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Cryptic Recesses (comments) 
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Evil Genius
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Post Cryptic Recesses (comments)
Another month, another fanfic.

This one took a few days to put together, unlike The Islanders, which pretty much formed itself after just one morning of writing.

Story notes:

This one is based in a Ravenloft domain, featuring Ravenloft characters, unlike The Islanders. It's set at roundabout 652, when the domains were fewer in number. The Core domains present at this time period are: Barovia, Forlorn, Arak, Mordent, Darkon, Bluetspur, Keening, Gundarak, Invidia (under Bakholis), Kartakass, and Valachan. This story draws on the example in "I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin" to place Darkon and Barovia with a common border at this time in the Core's history.

I tried to be a little less vague, and a little more definite, about magical spells in this story. This is a tricky task because you also have to balance the need for poetic descriptions, etc. One minor exercise with this story was to see if I could more definitely place the spellcaster under valid 3rd ed. rules, rather than rely on some airy "bang! fwish!" type of spellcasting.

Canonicity:

This story uses events from the game rulebooks, as well as the novels "I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin", "Knight of the Black Rose" (for information about Gundarak), and "King of the Dead". I have read "Vampire of the Mists" and "I, Strahd: Memoires of a Vampire" and to my knowledge this story does not knowingly contradict them.

Note that there are in-story workarounds to certain events in the books that I consider to be misrepresented, but they do not explicitly contradict the previous books, logically.

From the Shadows is referenced quite a bit.

As far as I know, the only characters identified by name that are NOT canon are Scherbinung, Lixantri, and Thelandrus Dach.

There's a lot of in-references to various published books and characters and supplements.

Hope you all enjoy the story!


Word count: 8,423 words.


Last edited by HuManBing on Wed Apr 25, 2007 7:28 am, edited 1 time in total.



Sat Apr 21, 2007 8:11 am
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A few points about the story as I was writing it:



* ~ * ~ * S P O I L E R S * ~ * ~ *

Azalin's viewpoint:

It's pretty obvious whose viewpoint this story is told from. I loved the "I, Strahd" books because they let you into Strahd's head, and you got to see his thinking and even his wry sense of ironic wit.

In this story, I'm trying to do something similar with Azalin, showing the lich's rationality and his largely amoral outlook. He values several things that a human can sympathize with. But for other things, his own viewpoint is clearly a self-serving rationalization... rather like Strahd, in fact.

The two novels that directly relate to him only tell his story from a third person perspective, and in my opinion I believe Gene DeWeese's storytelling is better on facts than it is on characterization.

Azalin has a few departures from the usual campaign norms. He seems a little less bitter about losing his spellcasting ability - at least in terms of this story, he is focusing his attentions on escape, so perhaps he'll get depressed again later when the experiment is over. He also doesn't remember what happened in Mordent beyond a few dream snatches, and that does annoy him a lot - arguably moreso than the lack of new spells.

However, he does have the stiff fingers that the books since Red Box have noted. He gets around this by using a Ring of Mage Hand, which he finds somewhat ironic.

I have limited his spell list to exactly what is noted in GazII. He uses Wish spells to get around that limitation, but it irks him deeply to do so.

The Voice is his ability to use "Sending" at will (it's one of the spells he has Arcane Mastery). The Reach is his ability to perceive any undead in Darkon, and the Seizure is his ability to control such undead (although he prefers to have them obey him and contribute according to their own abilities, as with Scherbinung's free will). The Withering is the negative-energy touch attack that all liches possess - like any lich, Azalin can use this to heal damage. (Negative energy heals damage for undead.) The Sight is his divination magic, which he uses either through casting spells, or through using his Scrying Orb.

Azalin has a large number of spells that he never uses or discusses in this story. There are surprisingly few spells that he knows related to planar travel, and I pretty much mention all of them in this story.

Quantarius is, of course, Azalin's tutor back in his time on Greyhawk. Azalin appears to have trusted and respected him in general, and that shows in my portrayal of him in Ravenloft.

Vassaliches:

I'm taking a slight creative liberty here with his first servant vassalich, an undead wizard named Scherbinung. "Scherbinung" does not mean anything in German, to my knowledge. It's a rough transliteration of the Mandarin Chinese characters:
Image
which is pronounced "Shi1 Bin4 Hong1" in the Pinyin system. The letters themselves are not commonly found together in that phraseology, but I thought it was just about feasible, given that liches and vassaliches often conjure up outlandish pseudonyms for themselves. This would be one of the few Chinese characters in Ravenloft, perhaps tying in with the "Asianloft" world (if it ever comes out). The three characters mean "corpse", "wake", and "funeral procession for a prince", respectively.

Azalin gets through the vassalich help pretty quickly. In canon, we know he has Balipur helping him at the Grand Conjunction, then Werner Ruschieder in Chilling Tales, then Yako Vormoff in the Requiem, and Foedus in GazII. I felt it wasn't too much of a stretch to imagine what his first vassalich might have been like.

Also, you never see Chinese characters in Ravenloft. This vassalich might be the first. :)

Kargat and servitors:

The Kargat agents Lixantri and Thelandrus Dach are non-canon, though given their extremely limited role in this story I don't think anybody will mind.

Much of the descriptions of Avernus is taken from the From the Shadows adventure, and likewise with the sentient servitors in the castle. I made Aquinus the vampire have a slightly larger role, and Axrock is normally found in the smithy hammering out new Doom Guards for his master.

Avernus:

Azalin makes use of two Rooms of Wizardy in this story. (The castle has a room for each school of magic, as well as for elemental magic and wild magic, which increases the caster level of any matching spell cast there.)

The crows who serve the storyteller are mentioned in GazII, as the Corvis Regus. They were retconned to have been there since the ruler entered the domain, and I like the idea of him having non-human, non-Kargat servants too.

The room where they carry out his experiment is high in the towers of Avernus. Eventually, it is the room that becomes Ebb's lair. (It has the circular window 20' in diameter already installed.)

Elrod's canon:

I love Elrod's work. But, I was particularly annoyed and unconvinced by the "Strahd wins all" ending of I, Strahd: The War Against Azalin, where Strahd's scrappy band of assassins lures the Kargat leadership out of hiding and kills them all.

Instead, I tried to portray that less as a resounding victory for Strahd, and more as the first step in the retaliation process between the two darklords. (A bit like the struggle in the Middle East between Hamas and Mossad, perhaps.) Strahd may have killed Vychen and all Azalin's main Kargat heads in the past, but Azalin's Kargat avenge the deaths by hunting down and striking at most of those responsible. A fairly neat balance of power, I thought.

The names of the Barovian soldiers and the undercover agents are all drawn directly from IS:TWAA, and they almost all come to a bad end in this story.

Nanje's torture is emblematic of one of the many issues with vampires in this game. Their template is very overpowered as far as abilities and ability scores go (arguably even moreso than liches!), but they have a long list of vulnerabilities that liches do not have. Azalin made her into a vampire to punish her for eternity. Note that she drinks troll blood, a neat solution to the question of how to feed a vampire prisoner if you intend to keep them captive forever. Troll hearts presumably could regenerate.

A more serious continuity clash is in Elrod's work where she says Azalin never knew any teleportation spells. Yet the GazII shows Azalin clearly has Teleport Without Error in his repertoire! The only explanation I could give for this was that Azalin may have always known teleportation spells, but he never intentionally used any while working for Strahd, to lull him into a false sense of security.

I hesitate to rewrite Elrod's excellent work, but that would be the only recourse unless we can hold that Azalin, for some reason, merely chose not to show off all his power in front of Strahd - a feasible enough proposition.

Ebb and the outworld:

Basically, this story suggests that Ebb's arrival in Darkon was not a chance occurrence. She was drawn there by Azalin's first escape attempt. The cold outworld that she comes from is detailed briefly in GazII, where it seems like it owes more to science fiction than to fantasy. The humanoids on that cold world are never described in full. I tried to describe them in greater detail here. I think of them as being Grimlocks (Monster Manual I).

The dragons in the outworld are Shadow Dragons (incidentally, they were first premiered in the Greyhawk setting!) and the grimlocks use a clever little technique to defeat them - they pump the caverns full of positive-energy-infused gas. The dragons presumably have some organ inside them that generates negative energy, and this tactics causes a bad reaction to occur, choking them to death.

The outworld itself I portrayed as a rocky asteroid type of world with a central core generating negative planar energy (and which the Shadow Dragons feed off) and with the surface bathed in positive planar energy, sustaining the Grimlocks. The surface rocks appear to have radioactive isotopes, to judge from the effects on living creatures.

The positive-energy-infused gas that comes out also causes burns to Azalin and his vassalich, maintaining the continuity.

Other darklords and domains:

Duke Gundar also has not had much detail to his name. He is presented briefly in Knight of the Black Rose, as is his son, Medraut. I stuck to the scanty canon as much as possible for them.

Strahd's ring of nondetection is in the sourcebook. His headaches after scrying are well documented in Elrod's work. I tried to maintain continuity with Elrod where possible.

The "dark Olvers" that cross over into Darkon are, of course, Arak elves. The Greyhawk term for an elf is Olve or Olver. At this point it's not clear if they would be drow or not.

Writing notes:

My initial draft of this story had focussed more on the actual meeting between Azalin and Ebb (and specifically the brilliant combinations of combat spells Azalin might use to contain Ebb) but then I realized the experiment was fairly interesting too. Before I knew it, I was nudging up to the word limit and didn't have enough left for a second half of the story. Maybe another time.

As a final observation, I notice that I have unintentionally done a few things very similarly between this fanfic, and my previous one, "The Islanders". Both feature a character known as "The Creature" (although here I call Strahd by his real name too - the term "The Creature" is a carryover from House on Gryphon Hill). Also, both have a non-combatant meeting a dragon in first contact.


Last edited by HuManBing on Sat Mar 05, 2011 2:50 pm, edited 4 times in total.



Mon Apr 23, 2007 4:13 pm
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Very good story! I like the style very much and the handling of /expansion on canon is masterful. Also the references to game concept/rules are very nice and well handled and absolutely nessecary for game fiction imho. The Islanders feels less like a D&D or even Ravenloft world because of that. King of the Dead might be a good model to go for decriptions of spells: I recall that the description of Firan's rise as a wizard references several spells. OTOH it still leaves some things open to interpretion/adaption such as the initial ritual of summoning that goes wrong. In all a good mixture. I'll have to reread that book, aren't there portions of it written from Firan's perspective in it too?

I sure hope we'll hear more from Azalin in subsequent short stories.

Minor gripe 1: Never heard the term "Olver" before. Greyhawk terminology would be olve for elf, olven for elven, olves for elfs/elves.

Minor gripe 2: When Azalin refers to Strahd by name finally it seems out of character. Sticking to The Creature or Bloodsucker seems more coherent.

Oh and what about the dread possibility of Ebb's consort? You do directly contradict that one, though granted it is only a possibility.


Thu Apr 26, 2007 4:15 am
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Glad you like the story! I really enjoyed writing it and I hope people learn a little bit more about lichdom through it. (Come to the dark side. We have cookies.)

About the Olve/Olvers - I think you're right! :oops: The "Olver" term was one that I used in my homebrew, so that's probably where the corruption came from. It's entirely possible that Azalin merely misremembered the term while he was a living human, and that mismemory stuck into his lichhood (after all, it's just one "r" away from "Olve"). It's unlikely that a lich would forget, given their greater mental focus.

As for Gloom, I am not aware of any canon transgression. Gloom doesn't appear in the timeline at all until well after the Grand Conjunction, Requiem, and arguably the restoration of Azalin. Gloom is never referenced in 2nd ed. (which would be the time setting of this piece) but appears in 3rd ed. (and only in the Gaz2 at that). So I figured Ebb had a few centuries to languish in solitude before finding her soul mate.

Now, the story of how Gloom enters Ravenloft could make for an interesting sequel indeed! :)

As far as King of the Dead goes, the entire book is written in third person. Also, in my opinion (and you can read my review of it here) the characterizations are a little simplistic. It seems like Gene DeWeese had a checklist of things he had to hit, and so he made sure he hit them all.

Quote:
From the notebook of GdW:

Firan is:
a) Irascible. Check. Page 111.
b) Arrogant. Check. Page 112.
c) Killed his only begotten son after a lifetime spent unsuccessfully trying to show him the necessity of a reign of force to keep the plebs and peons in order. Check. Pages 113 through 115. Also 118.
d) Sexually impotent. Check. Page 96.
e) Regains his mojo. Check. Page 98.
f) Loud. Check. Pages 1 through 315.


As opposed to the writing style of P. N. Elrod, which was much more flowing and organic, and which really made you sympathetic (if even reluctantly so) for Strahd.

(Note that DeWeese already surpassed many a Ravenloft canon writer in merely getting the facts right. That alone should not be discounted against him.)

Also, one gripe I had with DeWeese was his conversations. Elrod preserved the conversation between Azalin and Strahd for her book I,S:TWAA, claiming it was "masterful". But for me it was not. The entire pace of I,S:TWAA ground to a halt with that conversation, because each side was speaking in lengthy, unnatural sentences that contained clauses within clauses nestled up against passives and subjunctives.

Sadly, KotD is largely filled with similar styles of speech. When Azalin isn't bullying or shouting at people, the conversations are lengthy and hard to follow.

Another reason why, in my short story, Azalin actually doesn't say anything. Nothing is in quotations from him. Occasionally, a sentence here or there will become directly conversational with the reader, but there is no other conversation. Azalin has the Voice with which to make himself understood by most living creatures, and he can simply use his Reach to make his wishes known by undead creatures.

The final point is that there is always an artistic need to balance detailed technical descriptions ("He cast a Wish from a scroll to copy Plane Shift") against the poetic descriptions ("A few murmured syllables, a few gestures of power, and I had reached with my Art to my servant's thoughts"). Elrod's work presents a Strahd who is very abstract in referring to his magic, and follows much more closely to the latter type of description.

For Azalin, who is much more conversant with handling magic, I thought it would be more suitable (and more believable) for him to refer to it with a somewhat more clinical, experimental mindset. I didn't want to get into the intricacies of "he cast Energy Drain, a L9 arcane spell, as a L18 caster, but because he was in the Room of Necromancy, it added two levels to his Effective Caster Level, for a total of L20!", but I did want to give an idea of how he would use multiple Gates to maintain the Passage, and also how he made heavy reliance on scrolls, as any non-sorceror arcane spellcaster tends to.


Last edited by HuManBing on Fri Apr 27, 2007 6:49 am, edited 1 time in total.



Thu Apr 26, 2007 6:48 am
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One final thing: I have removed the in-text Chinese characters because I gather people were having difficulty reading them. (In some computers these would just turn up as large rectangular boxes.)

So instead I did a .gif file of the three Chinese characters and they are now hotlinked both in the story and in the comments thread. I've hotlinked them from a Geocities account. Hopefully the hotlink will continue to work and Geocities won't block it.


Edit: Geocities was taken offline in late 2009. A year and a half later, I finally got round to hosting the gif somewhere more secure. With a guardian daemon watching. So behave yourselves.


Last edited by HuManBing on Sat Mar 05, 2011 2:53 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Thu Apr 26, 2007 7:29 am
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The Giamarga wrote:
Minor gripe 1: Never heard the term "Olver" before. Greyhawk terminology would be olve for elf, olven for elven, olves for elfs/elves.

I watched you guys kibitz over this and I wound up remembering an old line from the Smurfs comic strip. Brainy Smurf quotes from his smurfish grammar
"The plural of 'Smurf' is 'Smurfs' except in the irregular plurals, 'Smurf', 'Smurves', and 'Smurfen'". perhaps that rule applies here as well.

Great story, by the way. Makes me wonder about how I'm going to do things when any of my characters meet Azalin.

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Thu Apr 26, 2007 10:08 pm
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The Giamarga wrote:
Minor gripe 2: When Azalin refers to Strahd by name finally it seems out of character. Sticking to The Creature or Bloodsucker seems more coherent.


This I agree with, on re-reading. Therefore, I have gone back and switched the direct references back to "The Creature" or "The Bloodsucker". My earlier fear had been that people would be faced with too many oblique references, which would confuse them. However, Strahd is easily recognizable from oblique references, so I figure I can get back in character and never mention him by name.


Fri Apr 27, 2007 6:30 am
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Smurf-tastic!


Wed May 02, 2007 3:36 am
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Very enjoyable.

Thanx.

The atmosphere surrounding the experiment itself somehow reminds me of Lovecraft. Perhaps it is the mad willingness to hurl oneself from the known through the dead void on an alien and wholy hostile world.

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Thu Feb 21, 2008 7:36 pm
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Yes, that's similar to what I was trying for in this piece. Azalin is a powerful mage, but even powerful mages encounter situations that perplex them. I wanted to portray Azalin at work at his primary project, which arguably consumes even more time than his leadership role as King of Darkon. The conflict here is one of solving problems and being flexible and adaptable in the face of adversity.

I thought it was a shame that in many novels, magical research is simply dismissed in a few lines of wave-away text. Granted, it might not be as sexy as DnD combat, but magical research strikes me as being one of those things where the author has limitless freedom to make stuff up and to demonstrate a protagonist reacting to abstract problems, rather like a physicist or a mathematician puzzling out a theorem.


Tue Mar 04, 2008 7:09 am
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Post Re: Cryptic Recesses (comments)
I went back to the story to put the (center)(/center) tags on the paragraph breaks.

While doing that, I winced at the various mistakes and gaffes I'd made in writing years ago.

So I cleaned up some of the copy as well, and split the final massively-long post into two more reasonably-sized posts.


There are no real substantive changes to the text, so if you've already read the story there's really no reason to go back and read it again.

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