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The Bound Gods of Ulkhur-Zakand (game prep)

Started by Shane Street, March 19, 2005, 08:56:13 PM

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Shane Street

The Bound Gods of Ulkhur-Zakand

You stand on a mesa, overlooking the fabled city of Ulkhur-Zakand.  Its vermilion walls just a shade lighter than the rusty plain in which it sits.  Slaves crawl over the white dome of the Great Temple of Zahar (blessed be the Name of the Most High), scrubbing off the ever present dust.  Like a train of ants, a caravan from the west winds up the broken plain.  Laden with gold and exotic spices, it will return with furs, amber, and silks.  In the distance, the land rises again.  Black scrub hugs the side of the distant bluff, choked with the dust and heat, hoping for the next precious rainstorm.

Ulkhur-Zakand (ul-KHUR-zuh-kund) is a trading city commanding the junction of several major east-west, north-south trade routes.  By guarding the routes from raiders and tribesmen, and by providing a secure marketplace in the middle of the world, it has grown in wealth and influence over the last several centuries.  Seven noble families, a few of the richer merchants, and the Temple of Zahar form a senate governing the city.  With a history going back millennia, it claims to be the oldest city in the world, founded upon the spot that man landed when cast out of Heaven for his sins.

Outside the city, well past the hard-scrabble farms that barely support the population, the Magar tribes continue the old ways of the True Men, raiding caravans and fighting amongst themselves.

The noble families hide a dark secret though.  Originally, they held their position by merit of leading the seven regiments of cavalry that patrol the trade routes.  But now a new source of power has cemented their position, and given new power and wealth to Ulkhur-Zakand.  By a great ritual (blasphemous even by the standards of sorcery), the heads of each family each bound one of the Seven Archons that Watch Over Mankind.  The secret has been guarded closely by the head of each family and his heir, the binding being handed from generation to generation.  Periodically, however, the binding must be renewed.

Now the rest of the world is fading; mankind may be in his last hours.  While the wealth of Ulkhur-Zakand grows, the noble families are now less secure than before, as in the honorable days of old.    


Humanity is dual, duty and empathy.  Duty is defined as upholding tradition and culture, obeying the law, and fulfilling obligations.  Empathy is concern for the welfare of others, especially those closest to you, kin first, your class second, those over you third.  Those under you are less important, and only those that you are accustomed to dealing with might rate for Empathy.

Humanity 0 represents a character that no longer cares about other people and his obligations as a human being.  He becomes an NPC thereafter.


There are two types of demons, astral and terrestrial.  Astral demons are thought of as living beyond the stars, and dealing with them often involves madness.  Terrestrial demons are thought of as living beneath the earth, and dealing with them often involves extremes of passion.  Contacting an astral might involve hallucinogens and projecting ones mind beyond the stars.  Contacting a terrestrial involves stimulants and things like sweat lodges and dancing to exhaustion.

Binding involves intimate mental contact with the demon, with binding strength representing level of mastery.

Demons can be Inconspicuous, Parasites, Possessors, and Objects.  There are no Passers, and Parasites are insubstantial things like essences in the blood, voices in ones head etc.  Inconspicuous demons might manifest as bizarre geometries, masses of tentacles, and other amorphous Lovcraftian horrors.  Possession is always a joint agreement, as in The Sorcerer's Soul.

Beasts exist, but there are no other immanents or undead.  The Seven Archons are the only known angels.

Sorcerers are those that have perceived the truth within the occult lore of their traditions.  Learned nobles of the city and Magar shamans that have seen too much would be two examples, but learning is not always necessary.  Lore might represent a bit of enlightenment.


Use the descriptors from Sorcerer & Sword  with the following additions:

Princeling.  Raised with the best of everything.  This can be good when it includes healthy living and command of the military forces of ones house.  It can also be a negative descriptor if it involves soft living and excessive indulgence.

Add Belief System from the main rulebook, especially for representing a priest in the Temple of Zahar.

Shamanic Training.  (good for low to medium lore) Magar shamans have traditions of working together.  Their knowledge is often governed by laws for the support of the tribe.

Moonstruck.  (good for low lore) A type of naive astral sorcerer, who has accidentally contacted an astral.  Associated with fools and madmen that look at the night sky just too much....  There is probably a similar category for terrestrials.

Changeling, Half-Breed, and Inhuman are removed from the list.  

A character could be defined as having only astral or terrestrial lore (but is not necessary).  If so, such a character may not contact demons of the other type.


There are still some minor things that need to be discussed like drugs, hypnotism, the nature of weapons etc., but can be set at our char-gen session.

Character creation will probably be in a week, with the indie-minn group.  the game will last 3-5 sessions after that.

Shane Street

Humanity may very well change yet.  Ego has been suggested (defined as individuality and freedom) in place of duty.  The demons seem to suggest sanity, but I don't know if that is what I want to run.  The madness and passion will probably color whatever definition of humanity we use.  The political structure is being ripped straight from ancient Rome, with a senate and patronage system.  Perhaps then something like gravitas would be possible for humanity.

What kind of decisions do we want our characters faced with?

Whatever we do, I will try to tie back our demons to humanity.

Also, from the original e-mail on prep, I changed the nature of the binding ritual from necromantic to unspecified blasphemy, and I added a line about binding in the section about demons.

Larry L.

I still wanna know where we're comfortable setting the sex dial.

Christopher Weeks

11, since we've decided not to play at The Source.

Larry L.

"Senate" implies some sort of representatitive leadership. Phooey with that. I want decadent nepotism all the way.

Larry L.

I think types of conflicts explored will be determined by what kinds of characters get made. I think the setting should support a fair range of creative possibility in this regard.

Are there any particular creative sources you are drawing from for inspiration? I guess I'm envisioning some sort of Ur or Babylon style city-state, with some sorcerously impossible architectural features. I'm seeing huge sloping city walls and a skyline pierced by Persian minarets.

Do we want a map? (Of the minimal, imagination-provoking style described in S&S?) I can see an overland map with trade routes running off the edges, with some evocative names of other lands they lead to. Or maybe a rough city map, if we can stay away from making that "Hârn-module" thing.


First of all, I love the setting. It reminds me a bit of the pulp short story embedded in "The Blind Assassin".

Great fun. I suppose my only comment involves humanity:

It might be the end of the world. Everything is going to hell in a handbasket. Yet the Archons, the protectors, have been imprisoned, angelic entities to serve humanity.

Seems to me like that is a critical thematic element. Perhaps it is the greed of these sorcerers that are bringing about the end of the world as a consequence.

Oh, and about Lore - couldn't that be knowledge gleaned from the angels under duress? I can see an Archon bound up in some giant instrument of torture, speaking the tongue of creation while people quickly mark down the words, only pausing to turn the screw again.

You also tossed out this "throw a way line": "man landed when cast out of Heaven for his sins."

I think it would be a lot stronger if you tied Humanity into one of those two concepts.

In the first case: Humanity would be your Selflessness, in contrast to the enslavement of the Angels for material gain, at the risk of eternal damnation, or something along that effect: maybe it could be Humility. Acts of compassion, of consideration in these final selfish days could be ways of increasing humanity.

If you're looking at the sin angle - then Humanity is a state of Grace: free of sin. A high Humanity would be a saintly character  perhaps humans can even ascend to replace the missing Archons. On the other hand, a low humanity is a person fast approaching damnation - their soul is a black and withered thing and their inner and outer nature tortured. At Humanity Zero they are above salvation and they either become NPCs are or dragged down to hell or wander the earth soulless until the Archons escape and can render judgment upon all the soulless.

I'm also looking forward to seeing one of these Archons get out eventually. Are we talking servants of a cruel, capricious, and stern deity? Avengers?

Are there shadow selves? Seven anti-archons still running amok - or are the Angels the only ones?

What were the Angels duties? To escort the dead to the heavens? If this is true, than it is possible that there would be animated dead, people who have died and still wonder why they've not been carried to their respective heaven?

As for the terrestrial and astral demons, I'm curious about them - how would they fit into the cosmology? Are they the embodiments of earth and aethyr? Minions of some deity? Rival deities? Things that were kept out or suppressed by the angels?

Sorry about all the questions, your post merely got me thinking about the setting and wondering about these various details.


Quote from: MiskatonicI think types of conflicts explored will be determined by what kinds of characters get made. I think the setting should support a fair range of creative possibility in this regard.

I may be speaking out of place here, but I actually think that the types of conflicts explored would first be the result of the themes of the game (Sorcerer: What would you do for Power?), the definition of humanity, and the definition of what demons are.

As there have been a number of definitions of humanity bandied about, I'd say that maybe the conflicts at the heart of this setting still haven't been decided upon. Once that has been determined and the demons are a bit more congruent with them, a whole host of conflicts would inevitably arise out of the setting.


Shane Street

Quotemay be speaking out of place here

No, not at all.  I like your questions.  I wanted this to get some scrutiny from other people before starting.  Looking at other game prep posts, outside input can help a lot sometimes.  

Larry, I was thinking a real degraded senate.  You get in by virtue of who you are, not by any silly, honest voting machine thing.  Can we throw out the senate but still keep patronage?

As far as creative sources go, just the lizzard part of my brain.  I was seeing more mundane architecture.  Large, spreading palaces with fountains, gardens and terraces for the nobility, silk curtains to keep out the heat.  Maybe, rarely, a bit of ice brought in from afar.  Mud brick hovels for everyone else.  Definitely minarets.  How that might be spiced up with sorcery, well that is up to you.

As far as sex goes, sure.  I don't personally feel comfortable narrating a lot of gritty details, but if you guys want it, go ahead.  That's one of the many reasons for not playing this at The Source (our local game store).  That and the funny looks we get when talking about demons in the way that Sorcerer requires....

Garett, HOW did you know that was a throw away line????  That just came out as I was feverishly typing this to finally get it out the the guys....

I will ponder your questions on humanity.  While all religion in this setting is BS, there is a lot of BS going around.  That doesn't mean that soul or grace could not be a posibility though.  As originally conceived, religion was not too big a factor at all, but it has been kind of growing on me.  I have been trying to do a character sheet for the setting, and my last design has things like 'to Zahar be all praise' and 'to the Name of the Most High be all blessings' written in the margins.  But I might scrap that.

As for your other questions, I don't have answers at this point.  The astral and terrestrial demons were an idea developed before we came up with archons.  Over the last week, all I have been able to come up with is this:  If demons are not from here, Angels are something else altogether.

Wait, wait.....

The Archons do things like alter fate, and push events along (for the 'greater good' and all).  They are from here and are tied to humankind.  Perhaps part of it.  The demons are outside looking in.

Maybe the guys have more ideas.

Larry L.

Okay, the bound angels were something I suggested to justify why there would be a pile of houses that have a stranglehold on power. The thought was that they are committing this profound blasphemy against the universe for the very earthly purpose of holding on to their political power, completely unconcerned with the consequences.

They're "Archons" because it was agreed we didn't want Christian-style happy nice look-out-for-you angels. In terms of the game rules, I'm not even sure that the angel rules in Sorcerer's Soul are appropriate. I guess I have them pegged as Great Old Ones. I think it would be neat if all the official tapestries and illustrations depicted these magnificent angelic things, but if anyone gets into the horrible chamber in the basement where one is imprisoned it's actually some monstrous slimy pupa.

But yeah, the Archons are definitely "something else" contra the other demons. There are a finite number of them and they are likely an important part of Creation.

Regarding sex... I figure I'd draw the line at pornography. I like the idea that a bunch of freaky sex acts are going on and these are perhaps important to the story, but I figure this stuff should best happen "off camera."

I was combing through a bunch of Sorcerer post regarding premise. Do we have any idea for a premise to explore or shall we allow these to follow from Humanity and Demon definition?

Shane Street

QuoteI was combing through a bunch of Sorcerer post regarding premise. Do we have any idea for a premise to explore or shall we allow these to follow from Humanity and Demon definition?

I think it will follow when we get other things defined.  The premise should evolve along with the rest of the background.  Maybe I shouldn't leave it so undefined at this point... I dunno.  I should be more of an autocrat.

If we go with dual humanity, it seems that they should be thematically related.  especially for going to aero humanity--both routes should take you to a similar place.  It should have the potential to be at cross purposes and allied purposes.  

Selflessness seems interesting.  It is kind of related to empathy, but says something about the premise.  Mastery might be a good opposing concept (somewhat related to ego).

Larry L.

My thought for why "ego" should stat nixed for Humanity is that it overlaps too much with Will. No need to set up a dual Humanity there; there's sort of an implied conflict inherent in the rules already. So if we want some aspect of ego to be humanity, we should find a term that isn't covered by Will.

Some thoughts:

The more I think about it, the less compelling I'm finding the idea. I'm thinking empathy and possibly sanity is plenty fine.

Actually, I think the term "sanity" deserves some consideration outside of a psychiatric context (a la Call of Cthulhu.) I mean, binding the fucking servants of God could be accurately described as moral insanity, but I don't know that that requires any kind of cognitive insanity. Just a little ignorance.

Hmm. I would really like to explore this distiction at some point in a game. I don't know if the game at hand is the place for that though.

If you have some ideas that you think are really compelling, you should feel free to play autocrat, and if you aren't that compelled, we can kibbutz about it. I'm really pleased to be playing with a group with this level of creative synergy.

If you're really itching to do some solo development, I'd suggest roughing out some unpleasant courtly intrigues to unravel -- stuff that could be going on above characters' heads or behind their backs -- since I'm thinking about playing that royal eunuch, for whom my creative agenda is for him to end up enmeshed in some nefarious affair.

Larry L.

(Eagerly waiting for feedback...)

Shane, do we have a fourth for this game?

Christopher Weeks

If one of the Humanity vectors is empathy and the other is class-appropriate behavior (Duty to Class?) I think we get the nice, sometimes parallel and sometimes perpendicular, decision-driving that we're looking for.

Shane Street

Sorry, for the delay.

Steve e-mailed me and said he was interested.  

Lets see....

Selflessness gives us a question like "What price am I willing to extract from others for what I want?".  A converse qusetion might be, "How much of my power am I willing to sacrifice for others?".  Both questions are easily paired with Mastery.  I am sure Duty could also be phrased into the question.  

The people that bound these archons have gone way down in humanity in the sense of selflessness or empathy, but are promoting their duty or mastery.