Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Charnel Ghouls

The Eaters of the Dead, a band of ghouls and ghasts, are among the more formidable factions within the Great Dungeon of the North. Their leaders are intelligent, highly civilized ghouls from the Distant West and patterned on the true ghouls of Wolfgang Baur’s classic 2e adventure Kingdom of the Ghouls, which was in turn influenced by the works of Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft.

A tribute to Baur’s take on ghouls was incorporated into the Golarion setting of the Pathfinder game. The Darklands, the Underdark of Golarion, contains a dread Ghoul Court which recalls Baur’s White Kingdom. Wizkids produced a couple of pre-painted ghoul miniatures as part of the Pathfinder Battles Rusty Dragon Inn set: A ghoul cultist and a ghoul champion. These sculpts were reissued in a single blister pack of unpainted Ghouls as part of the Pathfinder Deep Cuts Wave 7 release. I snapped these up thinking they would work pretty well for leaders of the Eaters of the Dead.

I tackled these figures by starting with a zenithal undercoat, then used Reaper Ghoul Flesh and Imperial Purple for the base coats. My Army Painter Regiment and Insane Detail brushes got some pretty good workouts as I finished these miniatures off.

Conceptually, civilized ghouls overlap somewhat with vampires. To distinguish the two, I think of vampires as cursed, wretched creatures clinging to the remnants of their lost humanity, hating their damned condition and fearing to die the true death. Even cultists of Orcus are terrified of death, perhaps because they know all-too-well what torments await them in the Abyss.

Ghouls, in contrast, are eerie post-humanist creatures who actually embrace their undead state: they consider themselves to be transcendent, blessed to have surpassed their mortal flesh. They view humanity with alien detachment and callousness. Ghouls neither fear nor fetishize death: as worshippers of the mysterious Charnel God, true death represents just one more transformation for them into blissful oblivion.

These two miniatures are useful for representing leaders of the Eaters of the Dead faction. Charnel Captains are military commanders of ghoul forces. Charnel Priests are clerics of Mordiggian, philosopher-advisors to ghoul communities. Both captains and priests are usually accompanied by lesser ghouls or ghasts. The sacrificial altar they are posed with was from the “Mythos Expansion” of the Reaper Bones 3 Kickerstarter. This model is another Kevin Williams sculpture.

In the Great Dungeon, areas controlled by the ghouls are filled with the faint scent of musty cinnamon and the muffled ringing of chimes. This curious detail is a shout-out to the Ssú of the Empire of the Petal Throne setting. “The Enemies of Man” are creatures so feared within Tékumel that new PCs quickly learn to flee at first whiff of cinnamon or the sound of bells.

The following text is Open Game Content.


These stat blocks use an abbreviated format that omits extraneous or redundant elements. Listen and Spot skills, for example, are detailed on the Senses line and not repeated on the Skills line; Feats that are “always on” like Improved Initiative or Toughness are incorporated into the stat block and not listed on the Feat line.

The Charnel Captain was created by applying the elite ability score array to a standard ghoul and adding 4 levels of fighter.

Charnel Captain CR 5

CE Medium undead

Init +4; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Listen +3, Spot +8

Language Common


AC 21, touch 14, flat-footed 16

hp 40 (6 HD)

Fort +5, Ref +6, Will +8

Immune undead traits; Resist turn resistance +2


Spd 30 ft.; Balance +8, Climb +8, Jump +8

Melee bite +9 (1d6+4 plus paralysis), 2 claws +8 (1d3+4 plus paralysis)

Ranged mwk composite shortbow +9 (1d6+4/x3)

Special Attacks ghoul fever (DC 13)


Str 18, Dex 18, Con –, Int 12, Wis 16, Cha 15

Base Atk +5; Grp +9

Feats Dodge, Mobility, Spring Attack

Skills Hide +8, Intimidate +9, Move Silently +8

Combat Gear oil of greater magic fang (+3), potion of displacement; Other Gear +1 chain shirt, cloak of resistance +1, masterwork composite shortbow (18 Str) with 40 arrows

Special Abilities

Ghoul Fever (Su) Disease—bite, Fortitude DC 13, incubation period 1 day, damage 1d3 Con and 1d3 Dex.

Paralysis (Ex) DC 13 Fortitude, paralysis 1d4+1 rounds. Elves have immunity to this paralysis.

The Charnel Priest was created by applying the elite ability score array to a standard ghoul and adding 5 levels of cleric. Clerics of the Charnel God (favored weapon: dagger) have access to the Death, Evil, and Knowledge domains.

Charnel Priest CR 5

CE Medium undead

Init +2; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Listen +5, Spot +10

Language Common


AC 20, touch 12, flat-footed 18

hp 41 (7 HD)

Fort +4, Ref +3, Will +12

Immune undead traits; Resist turn resistance +2


Spd 20 ft.; Balance +4, Climb +4, Jump -2

Melee bite +6 (1d6+2 plus paralysis), 2 claws +4 (1d3+1 plus paralysis)

Special Attacks death touch 1/day (+6 melee touch), ghoul fever (DC 14), rebuke undead 6/day (+3, 2d6+8, 5th)

Spells Prepared (CL 5th, 6th for evil spells)

3rd—animate deadD, bestow curse (+6 melee touch, DC 18), deeper darkness

2nd—death knellD (DC 17), hold person (DC 17), shatter (DC 17), silence

1st—bane (DC 16), cause fearD (DC 16), death watch, divine favor, doom (DC 16), shield of faith

0—detect magic, guidance, read magic, resistance, virtue

D Domain spell; Domains death, evil


Str 15, Dex 14, Con –, Int 14, Wis 20, Cha 16

Base Atk +4; Grp +6

Skills Concentration +10 (+14 casting defensively), Hide +6, Knowledge (arcana) +7, Knowledge (religion) +7, Move Silently +6, Spellcraft +9

SQ spontaneous casting (inflict spells)

Combat Gear oil of darkness, scroll of divine power, scroll of mass inflict moderate wounds; Other Gear +1 breastplate, holy symbol (dagger), funeral-purple robes, silver skull-like mask

Special Abilities

Death Touch (Su) Once per day the ghoul priest may use a death touch against a living creature (+6 melee touch). If successful, roll 5d6; if this is greater than the creature’s current hit points, it dies (no save).

Ghoul Fever (Su) Disease—bite, Fortitude DC 14, incubation period 1 day, damage 1d3 Con and 1d3 Dex.

Paralysis (Ex) DC 14 Fortitude, paralysis 1d4+1 rounds. Elves have immunity to this paralysis.


Ghoul Captain
Medium undead, chaotic evil
Armor Class 15 (studded leather)
Hit Points 78 (12d8 + 24)
Speed 30 ft.
16 (+3)16 (+3)15 (+2)12 (+1)13 (+1)11 (+0)
Senses darkvision 60 ft.; passive Perception 13
Languages Common
Challenge 4 (1,100 XP)
Damage Resistances necrotic
Damage Immunities poison
Condition Immunities charmed, exhaustion, poisoned
Multiattack. The charnel captain makes either three melee attacks—one with its bite and two with its claws—or three ranged attacks with its longbow.
Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 10 (2d6 + 3) piercing damage.
Claws. Melee Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d8 + 3) slashing damage. If the target is a creature other than an elf or undead, it must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or be paralyzed for 1 minute. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.
Longbow. Ranged Weapon Attack: +5 to hit, range 150/600 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (1d8 + 3) piercing damage.
Charnel Priest
Medium undead, chaotic evil
Armor Class 16 (breastplate)
Hit Points 75 (10d8 + 30)
Speed 30 ft.
15 (+2)14 (+2)16 (+3)14 (+2)16 (+3)12 (+1)
Damage Immunities. necrotic, poison.
Condition Immunities. charmed, exhaustion, poisoned.
Senses darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 13
Languages Common
Challenge 4 (1,100 XP)
Spellcasting: The ghoul priest is a 5th-level spellcaster. Its spellcasting ability is Wisdom (spell save DC 15, +7 to hit with spell attacks). The priest has the following cleric spells prepared:

Cantrips (at will)—guidance, sacred flame, thaumaturgy
1st level (4 slots)—bane, inflict wounds, shield of faith
2nd level (3 slots)—hold person, silence
3rd level (2 slots)—animate dead, bestow curse

Multiattack. The charnel priest makes three melee attacks: one with its bite and two with its claws.
Bite. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 9 (2d6 + 2) piercing damage.
Claws. Melee Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 7 (2d4 + 2) slashing damage. If the target is a creature other than an elf or undead, it must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or be paralyzed for 1 minute. The target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success
Channel Negative Energy The charnel priest magically unleashes negative energy. Living creatures within 60 feet of the charnel priest, including ones behind barriers and around corners, can’t regain hit points until the end of the charnel priest’s next turn.


The following text is the property of Wizards of the Coast, Inc. and is Copyright 2000 Wizards of the Coast, Inc (“Wizards”). All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Undead Gnolls

There is a great resemblance between gnolls and hyenas. Gnolls have greenish gray skins, darker near the muzzle, with reddish gray to dull yellow mane. Eyes are dull black and nails are amber colored. Their armor is of horn, metal plates, and leather; like their fur capes and vests, it is shabby, and the latter are moth-eaten and dingy, being brown, black or grayish pelts.—1e Monster Manual (1977).

Gnolls are arguably the most distinctive of the evil humanoids from early Dungeons and Dragons. While kobolds, goblins, hobgoblins, orcs, and bugbears all seem to spring from common Northern European/Tolkien roots, hyena-headed, demon-worshiping gnolls seem to originate from someplace altogether different. 

While many of the classic humanoid monsters are first described in Chainmail (1972), gnolls debut in Dungeons and Dragons Book II: Monsters and Treasures (1974): 

A cross between Gnomes and Trolls (. . . perhaps, Lord Sunsany [sic] did not really make it all that clear) with +2 morale. Otherwise they are similar to Hobgoblins, although the Gnoll king and his bodyguard of from 1–4 will fight as Trolls but lack regenerative power.

Note that none of the distinctive features of the gnolls as described in the 1e Monster Manual can be found here. A Greg Bell illustration of a “Gnoll,” on page 10 just looks like a generic, pointed-eared humanoid.

Lord Dunsany, the Anglo-Irish writer, is listed as “Inspirational and Educational Material” in Appendix N of the 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979). “Gnoles” are mentioned in his enigmatic short story “How Nuth Would Have Practiced his Art upon the Gnoles” from The Book of Wonder (1912): 

No track led up to the sinister gloom of the trees, either of men or cattle; not even a poacher had been there snaring elves for over a hundred years. You did not trespass in the dells of the gnoles.

Though [spoiler alert] gnoles are never actually seen in Dunsany’s story, they appear to be some manner of forest-dwelling bogeymen. Although I’ve never been sure how influential Dunsany really was on him, Gygax seemed to have had a special fondness for gnolls. They appear in the “Example of the Referee Moderating a Dungeon Expedition” from OD&D Book III, The Underworld and Wilderness Adventures. The party encounters a room with “a half-dozen gnolls,” but although Gygax describes the physical dimensions of the room and its contents in great detail, he doesn’t actually describe what a gnoll looks like. 

Gygax also developed a new gnoll card to the Dungeon! Boardgame. He mentions gnolls in his short story “The Search for the Gnome Cache,” from The Dragon 3 (October 1976). Writing under the pseudonym “Garrison Ernst,” Gygax portrays them much like the bogeymen of Dunsany:

Yer ain’t heard ‘bout that terribul country? Why, airs most slimey great beastswhatlives in the waters o’Nyrn, an’ the hills above the lake are cursed too! Ain’t no folks lives there — only bad things like gnolls.

Enter Yeenoghu

So where did the familiar hyena-headed gnolls of the 1e Monster Manual come from? I can’t find a direct source, but here’s a promising but extremely obscure lead: Strategic Preview Sub-titled TSR Jobbies #5 (Summer 1976), a TSR in-house newsletter produced in vanishingly small numbers. As detailed by Frank Mentzer over at Dragonsfoot, this newsletter featured the very first appearance of Yeenoghu, and most of the information closely mirrors the description from the 1e Monster Manual:

Yeenoghu resembles a human in general form, except that his head is a hyena’s, his chest canine in form, his hands paw-like, and his feet are pawed.

The Strategic Preview entry differs mainly on one point, but it’s a doozy: Yeenoghu is described as “The Demon Lord of Orcs.”

So at some point between Strategic Preview 5 and the publication of the Monster Manual one year later, someone decided to connect Yeenoghu with gnolls, and to have gnolls resemble their hyena-headed demonic patron.

So who did it? Gygax is the presumptive answer, but as Mentzer pointed out in a followup post, “Throughout the 4 Strategic Previews, there is no mention of authors, artists, or copyrights. [Determining an author for] the writing is trickier, and this entry is not written in HighGax.”

I have sometimes wondered if Yeenoghu might actually be the creation of Rob Kuntz. I don’t have anything to support that idea beyond “feel.” The name Yeenoghu, the exoticism of his appearance, the connection to ghouls all feel inspired by the pulp writer Clark Ashton Smith. And while Gygax supposedly hadn’t read him, Kuntz is a well known fan of CAS.

Earlier this year James Maliszewski posted a nice Grognardia entry on Clark Ashton Smith’s short story "The Tomb-Spawn," which describes monsters that might be a direct inspiration for the hyena-headed gnoll: the Ghorii.

The story is part of CAS’s Zothique cycle of weird fiction. While it’s not entirely clear whether the Ghorii are a tribe of bestial humans or inhuman monsters, they certainly sound gnollish in nature:

Into this waste, which was seemingly unpeopled and void of life, the caravan went warily. Urging their camels to a swift trot in the narrow, deep-walled ravines, the merchants made ready their spears and claymores and scanned the barren ridges with anxious eyes. For here, in hidden caves, there lurked a wild and half-bestial people, known as the Ghorii. Akin to the ghouls and jackals, they were eaters of carrion; and also they were anthropophagi, subsisting by preference on the bodies of travelers, and drinking their blood in lieu of water or wine. They were dreaded by all who had occasion to journey between Yoros and Tasuun.

* * * * *

[The] gully swarmed and seethed with the hideous earth-brown bodies of the Ghorii, who appeared instantaneously on all sides, leaping wolfishly from the rocky slopes or flinging themselves like panthers from the high ledges.

These ghoulish apparitions were unspeakably ferocious and agile. Uttering no sound, other than a sort of hoarse coughing and spitting, and armed only with their double rows of pointed teeth and their sickle—like talons, they poured over the caravan in a climbing wave.

Whether created by Gygax or Kuntz, the 1e Monster Manual firmly established the look of gnolls, their connection to ghouls and their demonic patron, Yeenoghu.

Amongst the ranks of demon princes, Yeenoghu is one of the most powerful and most feared. There will normally be 66 gnolls of the strongest sort . . . in attendance upon Yeenoghu, and if he is alone he can summon from 6-66 in one turn. As this demon prince also receives homage from the King of Ghouls, he can similarly summon from 6-16 ghouls if he so desires.

Fourth Edition introduced the witherling in the Monster Manual 2 (2009), a form of undead gnoll. The concept makes a lot of sense, but I find the design and artwork a bit underwhelming. Fifth edition brought the witherlings back in Volo’s Guide to Monsters (2016), and the artwork really sold this monster to me. When WizKids introduced witherling miniatures as part of Wave 15 of their Nolzur’s Marvelous Miniatures line, I knew I had to get these.

These were really fun miniatures to paint. I sprayed a zentihal undercoat of black which helped establish shading; in retrospect I should have done a second coat of white on top of this. 

I then used several washes of different Army Painter Quickshade tones, which helped create a pallid, desiccated look that reasonably matched the artwork in Volo’s. Using washes also helped preserve the fine details of the skeletal areas, which sometimes get lost with chalky white paints.

I was fairly happy with how these miniatures came out and look forward to using these in an upcoming game.

Undead Gnolls in the Great Dungeon

The gnolls of the Great Dungeon venerate the foul demon lord Yughooragh, who also “commands the service of hyenas, ghouls, ghasts, and trolls.” As a sign of his power, he grants many gnoll shaman the ability to create and command undead gnolls, which assume a variety of horrid forms. Slain shamans or chieftains especially favored by Yughooragh are sometimes called back from the Abyss as ghoul-kissed gnolls.

For 5e games, I would simply use Witherlings as described in Volo’s. But in a 3e game I would make use of the many undead templates available. Green Ronin’s Advanced Bestiary provides a handy Dread Ghoul template which suits our purposes quite well. The following text is Open Game Content.

Undead Gnolls

Ghoul-Kissed Gnoll CR 2

CE Medium undead (augmented humanoid, gnoll)

Init +2; Senses darkvision 60 ft., scent; Listen +4, Spot +5

Languages Gnoll


AC 15, touch 12, flat-footed 13

hp 13 (2 HD)

Fort +3, Ref +1, Will +2

Special Defenses turn resistance +2


Spd 30 ft., climb 30 ft.

Melee bite +4 (1d6+3 plus paralysis), 2 claws +2 (1d3+1 plus paralysis)

Special Attacks command ghouls, create spawn


Str 17, Dex 14, Con –, Int 10, Wis 15, Cha 10

Base Atk +1; Grp +5

Feats Multiattack, Track B

Skills Climb +11, Survival +10

Special Abilities

Command Ghouls (Su) A ghoul-kissed gnoll can automatically command all normal ghouls within 30 feet as a free action. Normal ghouls never attack a ghoul-kissed gnoll unless compelled.

Create Spawn (Su) In most cases, ghoul-kissed gnolls feast on the bodies of the fallen. However, any creature killed by a ghoul-kissed gnoll that lies undisturbed until the next midnight rises as a dread ghoul at that time. The new dread ghoul is not under the control of its creator. A protection from evil or gentle repose spell cast on the corpse prevents this.

Paralysis (Ex) A creature damaged by a ghoul-kissed gnoll’s natural attack must succeed on a DC 11 Fortitude save or be paralyzed for 1d4+1 rounds.

Scent (Ex) A ghoul-kissed gnoll can detect approaching enemies and sniff out hidden foes by sense of smell alone.

Skills A ghoul-kissed gnoll can always choose to take 10 on Climb checks, even if rushed or threatened.

Undead Traits Immune to mind-affecting effects, poison, sleep, paralysis, stunning, disease, death effects, and any effect that requires a Fortitude save unless it also works on objects or is harmless. Not subject to critical hits, nonlethal damage, ability damage to its physical ability scores, ability drain, energy drain, fatigue, exhaustion, or death from massive damage.

Skeletal Gnoll CR 1

CE Medium undead

Init +5; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Listen +0, Spot +0


AC 18, touch 11, flat-footed 17

hp 13 (2 HD)

Fort +0, Ref +1, Will +3

Immune cold; DR 5/bludgeoning


Spd 30 ft.

Melee morningstar +3 (1d8+2)


Str 15, Dex 12, Con –, Int –, Wis 10, Cha 1

Base Atk +1; Grp +3

Gear leather armor, heavy wooden shield, morningstar

Special Abilities

Undead Traits Immune to mind-affecting effects, poison, sleep, paralysis, stunning, disease, death effects, and any effect that requires a Fortitude save unless it also works on objects or is harmless. Not subject to critical hits, nonlethal damage, ability damage to its physical ability scores, ability drain, energy drain, fatigue, exhaustion, or death from massive damage.

Zombified Gnoll CR 1

CE Medium undead

Init -1; Senses darkvision 60 ft.; Listen +0, Spot +0


AC 16, touch 9, flat-footed 16

hp 29 (4 HD); DR 5/slashing

Fort +1, Ref +0, Will +4

Defensive Abilities undead traits


Spd 30 ft.

Melee morningstar +5 (1d8+3)


Str 17, Dex 8, Con –, Int –, Wis 10, Cha 1

Base Atk +2; Grp +5

Gear leather armor, heavy wooden shield, morningstar

SQ single actions only

Special Abilities

Single Actions Only (Ex) Zombified gnolls have poor reflexes and can perform only a single move action or attack action each round. A zombified gnoll can move up to its speed and attack in the same round, but only if it attempts a charge.

Undead Traits Immune to mind-affecting effects, poison, sleep, paralysis, stunning, disease, death effects, and any effect that requires a Fortitude save unless it also works on objects or is harmless. Not subject to critical hits, nonlethal damage, ability damage to its physical ability scores, ability drain, energy drain, fatigue, exhaustion, or death from massive damage.


The following text is the property of Wizards of the Coast, Inc. and is Copyright 2000 Wizards of the Coast, Inc (“Wizards”). All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

Father Dagon

“With only a slight churning to mark its rise to the surface, the thing slid into view above the dark waters. Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.” —H.P. Lovecraft, “Dagon.”

The Dagon model was one of the last rewards unlocked as part of the Reaper Bones 3: The Search for Mr. Bones Kickstarter, and one of several very large figures produced as part of that campaign. Like the Shub-Nigurrath, it’s another Kevin Williams sculpt of a Cthulhu monstrosity.

Dagon has a special place in the Great Dungeon of the North, even though Delvemount is many leagues from the Lythian Sea. Rumors claim that one or more gates in the deeper levels lead to an Abyssal layer of dark ocean, filled with sea monsters. I’ve previously written about the Dagonites, his horrid servitors. One of my sample Inhabited Idols is a Gargantuan statue of Dagon. And I’ve provided some details of Dagon as a Demonic Patron.

Like one of the ancient Deep Ones, this Dagon model lay for many a long year in the dark of my basement, dreaming and awaiting its time. I took a good run at this in the early summer, right before I tackled the Shub-Niggurath model. 

I started by assembling the entire model, though I did not attach Dagon to the terrain. There were some significant gaps with the limbs that I filled using Green Stuff. I then primed Dagon with the Army Painter’s Uniform Gray out of a rattlecan, but this model would have definitely benefited from a zenithal undercoat.

I put down a base coat of Reaper MSP Sapphire Blue, then gave it a wash of Army Painter Dark Quickwash. I drybrushed the figure with more Sapphire Blue, then added highlights with Reaper MSP Clear Green, and then another layer of highlights with MSP Clear Yellow. One of the things I liked about using the yellow on the model is it brightened everything up and looked a bit like filtered sunlight playing on underwater surfaces.

I then set the model aside for a few months as I was unsure how to tackle the terrain, which consists of two stone idols in a sandy substrate. I wasn’t quite sure how to paint up a sand texture—many modelers use actual sand or textured material when working on sand terrain, and I didn’t want to go there. I also had partially embraced object source lighting (OSL) with Dagon, and really wasn’t sure how to extend this technique to the terrain section.

After a few months experimenting with other techniques I returned to Dagon’s terrain. I started by putting down a base coat of white, then colored the sand sections with Army Painter Light Tone, and the stone statues with Army Painter Dark Tone. The Quickshades gave both the sand and stone a diffused, mottled appearance which to my mind worked well with the underwater theme. I then highlighted both surfaces with more Clear Yellow, which helped tie the terrain with Dagon. Although it’s not really an OSL technique, I really liked the contrast of the golden sand with the dark blues and green of Dagon.

I then glued Dagon to the terrain. I made a glaze out of 2 parts Pure White to 3 parts Matte Medium and 3 parts water, and used this filter to lighten up Dagon’s teeth, claws, and tentacles. I also lightened up the many spots along the demon’s three tails. 

To create a glowing eye effect I painted the large eyes white, then put down a line of Clear Green around the outermost rim of the eyes. I then made a ring of Clear Yellow just inside the green. I then made a glaze out of pale, pale yellow and began running this around the outside of the eyes, gradually adding more yellow to the eye and the surrounding flesh. A few layers of the glaze helped blur the three colors together and created the appearance of a glow.

To finish I sealed the model with Testor’s Dullcote. I didn’t really have a gaming base big enough to suit this model, so decided to leave Dagon as is.

Williams did a great job sculpting this model: Dagon neatly combines the features of a frog, eel, octopus, and anglerfish into a sleek, sinuous form that looks like it could be swimming through water. I felt very vexed at several points while painting this model, and more than once figured I had wrecked the job beyond recovery. So it was very satisfying to stick with it and end up with a miniature I am pretty happy with. Ad astra per aspera.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young

Ever Their praises, and abundance to the Black Goat of the Woods. Iä! Shub-Niggurath! Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!

—H.P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1930)

This enormous Shub-Niggurath miniature, sculpted by Kevin Williams, was an add-on to the Reaper Miniatures Bones 3 Kickstarter from back in 2015. Around the same time I also pledged the Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game as well as the Sandy Peterson’s Cthulhu Mythos for Pathfinder Kickstarters, which demonstrates how deeply the Mythos was occupying my mind eight or so years ago. Yet despite my best (or perhaps worst?) intentions I still have yet to run a real Cthulhu campaign for any system. I have previously written about the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath, and even painted up a couple different models of those lesser monsters, but it took me a long time to finally try to tackle their foul mother.

Rob Kuntz and Dr. J. Eric Holmes might have been the first to write up Shub-Niggurath for fantasy roleplaying games. “The Lovecraftian Mythos in Dungeons and Dragons” appeared in The Dragon 12 (February 1978). Their description of her is certainly vivid:

[This] fountain of uncleanliness is a huge grey pool, 100 feet across, in the caverns beneath Mount Voormithadreth, constantly bubbling and putting forth mouths, limbs, pseudopods and whole creatures. 1-10 small monsters are created from the pool per melee round and go crawling, flopping and flying away up to the surface. Some fall back into the pool which then grows mouths and devours them. … Thus the god is the source of all the foul and unclean creatures of the earth. The growing little monsters usually ignore strangers, but they will attack on Shub-Niggurath’s command.

Similar language is included in the first printing of the AD&D Deities and Demigods book, which also includes this sanity-destroying Erol Otus illustration of Shub-Niggurath. In the lonely wilderlands of my own Great Dungeon of the North campaign, certain foul madmen are said to venerate this abomination. Her dark young stalk the most desolate places of the farthest North, and one of the deepest levels of the Great Dungeon is said to consist of living caverns out of nightmare, a vile place corrupted with the fecundity of Shub-Niggurath.

I struggled to formulate a plan of attack for the Shub-Niggurath model, which is large and complex with many different parts. I was torn between assembling everything first and then painting, or painting everything first and then assembling. In the end I compromised: I used poster tack to put the model together long enough to prime and lay down a base coat, then I disassembled the pieces to work on the small, hard-to-reach features. Even with lots of poster tack it was tricky to keep the various legs, tentacles, and whatnot hanging together: the process was a bit like working an abhorrent Jenga puzzle.

I primed the model using Army Painter Uniform Gray out of a rattlecan, then used my airbrush to put down a base coat of Army Painter Barbarian Flesh. If I were to do this over again, I probably would have skipped the gray primer and used zenithal priming instead. Although the airbrush saved a lot of time, the Barbarian Flesh didn’t provide great coverage and looked very orange; in retrospect a more pallid tone like Reaper MSP Fair Skin might have worked much better as a base coat. A bolder and more interesting choice might have been to use Reaper Ghoul Skin, which would have both suitably grotesque as well as thematically appropriate.

In any case, I then disassembled the model and began working on the smaller details on the individual components. Between eyes, mouths, teeth, horns, tumors, lacerations, and suppurations, the model has loads of gross detail that I steadily picked off. 

Once I had blocked out these smaller details, I reassembled everything with superglue. There were a few nasty gaps that I tried to fill using Vallejo Plastic Putty, which is a product I have admittedly never had much luck with. In retrospect I wish I had gone with Green Stuff, which requires more work but gives me better results, particularly with larger gaps.

I then began shading the model using a variety of Army Painter Quickshade washes followed by several rounds of drybrush highlighting. I then started on cleanup and lining, which took a long time to complete. I spent a lot of time watching videos on painting eyes, since these are one of the most prominent features of the model. I was nearly done and feeling fairly satisfied with how all the eyes were turning out when I realized, to my horror, that goats have very, very weird eyes with horizontal slits for pupils—and I had painted all the eyes with round pupils. Although I tried to convince myself that round pupils were fine, just fine, in the end I broke down and went back to try and add horizontal slits. The result was a little disappointing—just five minutes with some reference art earlier in the project would have saved a lot of headaches.

I sealed the miniature with a couple of coats of Testor Dullcote, and then went back over the eyes and mouths with Vallejo gloss varnish. I would have preferred a somewhat glossier finish for Shub-Niggurath’s flesh, but I still haven’t found a varnish or blend of varnishes that isn’t too glossy. 

Finally, I mounted this miniature on a Reaper Miniatures 160 mm round base, suitable for a Colossal size monster. The figure’s native base was a little too big and I ended up trimming it back with an x-acto knife to fit. 

This model was technically the most difficult and easily the most time-consuming I’ve yet worked on. Though there were many steps I would have done differently if I had to start over, but in general I am fairly happy with how this figure turned out. I don’t know when or if I will ever be able to drop this beast into a game, but it certainly makes for a conversation piece!

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Hail Hydra

In “How it Started” I reflected on the slow evolution of my miniature painting over the last ten years. After looking at my early work on the Sandra Garrity hydra, I decided to scrap the old paint job and restart from scratch.

This model was included as an add-on to the very first Reaper Bones Kickstarter from 2012. Like many of the early Bones, the hydra was based on an earlier sculpt that had been cast in metal. The original Bones material was a soft white plastic similar to PVC material: fairly inexpensive, soft, and extremely hydrophobic.

I soaked the model for about a week in full strength Simple Green to break down the heavy layers of paint and lacquer, though I’m not convinced how much good this soaking did—removing most of the original paint required several rounds of vigorous scrubbing with a stiff bristled brush, alternated with dips in a sonic cleaner.

Although the model had shipped disassembled, I must have done too good a job with the glue because I could not separate the model into its constituent parts, which would have made both cleaning and repainting quite a bit easier. Rather than hunt down a solvent to dissolve superglue without melting Bones, I pushed on.

I opted not to prime this model, although I continue to doubt the conventional wisdom that rattlecan primer cannot be used with the original Bones material. I do find that an airbrush—as opposed to my brush work—can provide a sufficiently strong initial layer. So I used that tool to put down a zenithal undercoat with white and black, followed by a base coat of Reaper MSP Peacock Green. (I kept the same basic color scheme scheme in order to provide an apples-to-apples comparison with my earlier work.)

Once again, I found that the airbrush made painting a larger model much easier. The first time out with a brush I was constantly vexed by uneven coats, missed spots, and painting flicking off where I was inadvertently touching pieces with my bare hands. This time I was careful to use gloves and simply needed to handle the model much less because the airbrush provided such thorough coverage.

To the base coat I added a wash of Army Painter Blue Tone and then dry brushed highlights on the scales. I used a brush to base coat the spinal plates, horns, teeth, and talons with Reaper Yellowed Bone, which were then washed with a variety of Army Painter tones. I base coated the hydra maws with Reaper Imperial Purple, then dry-brushed Deep Red followed by Fair Skin.

I did have one late stage mishap with this miniature. To seal the figure, I tried using Tamiya TS-13 Clear Spray Lacquer, which seems to be a popular product within the model building community. I wanted to give the hydra scales an iridescent finish, but the lacquer dried a bit too shiny, giving the model a plastic-y look. I corrected this with my old standby, Testor Dullcote, but feel like the multiple layers of varnish took some of the luster from the Peacock Green scales.

I used a 75 mm round Reaper BaseBoss to base the model, suitable for a Huge figure. I had been unable to successfully base the model my first time out because the figure’s feet don’t have much contact with the surface, which I think is due to a slight warping in the casting. For round two I used a couple of small Irwin One-Handed Mini Bar Clamps to hold down the feet long enough for the Loctite Super Glue gel Control to completely set. The resulting bond seems to be nice and secure.

The redux paint job was a huge improvement over my first attempt: it’s nice to confirm that I have picked up some skills over the years. While I certainly wouldn’t be embarrassed to put this model on the tabletop, I also don’t think this was a fantastic paint job. I’m just not satisfied with either the eyes or the little teeth, which still look a little sloppy to me. I’m not quite sure what I would do differently a third time, but maybe I’ll watch a few more YouTube videos in case this old dog can learn some new tricks. Ars longa, vita brevis.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

You've Got Xmail!

Recently I was thinking about Traveller and the difficulties of sending messages across interstellar space without faster-than-light communication. The Traveller setting famously resembles the age-of-sail in that messages can only travel as fast as the starships that carry them. This creates an innate lag in the transmission speed of information, but also introduces significant uncertainty if the recipient is mobile. A communique meant for a specific starship might arrive in-system long after the intended recipient has jumped away.

Let’s say Captain Ir Uushli of the far trader Cydonia is sitting on the highport concourse far above her ship’s home port of Kline (Magyar 3012 A642987-E). The Cydonia is scheduled to depart for Fornorb (Magyar 2616 C997A85-A) in twelve hours with a shipment of electronics and the captain wants to send a message to her daughter Iriaa, who lives back on Gadarur (Magyar 2903 A7558B9-C), ten parsecs away.

How does Captain Uushli do it? How much does it cost? And how long will it take to arrive? What does Iriaa do if she wants to send a reply to her mother?

While sending such a message seems like a straightforward and common activity, the details are surprisingly scattered across several different Classic Traveller books, and some of this information never quite made it into every subsequent edition of the game.

As a merchant captain, Ir Uushli likely has many contacts in port who might be willing to carry her message to Iriaa. As The Traveller Book explains,

Other ships may be approached to deliver private messages, at times through the ship’s owner or captain, and at times clandestinely through a crew member. Private mail is usually intended for delivery to a specific point (such as the Travellers’ Aid Society building, or a tavern keeper), and is generally accompanied by a Cr20 to Cr120 honorarium. … Serving as a carrier for private mail also serves as an introduction to the recipient as a dependable, trustworthy person (53).

Similar language can be found in the MegaTraveller Imperial Encyclopedia at 90 or GURPS Traveller: Far Trader at 64. However, whether Captain Uushli could find a suitable ship is dicey. Although the Traveller Book suggests the referee “Throw 9+ for a private message to be awaiting transmittal, and determine randomly which crew member is approached to carry it,” a multitude of modifiers could apply: How busy are the origination and destination ports? Are they served by scheduled commercial traffic? How far away is the destination? And so on.

Kline is a high population world with a class A port, and Gadarur is a pre-high pop world also with a class A port, but ten parsecs away and off the main trade routes. Even if Captain Uushli found a ship headed for Gadarur, a little Type A tramp might take 21 weeks to get that far, and once there it’s up to the ship’s captain to ensure the message is delivered to Iriaa.

If the message was particularly urgent or sensitive, Captain Uushli could probably charter a courier. While this would likely represent the fastest and safest solution, reaching Gadarur in four weeks, it would also be ridiculously expensive—a Type U armed packet with Jump-3 would need to be chartered for eight weeks total for Cr540,000 using CT rates.

As Kline sits on a link in the Imperial Express Boat network, Captain Uushli’s best bet is likely to send an xboat message to her daughter Iriaa.

Many, many descriptions of the xboat network are scattered throughout different versions of Traveller and they are all largely consistent. The network helps the Imperium cope with the challenge of great distances between member worlds. The network is run by the Communications Office of the Imperial Interstellar Scout Service. This Office is “responsible for interstellar message and data transmission within the Imperium … [and] serves as a large-scale Imperial Post Office” (CT Scouts 6).

But how does an individual send or receive a message on this network? The best description of how the network actually runs is contained in The Traveller Adventure, which defines Xmail simply as “Messages sent by xboat. Xmail carries information only; material objects may not be sent. The message is digitally coded [and] … printed out at its destination and delivered by a world’s local mail system.”

Captain Uushli is in a starport, which Traveller5 describes as normally having a message center. Book 2 - Starships explains that such a facility provides “Access to communications (physical mail, electronic mail, express mail, telegraph, telephone, and video)” (24).

Who runs the message center? This might be an Imperial facility, such as a local branch of the IISS Communications Office—especially if the starport is on an xboat route and/or a Scout base is present. The message center might also be run by the Starport Authority. The Travellers’ Aid Society probably runs many message centers, though these might be exclusive to TAS members. Most message centers outside a starport are likely run by either the postal office of the planetary government or if this service has been privatized, a corporation—but in any case any entity handling xmail messages must operate in accordance to IISS standards, and perhaps with an Imperial license or warrant.

Let’s say the message center at the Kline highport is operated by the Walpurgean Postal Service, the Imperial equivalent of a crown corporation with a subsector-wide charter. At the center Captain Uushli can fill out standard IS Form 6 for her xmail message, which as described in CT is pure text in the clear. The Traveller Adventure shows us a completed example of IS Form 6, and a blank form is contained in CT Supplement 12: Forms and Charts.

“Typically, the message may be as long as desired, so long as it can fit legibly in the space provided. The text is optically scanned and transmitted for reproduction at the destination” (37). It looks like the space allows for about 3,200 characters, or a little less than an expanded Tweet. In addition to the message itself, the form has fields for “Date of Preparation,” “Addressee,” and “Destination.” IS Form 7 is a similar document used for “an Xboat Image Facsimile.”

As seen, this document strongly resembles a telegram form. As far as I can tell, the CT pricing of an xmail is only detailed in The Traveller Adventure: “Cr10 per 20 kilobits per parsec. The message may be sent using a standard Anglic character set (about Cr10 for a 500 word message) or a picture may be reproduced in facsimile (Cr20 for a 200 x 200 bit matrix)” (145). These prices reflect Terran data costs circa 1983. GURPS Traveller: First In attempted to update these costs to 1999: “The standard rate for Xmail traffic is Cr10 per gigabyte of data per parsec. Assume a minimum of Cr1 for any given message, no matter how short” (132).

By the standards of 2023, even these revised data costs are absurd. I would be inclined to simply charge Cr10 per parsec for text, image, or audio of any reasonable length (using IS Form 6), or Cr20 for video or holo data of any reasonable length (using IS Form 7). Reasonable here is the operable word, to be defined by the Referee. I would also rule that the recipient only receives a physical printout of the communication if required by the local tech level; otherwise the message is received electronically.

So Captain Uushli sits down in a small booth in the message center of the Walpurgean Postal Service and records a 20-minute holo message to Iriaa that mixes family gossip, business news, and exhortations to mind her studies. She also appends a written checklist of tasks she wishes Iriaa to complete. 

Captain Uushli then fills out an IS Form 7 and pays Cr200 (Cr20 x 10 parsecs). As the pilot/navigator of the Cydonia, under CT rules she draws a monthly salary of Cr8250, so this fee is quite reasonable. The cost of mail is almost certainly highly subsidized by the Imperium, which is not unusual for any postal service.

In any case, the center beams the captain’s message to the local IISS express station, where the message enters the custody of the Express Boat Service of the Communications Office. As CT Scouts explains, “The Service is responsible for operation of the express boats carrying xboat messages over the xboat routes of the Imperium. Service also extends to neighboring Imperial client states to which service and routes exist. The Service also staffs the various express boat tenders along the routes” (6).

At the IISS express station, a sophisticated routing program designed by Naasirka transmits the message to the next coreward-bound xboat. This xboat jumps from Kline to Stanko (Magyar 2810 A555649-C), relays the message to another xboat that jumps to Nosret (Magyar 2807 A897477-D), where the message is relayed to yet another xboat that then jumps to Anise (Magyar 2904 A8419B7-E). Three weeks have passed.

However, Gadarur, the next link in the chain, lies one parsec off the xboat route. The Traveller Adventure explains that “Express boats … do not touch every world within the Imperium; many planets lie well away from the mainstream of communications and commerce. These backwater worlds depend on less efficient means of information transfer and trade. The xboat service sends along messages by [Type S] scout/courier whenever one is going that way or once enough messages build up” (10).

For this next leg the message could either be carried on by the Scout Service itself or a private concern contracted by the IISS.

As CT Scouts explains, the Imperial Courier Service of the Communications Office “is responsible for carrying messages, small packages, and important personnel to worlds off the main express boat routes, and operates small courier ships running unscheduled routes as the needs of the Service demand” (6).

The [Type S] scout/courier is the final part of the network, although this type of ship is not restricted to working with the express boat system.… When a message can no longer be forwarded by xboat along the major routes, it is transferred to a scout/courier which then carries it to the specific world in question. Main routes are plotted to come within several parsecs of every star system in the Imperium, so the added transit time is rarely more than an extra three or four weeks (CT Traders & Gunships 8).

These scout/couriers are often operated by IISS personnel, but occasionally private companies win contracts for this work. For example, CT Merchant Prince states that within Regina subsector, the corporation “Sinzarmes is also a major mail carrier, delivering xboat messages to worlds off the main routes” (11).

CT, MegaTraveller, and GURPS: Traveller all allow Type R subsidized merchants to receive mail-delivery contracts:

[Usually] as an adjunct to their established routes. In order to receive such contracts, the ship must be able to dedicate five [tons] of cargo capacity to postal duty on a full-time basis, the ship must be armed, and at least one gunner must be part of the crew at all times. The captain is paid Cr25,000 for each trip made regardless of the amount of mail carried on that trip (GURPS Traveller: Far Trader 64).

Why subsidized merchants? These starships are financially backed by the government and are presumably held to higher operating standards. Subdized ships are also subject to mobilization (and use as auxiliaries) in the event of emergency or hostilities, even after private interests have paid off the mortgage. GURPS Traveller by extension allows Type M subsidized liners to receive mail contracts, which makes sense.

Traveller5 appears to allow any ship to carry mail if it is armed, includes a gunner, and has a specialized mail vault. This vault costs MCr1 but occupies only one ton; each ton of mail is shipped at Cr15,000. Mongoose Traveller likewise appears to allow any ship to carry mail, but has absolutely no requirements. Mail takes up five tons and pays Cr25,000 (2022 Core Book 241). Of all these different takes, I think I prefer Traveller5 here.

Let’s assume that Captain Uushli’s message, once it reaches the Anise express station, is then transferred to the Imperial Courier Service for delivery to Gadarur. After only a week wait the Courier Service assigns a scout/courier to make a run to Gadarur.

The scout/courier jumps to Gadarur, where the message is then transferred to the planetary postal service. Gadarur’s government is a charismatic dictatorship, and the postal service is a government agency. At low tech levels, a planetary postal service might deliver a physical printout of the xboat message to the recipient’s door by wet boat, ground car, flyer, or even on animal back. This might add several weeks to the delivery of the message, depending on the size of the planet and the efficiency of the government.

As Gadarur has an average Imperial tech level (12), the Captain Uushli’s holo message can probably be electronically beamed directly to Iriaa’s home address. The total elapsed time for the ten parsec journey of the xmail was five weeks—pretty good for government work.

Although the message was probably encoded to prevent unauthorized snooping by individual couriers or local governments, Imperial citizens using xboat messages likely have limited expectations of privacy. Survival Margin mentions an Imperial Censor Bureau, but it’s unclear if this is a product of the Rebellion era or an institution with earlier origins.

What if Iriaa wants to send a message back to her mother? Because Iriaa had a fixed address on an Imperial world, it was only a matter of time before the message was delivered to her. But her mother is the merchant captain of a starship on the move. Iriaa could always send a message to Kline, the home port of the Cydonia, on the reasonable presumption that the far trader will eventually return there. If Captain Uushli gave her daughter an anticipated itinerary and schedule, Iriaa could roughly estimate where the Cydonia would be at different times.

For example, the far trader will need three jumps to get to Fornorb. Assuming the Cydonia takes a week at each port, it would be eleven weeks out before returning to Kline. When Iriaa gets the message, five of those eleven weeks have already elapsed. Assuming it takes five weeks to send a message back to Kline and ten weeks to send a message to Fornorb, Iriaa’s best bet is probably to simply send any reply messages straight to Kline.

Not all travellers will have the benefit of a set itinerary. Merchant ships subsisting on charters or speculative cargo usually keep unpredictable routes and schedules, and might well be away from their home port for months or even years at a time. In such cases ships probably try to establish set times and locations for receiving messages and orders: “We’ll plan to be back at Kline by Holiday, and will berth there for 45 days.” The annual engineering overhaul would be a perfect occasion to establish such a rendezvous point.

Messages bound for someone on board a “ship at space” should probably be addressed to a specific express station rather than a world. In this way the message is never transferred from the Scout Service to the local planetary postal system. The xboat station probably has the ability to store such messages and a long-term data retention policy, say at least 36 months and maybe 5 years or longer. A ship that has recently jumped into the system might query the xboat station to see if it is holding any messages for passengers or crew.

It seems like there ought to be an option to send a wide-cast message for starships in transit. Rather than being delivered to a specific express station, copies of the message could be distributed to every xboat station on the network within a certain astrographic region—a subsector, say—and delivered to the ship once it reaches port.

Iriaa could simply address her message to “Captain Ir Uushli, on board the far trader Cydonia, Kline subsector.” The message then propagates across the entire xboat network in Kline, where copies are stored at each of the seven express stations. As soon as the Cydonia arrives at any system with a copy, the message is transmitted to Captain Uushli. The cost for such a message is probably a flat rate per subsector, say Cr1000 for text/voice or Cr2000 for video/holo. Such messages would also be retained for a set amount of time before being purged from the data banks.

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