of Blackacre, and increasingly the Bull Kingdom, every Fall.


“Ghoul” has long been used as a term of insult and description for the people of the Mud Isles due to the prevalence of survival cannibalism there. Since the White God's coming it’s meaning has become far more pointed as the church encourages the spread of a magical contagion which grants a form of immortal abdeath at the cost of a hunger for human flesh. Most in the Empire believe the White God’s chosen (as the afflicted are called on the White Isles) have succumbed to a less virulent form of the Blackheart contagion — endemic in the Empire since the years of the Demon Emperors. Both diseases fundamentally, magically change human anatomy and personality, granting immortality in a state of suspended death and compelling  the sufferer to feast on the flesh of sentient prey or lose mental ability. Advantageously however, the diseases both provide unnatural resistance to injury and accelerated healing. The Mud Isle version seems to also grant heightened physical abilities to almost all afflicted, and doesn’t limit the ability to work sorcery, at least not the odd variety practiced by the White Church.

The White God’s Blessing has a different presentation however and a different means of transmission from the Blackheart contagion — it’s also far harder to cure in its early stages, though both are incurable if allowed to progress. While Blackhearts are marked by the black rot that spreads as a rapid onset decay beginning on the face and extremities when they fail to find enough prey, but has few other obvious symptoms, the Blessed turn a bloodless pale and rapidly lose weight until they are parchment skinned and withered, with skin stretched tight over their bones.

Unlike Blackhearts, the Blessed never fully descend into animalistic frenzy when deprived of sustenance. Instead they become ever more calculating, slower, and eventually curl around themselves to sink into an immobile dream filled sleep that suddenly ends when living prey is near or if they are otherwise stimulated (by pain or threat for example).

In the Mud Isles the Blessed or Chosen are an elite, largely serving the White God’s church or leading its war bands as Thegans or ruling its hill communities as Ealdormen. Since the White Gods’s worship now dominates every part of the isles, finding sufficient victims for this growing class of cannibals has proven difficult: religious dissenters and common criminals no longer suffice.

Combined with the overall scarcity of the Mud Isles, it’s populations, both Blessed and unchanged find themselves on the edge of starvation almost every year, compelling their raft fleets South across the Narrow Sea to crash on the shores of Blackacre, raiding, plundering for tools, wealth, captives, and other forms of food.

Even before the White God’s apotheosis, Mud Islanders have attempted to establish colonies or outposts on the Blackacre shore, but have always been met with utter disdain and cold blooded murder by the Carceral Templars, Inquisition, Imperial Priests and even fishers, dyers, and peasants of Blackacre. Predictably perhaps the Paladins and knightly elite of Kosse Sildar were equally brutal, though somewhat more inconsistent and far more flamboyant in their massacres, and the Warlock King has continued this tradition of the Princesses at least.  Now though it is a slow and seasonal war without quarter, and the coastal villages must be defended each year from growing bands of raiders each, or they cease to exist, devoured, carried off, and burnt.

Recently, with the great Carceral orders looking Southward and locked in doctrinal conflicts, the situation has worsened or the Islanders tactics have changed. Ghouls have gained footholds on a few small outer islands and send raiding parties into the ruins and caves of the shore to hide, guiding future fleets even during storms and fog.

The City of Lead Today

While the Ghouls of the White God are beginning to find themselves in the larger world, the same cannot be said for the world’s experience of their homeland. Imperial and Resurgent Kingdom explorers have only visited one place in the Mud Isles in the last hundred years … its great dead metropolis … the City of Lead. Called Port Lud or The Fortress of Lluyd in its ancient inscriptions, the White God’s church is contemptuous, indifferent or perhaps encouraging to intrusion into its ruins. Sailing stealthily into the estuary during late Fall, heavily armed scavenger ships anchor beyond swimming distance of shore to lower black painted pinnaces full of desperate plunderers who infiltrate the lawless, dead city with muffled oars. These teams of brutal plunderers search of ancient treasures among its drowned ruins.

The ruins themselves are mostly gone. Port Lud was a city of black iron girders, heavy lumber, and orange brick, built along a meandering river. Since the deluge much of the city has rotted away or crumbled under storm and tide. Only stumps of chimneys and ragged walls remain over much of what was once the vast metropolis. Beyond the old riverbed submerged buildings still present a serious risk to navigation, but most are lost in a weedy morass. Only the city’s richest sections endure intact: the stone mansions of the nobility, the marble towers and palaces of the government, and the city’s monuments: museums, libraries, archives and collections.

These remenants, both the monumental buildings that rise above the waters and the maze of mud buried, drowned ruins below are still home to a wide variety of dangerous creatures. Predators and remnants of all varieties: beasts, lost souls, robber bands, drowned men, and dead kings. Green Wyrms of Despair spread their desolations and spawn. Islander heretics hide in the city. Ghoul covens and Mud Isle bands maraud, preaching the White God’s creed by hunting and devouring Wyrm and heretic.

The treasures of the Lead City are largely untouched. Art, sorcery, ancient knowledge and simple gold remain where their owners left them as they fled and drowned in the endless downpour. The Wyrms arrived soon after, and like all of their kind, they prefer to hoard rather than destroy, preserving much of the city’s wealth. As they fall to other forces these treasures have been scattered or carried off, but the drowned palaces still hold more.

It is a mine of common wealth in specie, jewels and Lud’s ancient silver coin, but also in unique artworks and written treasures. At its peak Lud was a rival to the Successor Empire in the North with explorers, merchants, and armies that roamed the Pine and Ice Hells, sailed the great seas of the world and brought back all manner of knowledge. The logs and and reckonings of Lud's sea captains are still sought for the secret currents and ways they hold, but the most valuable of Lud’s treasures are its strange magics. Codexis of alchemical secrets, and strange sorcery tied to earth and sky with a complexity unknown to any other people. Figurines of power are also a somewhat frequent find in the City of Lead, each holding a trapped being of power. 

As much as they are a benighted land, home to a reviled people and cruel god, the prizes of old Lud draw dozens of expeditions a year and risks of the the ancient city seem a fair gamble to an ever larger number of tomb robbers.

Note: Evil Kingdoms, Empires and “Races”

Evil is a question I like to grapple with in my games. I don’t much enjoy the old Gygaxian alignment system, it’s even more cartoonish modern reinterpretation, or the Moorcockisn “cosmic alignment system” that is sometimes presented as a justification in OSR and post-OSR spaces.

Like most OSR reinventions, revisions and justifications I saw this one evolve back in the early 2010’s. As always there was a desire within parts of the OSR community to find a way that the old rules of alignment “worked”. From that various schemes appeared, the cosmic alignment idea one of them. Yet, alignment is a funny bit of implied setting. To an extent it’s part of the appendix N and similar influences - at least the more moralistic of them such as Poul Anderson, Tolkien, and later Moorcock … but it’s absent, or very different in many others: Dunsany, Vance, and again … Moorcock. Alignment became far more important post AD&D, perhaps as Gygax’s religious views exerted a stronger influence, but even then unscrupulous parties, and even evil ones were an expected part of the game. I suspect alignment really gels as a “D&Dism” (and it’s one of the D&D things that has made it deep into popular culture) in the 1980’s.

The moral panic of Reagan-era America and its backlash to civil rights, feminism, and the other positive transformations of mid-century US society also fueled a virulent political and religious attack on the arts and popular entertainment. 

That brand of conservative thought -- a politically expedient mélange of puritanical religiosity, white supremacy, jingoism, and Mammonism -- is of course still raging poisonously through American society, but before it targeted vaccines, black history, transgender people, and the rule of law it took a few swings at Dungeons & Dragons. Growing up in the 1980’s, all the trapping of 1970’s fantasy … anything with sinister monsters rising from the pit, brooding barbarians with long hair, studded leather, and exposed flesh … was decried as a sign of Satanism by legions of fanatical white suburbanites. Even if one wasn’t raised in that mob, D&D seemed a bit risqué.

At the same Dungeons & Dragons was at the height of its popularity, with founders who were largely evangelical Christians themselves. So TSR acted to protect its brand. From the early 80's on it toned down aspects that the emboldened conservative fundamentalists found most objectionable to make the game family friendly. Using alignment was a key part of this strategy. The roots of Dungeons & Dragons in competitive war-game campaigns where some players might lead the armies of fantastical evil were expunged. Alignment became a way to distinguish "evil" creatures which the "good" heroes needed to murder ruthlessly. Oddly the game became more unthinkingly violent, though I believe it largely succeed in becoming more socially acceptable, especially as a toy for pre-teen boys.

I personally find this sort of game impoverished, by which I mean boring … as well as distasteful on a moral and ethical level. Fantasies of genocidal crusades and cosmically evil “races” feel too close to the rhetoric of very scary political movements in the US and other parts of the world, past and present. It’s also simple, dumb, murderous, and dull … and not in a fun way. Instead, I like a fantasy of pulpy nuance or noir cynicism.

The “Ghouls” of the Mud Isles or the Empyreans are the closest things to “evil races” that I include in my games. They aren’t born evil or with an insatiable urge to commit atrocity though, rather they commit atrocities for all the reasons real people do … they are either outcast criminal deviant types or they live in a society that encourages such things for whatever reasons makes sense to them: religion, anger, depravity, or a desire to get rich. 
“Humanoids” for me are better if they are simply people who for religious and cultural reasons, desperation, or understandable grievance want to kill (and sometimes eat) the player characters. Human evil, defined by understandable (if not often sympathetic) actions and desires that are contrary to the players’, is more useful then some sort of near ubiquitous cosmic malice.

I save cosmic malice for strange mostly solitary creatures like dragons and devils, but even then aim for it to have some sort of comprehensible root. The Dragons a scavenger party meets in the drowned City of Lud want to kill and devour them because dragons are predators that view everything as prey… but they are not aligned with the city’s ghoul bands through some brotherhood of universal evil, even if the ghouls are also happy to kill and eat the party.  there are no "teams" in my setting, and monsters have rivals, just as the player characters aren’t aligned with other scavenger groups they may meet. Even “Evil Gods” are rarely just in it to watch atrocities committed or drink up blood sacrifice — they give reasons to worship them, often compelling ones, before demanding "still-beating hearts" and such.  The White God offers literal immortality for example, along with learning and hope to a society where both are lacking and life is too often short and nasty.

This fantasy world of motivations and desires rather than alignments’ absolutes leads to faction intrigue. Even the hideous Veridian Wyrm “Deluge of Rust” might be open to negotiation. A dangerous meal of six adventurers may be less appealing to it then a chance to destroy and devour the ghoul band of “The Sainted Child” and the party can make the decision of who to support in this conflict between unsavory monsters. To me this is what makes RPGs interesting — complex social relationships and often moral quandaries that are built around the rivalries, desires, and comprehensible goals of monsters rather then the “heroics” of killing off entire bands of vaguely defined “not people”. Faction intrigue is also one of the key elements of the dungeon crawl, where players benefit from alliances and forbearance of some of the creatures in the dungeon.  It also allows the designer to include more asymmetrical threats and offers the players potential havens within the dungeon which can allow them to move more quickly to its lower levels.

None of this is about denying the existence of evil, or even an insistence on cultural relativism — rather, it’s about exploring how much evil one is willing to countenance or accept as the price of success and providing additional referee and designer tools. Yes, it’s fictional evil for fictional benefit, there are literally no stakes, but I find playing with these moral decisions, creates deeper engagement and offers a chance to think through decisions about real personal ethics. You will never need to decide if you should kill prisoners of war, but you may need to decide if a bit of unscrupulous paper shuffling or corner cutting will make you money at the expense of a customer or co-worker. Actually having thought about how you view personal gain vs. fairness may help - even if one did so in the context of a fantasy RPG. Take the job at Meta? Join the Ghoul Cult? It’s the same sort of decision.

In settings without alignment's mechanics of moral certainty players both have more decisions to make and more ways to interact with the world.

In my experience the fascinating parts are both the ways that many players act largely in for “good” and the ways that the XP system and basic mechanical goal of gaining power (and the illusion of safety perhaps?) through the violent accumulation of wealth pushes them to engage in antisocial acts ... behaviors which they hate in NPCs. 

While it’s somewhat traditional in older adventures for dubious allies to turn on the party, in the last decade and a half of playing I’ve found that the PCs are more likely to betray their dungeon allies the moment they sense weakness and significant advantage from doing so. It’s equally interesting to see the degree that players reserve their dislike for rivals who take treasure from the dungeon and respond to petty slights or rudeness. I have had a party happily ally with an obviously “evil” necromancer against the town they use as a base because the necromancer was polite and offered treasure in exchange for helping him while the town guards were rude and demanded a very small amounts of  "taxes" when the party returned to safety. Without strict alignment, or at least with understandable evil (and making zombie sharks to kill off the grand-children of people who slighted you is objectively evil), players often take the expedient but suspect path and this makes for a more interesting world if the referee is ready for it.

This post is an example of how I try to manage a less morally absolute setting, by having bits of “lore” about my world ready, at least in my head, for the moments when the players decide some evil cult, bandit gang, or other monster is their new friend and ally.  This only works with an active faction system, meaning multiple types and groups of "monsters", all of whom want different things and have their own internal conflict. Secondly it demands some sort of reputation system so that the players decisions are meaningful over time and have consequences.

In creating this sort of subsystem (and I think it works best as a simple numeric rating that acts first as a modifier for reaction rolls) it's important to treat the party as a single entity. This way the good and bad actions of individual PCs and any anti-social tendencies of one or two players become the rest of the players' problem and the party has to regulate its own moral decisions, rather then leaving it entirely up to the referee.


  1. A lot of nice world-building here, and it's interesting to see the frame of ethics/morality in it. I may write a post about my current Land of Azurth game in contrast. There is no absolute morality there either in any meaningful way (though forces claiming an absolute moral vector exist in-setting) but the player response is somewhat different.

    1. I'd love to see it. My own post was inspired partially by one at "I Cast Light" about how one of his Nightwick players decided to kill a henchman and join and horrible dungeon cult...

  2. Good stuff - the duplicitous weathermen have lied to me today about the amount of rain to expect, so this dreary rainwracked place hit just right.

    As much as I like the accumulated cruft of assumed D&D worldbuilding, alignment and the planes and so on, precisely because of its obtuseness and obliquity, have come to prefer a Twin Peaksy/Blakean/Session 9 interpretation of the outer planes & their moral fanglia, demons & angels & Dis & so on and so on as purely spiritual/intellectual beings/constructs which act on physical reality through influence and possession - the actual "monstrous humanoids" and suchlike simply "freak dudes" who might reproduce through parasitic oviposition, or whatever else, without any inherent ontological commitment. Also don't like orcs, but that's more to do with preferring bigger, stronger, meaner guys than the discourse.

  3. I think there's a place for outer planes entities ... basically they are weird and scary without exception. The Order focused Celestial/Heavenly Thrones are terrifying -- they are Rilke's Angels stealing all beauty for themselves, casually destructive and hateful when they are summoned, disgusted by the disorder and entropy inherent in the terrestrial universe. Likewise their antithesis, demons, drawn in by the promise of breaking down that order they can be trapped, but suffer immense pain from even the simple regularity and consistency of life - and to soothe it they must devour and break everything done into change and chaos. More particularly for Crystal Frontier there are the Void Gods of the Emperyeans - vast presences from beyond the fixed stars. Ever growing, cold wyrms who have no malice or joy, just the hunger for matter to add to themselves and gnaw their way back towards the terrestrial center (it's medievalesque fantasy it's gotta be a geocentric/Ptolemaic universe...) and worshipped by those who hope to be eaten last.

    I'm not sure if this is humanism or grimdark. For the players it just means that if you meet something unnatural it likely wants horrible things, and is entirely unreasonable. Human ethics don't really come into it.


Old Games

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