Call of Chicago: Re-skinning, Genre-Drifting, and Triskaidekasizing

One of the chiefest joys of roleplaying is the joy of taking an iconic hero or monster and re-skinning it in the light of your own campaign. I’ve put Frankenstein’s monster on stage in two or three games, recast Batman as a people’s antihero in an alternate Soviet Union, and made demigods of Aaron Burr and Daniel Boone. In published games, I’ve smuggled re-skins of BBC sci-fi, Polish spy fiction, and air-adventure comics (along with huge swaths of Robert E. Howard) into The Day After Ragnarok. In Shadows Over Filmland, Robin Laws and I recast twelve iconic Hollywood horrors in Lovecraftian light.

This month’s column goes that book one louder, re-skinning select deities and entities from the Cthulhu Mythos as the 13 Icons of the 13th Age. Lovecraftian cosmic horror  doesn’t really fit with the high-heroic, dungeon-fantasy style of 13th Age, but puritan critics notwithstanding, Lovecraft wrote in many modes besides nihilistic hard SF. Genre-shifting the Mythos goes back to fantastic Lovecraft stories like “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” and “Cats of Ulthar,” as well as outright Dreamlands fantasies such as The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and even the Theosophy-inflected world of “Through the Gates of the Silver Key.” The settings of Lovecraft’s revision tales – especially the worlds of Mu and K’n-Yan in “Out of the Aeons” and “The Mound” – invite fantastic comparisons. Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea, Zothique, and Atlantis stories are arch, ironic high fantasy, while Robert E. Howard’s Mythos tales tie directly to his Hyborian cycle via “The Worms of the Earth” and the quasi-historical Bran Mak Morn. Other touchstones for heroic Lovecraftian fantasy (or “sword and Mythos” adventure) include Brian Lumley’s Borea and Primal Land series, Gary Myers’ Dreamlands tales, Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane series, Michael Shea’s Nifft the Lean, Richard Tierney’s Simon Magus cycle, and Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Lords of Dûs, to start with. So you see, genre-drifting the Mythos into heroic fantasy has a long and distinguished pedigree. That said, the resulting world looks a good deal darker and less forgiving than the world of the 13th Age, as you can tell by looking at its Icon breakdown.

Heroic Icons

Usually: She Who Scratches

Possibly: Hunter of the Abyss

Ambiguous Icons

Usually: Black Goat of the Woods, Great Ghoul, Hunter of the Abyss, Snake Father, Spider Queen, Underworld Oracle, Veiled Ancient

Possibly:  She Who Scratches, Thousand-Faced Moon

Villainous Icons

Usually: Crawling Chaos, Dreamer in the Deep, Paralyzing Lord, Tattered King, Thousand-Faced Moon, Veiled Ancient

Possibly: Black Goat of the Woods, Great Ghoul, Snake Father, Spider Queen, Underworld Oracle

“Sword and Mythos” fantasy worlds feature empires and civilizations suffused with the power of the Great Old Ones, often worshiped in state cults or by resisters to them: Lovecraft’s Mu held Shub-Niggurath cults conspiring (possibly with Yig-followers) against the priesthood of Ghatanothoa. Other cities fall under the sway of powerful wizard-lords serving single gods, while the barbarians remain either blissfully unchurched or devotees of some founding abomination: Howard’s Picts, for example, are descended from reptilian folk obviously in retrospect spawned by Yig. You’re not necessarily stuck with the thirteen entities I selected: other promising choices include the other Old Ones from Lovecraft (Bokrug, Rhan-Tegoth), from the “Clark Ashton Smythos” (Rlim Shaikorth, Yhoundeh) or Robert E. Howard’s heroic fantasies (Crom, Gol-Goroth, Groth-Golka, Set). Beyond the original Weird Tales Three, I also think Ithaqua and Y’golonac, for example, are sufficiently local and individual Great Old Ones to make fine Icons if you’d like to swap them into my list. You can also use actual historical gods who inspired and appeared in Lovecraft (Artemis, Dagon, Hypnos, Pan).

Traditionally, the Mythos deities transcend even the Icons, at least as we know and suspect them. To bring them down to the scale of a normal 13th Age campaign, you have two choices. You can either euhemerize the Great Old Ones into super-monsters (Deities & Demigods style) or presume that each Great Old One has an Avatar representing its interests and guiding its cult on the material plane. Such Avatars might more closely resemble 13th Age Icons not just in scope and power but in their willingness to intervene in (and instigate) mortal squabbles, enterprises, and wars. An Avatar is also more likely to wander around the world seeking powerful artifacts or undermining her peers than she is to remain in one location. For simplicity’s sake, most cults of the Great Old One in question recognize the Avatar’s privileged status, but heresies, factions, and rebellions exist in Mythos cults perhaps even moreso than in human religions.

 The Black Goat of the Woods

Shub-Niggurath spreads her power through the oldest of forests and the most fecund of creatures. Her Thousand Young grow in marshes and fens across the world, their poisonous fruit finding its way onto the tables of idle rich and struggling poor alike. She stands for vines that choke buildings, and blood that swamps magic. She calls on the elves to return to her, their mother: the wood elves inevitably do so as they age. If they do not openly serve her, witches, herbalists, rangers, and druids know to keep on her good side. Her creatures include oozes, certain treants, and medusae; the stone giants recognize her power. She has bestowed her favors on the Snake King, the Tattered King, and the Hunter of the Abyss (a former king). She most despises the alien Paralyzing Lord, but her rivalry with her sisters the Thousand-Faced Moon and the Spider Queen is nearly as virulent. She dwells within the deepest reaches of the Wild Wood, but her fanes writhe in every great forest and in the holly-maze at the heart of Concord. Her emblem is the Upas tree, its eight trunks and endless branches crouched and heavy with poison. (Possible Avatars: Earth Mother, Empress, High Druid)

The Crawling Chaos

Nyarlathotep delights in confusion, trickery, and sadism. He shows visions of apocalyptic futures to the hopeful, instigates feverish dreams of war among the orcs, and dogs the dreams and nightmares of the brave. He spawns cults in a thousand forms, sometimes urging them (unknowing that they serve the same Icon) to war on each other. He teaches magic and heresy to promising pupils, creating monsters by such arts, and when he tires of their antics, he shrinks them to become familiars of the next century’s class. Some say the entire race of gnomes came about in this fashion; certainly he and they favor each other. He established the caste of ogre magi; his other favorites include various demons, most dragons, and the rakshasa. In idle moments, he builds great orc empire-clans, then betrays them to destruction. He deprecates his rival despair-monger the Tattered King, but rages against the Hunter of the Abyss and fumes over slights done him by She Who Scratches. He makes his home in the Red Wastes, having turned the Golden Citadel into his own temple, but often appears in Shadow Port before touring the Empire. His emblem is the three-lobed burning Eye. (Possible Avatars: Black Pharaoh, Charioteer, Prince of Shadows)

The Dreamer in the Deep

Cthulhu, priest and sorcerer from the stars, does not move among the surface dwellers. Some say he lies trapped in his undersea castle by a powerful spell, cast perhaps by a rival Icon — or by all his rival Icons. Others say he merely slumbers and only his dreams have infected the land so far; when he awakens, he shall end the Age and rule the world forever in freedom and madness. His dreams are quite bad enough: suicides, somnambulistic rituals, savage murders, cannibalistic orgies, and unwholesome artistic movements are only some of the effects his sendings have on mortal minds. His cult, as suits his aquatic nature, commands seas, fogs, and marine life, venerating his creations the sahuagin; those with sahuagin blood (intermingled in any other race) are his natural servants, as are green dragons and their kin. Sorcerers seek his guidance as first of their kind. His nightmare projections,  the psionic soul-flensers, serve him in dreams. His cult for some reason especially targets the Tattered King for reprisal, but also wars against the Underworld Oracle (who stole his subterranean cult of derro) and resents the Veiled Ancient for crimes unknown. His citadel lies far off in the Iron Sea, but fishing towns all along the Midland coast (and hamlets deep in the Fangs) hear his call, especially during its rare storms. His emblem is the emerald Kraken. (Possible Avatars: Drowned Sailor, Great Green Wyrm, Hermit)

The Great Ghoul

Mordiggian is the chief and father of ghouls, and the lord of death, destiny, and the future. He digs up secrets thought long locked in the grave, and converses with shades and spirits through his mighty necromantic arts. His tunnels undergird all man’s cities and the ruins of races from ages forgotten. His worst human servitors engage in ritual cannibalism; well worth it to gain the immortality he promises. His lesser promises, of rich grave goods in return for secret favors, are always kept: a guild of rogues wears his badge as a swagger. His favored children are the ghouls; the gnolls either worship him or despise him. He commands all undead, except those who rebel against the author of their power. Dwarves who serve Mordiggian are feared, and usually belong to lower castes. He, the Underworld Oracle, and the Spider Queen all claim to be the eldest child of their father, the wizard Klarkash-Ton, one of the Three Magi who built the world from divine words in the First Age. Their subterranean sibling rivalry becomes intense at times, but the Great Ghoul saves his truest enmity for the Veiled Ancient (who refuses to die) and the Paralyzing Lord (who refuses to rot). Mordiggian dwells in palaces built during earlier Ages beneath the cities of the world, moving his court from Glitterhaegen to Axis to Horizon for the most part, but always summering in Necropolis. His emblem is the canine Skull and human Bones. (Possible Avatars: Grim Reaper, Lich King, Vampire Lord)

The Hunter of the Abyss

Nodens was once a mighty king — some say, even the Emperor — before he lost his right hand in a day-long battle against the high king of the giants. From that time, he left Axis behind and has dwelt with his dire hounds in the wild spaces: the cold pine forests of Blood Wood, the rocky coasts of the Iron Sea, and now in his flying realm of Magonia. His allies similarly haunt such wastes: centaurs, fauns, griffins, tritons, storm giants, gargoyles, night-gaunts. Of civilized folk only the dwarves welcome him; the others fear the chaos of mind and emptiness of spirit his gaze leaves behind. The dwarves built him a silver hand, with which he wields his weapons: the net, the trident, and the sword. He spends his time hunting demons, dragons, minotaurs, and other fell horrors, mounting great quests into the Abyss to bring back trophies and power. He especially delights in thwarting the Crawling Chaos, but also sends his rangers and paladins to undo the works of the Paralyzing Lord and the Dreamer in the Deep. His magi are rivals of the Tattered King and the Veiled Ancient, seeking the same tomes and artifacts, even if he himself holds no particular enmity for those Icons. His emblem is the silver Hand, sometimes holding a Net. (Possible Avatars: Crusader, Huntsman, Wolf Tamer)

The Paralyzing Lord

Ghatanothoa came into the world from an inhuman dimension, or fell to it from beyond the stars — the Pnakotic Manuscripts are far from clear, and the scholars who consult them still less so. His true form can never be seen; those who behold his form are paralyzed forever. Thus he operates in the world through his priesthood of deadly clerics, and through tribes of orcs who crave the weapons forged in his volcanic lair beneath Balor. As well as weapons deadly and keen, he provides strange lensed jewels, weird apparatus of brass and obsidian, and other arcane treasures to his followers. They use them to gather secrets, blackmail princes, build fortunes, and kill their enemies. Only the horrific reputation of the Paralyzing Lord keeps some noble houses and dwarven strongholds from declaring for him openly and gaining his favor as the frost giants and fire giants have. He despises the Black Goat of the Woods and the Snake Father, whose venomous gifts he sees as arrogating his own royal paralysis. His servants also set stratagems and subversions against the cults of the Dreamer in the Deep, but few observers can say whether this is mortal rivalry over sorcerous secrets or something derived from the Icons themselves. His emblem is the Basilisk. (Possible Avatars: Devil, Mummy, Orc Lord)

She Who Scratches

Bast considers herself first and foremost the patron of cats. But, like them, she finds she must also patronize sunny buildings, pickled fish, combs, and other human labors necessary for cats’ continued indolence — in short, civilized living. However, those who believe that she cares for humanity as opposed to its emergent properties such as scratching posts, perfume, or catnip gardens mistake her motives at their peril. (She is, however, genuinely fond of halflings. Something about furry feet and plentiful leftovers, perhaps.) Those who wish her aid must deal for it, or prove themselves as devoted to feline prosperity as to their own. Her aid comes in the form of silent intelligences, magics of all sorts (including especially bardic magic), and swift death in the night: assassins and rogues are also her favored clients. She never aids (and often destroys) devotees of the Thousand-Faced Moon, her great enemy; followers (or at least conflicted associates) of her other rivals the Great Ghoul and the Underworld Oracle must merely pay a premium for her forbearance. Bast’s feline-filled palazzo in New Port is her best-known home, but there are quarters or blocks in all the Empire’s cities that Bast has claimed as hers, where she has forbidden any one to kill a cat. Her emblem is, unsurprisingly, the Cat. (Possible Avatars: Assassin, Courtesan, Priestess)

The Snake Father

Yig indwells within the sacred serpents of Santa Cora and the lizardmen of the Red Wastes, his hissing echoes in the caverns of the kobolds and the cloud towers of the couatl. Wherever a snake is, there is the tongue and eye of Yig, his intelligence stretched long and thin and sinuous across the world. He plans for a lizardman Empire built around Lake Hope and surpassing Axis, and for the rise of a Sea Serpent to tame the Iron Sea as the Emperor has tamed the Midland waters. Only when he focuses his attention in a strike do his assassins and sorcerers move in to poison a duke or steal an idol or suborn a hero. Dragons treat him respectfully, but stay at a distance — those few who ally with him do so out of desperate need or deep policy. He is a fractious Icon, at one point or another striking at the Dreamer in the Deep, She Who Scratches, the Underworld Oracle, the Paralyzing Lord, and the Spider Queen, but he saves his worst venom for the latter two. His brazen serpents decorate temples in every city, but Yig himself dwells in the living dungeon of Yoth beneath the Hell Marsh or the Red Wastes — or perhaps under both. His emblem is the Rattlesnake. (Possible Avatars: Culture Hero, Dahak (the Triple Dragon), Hierophant)

The Spider Queen

Atlach-Nacha, it should be noted, is not always a Spider Queen. At certain phases of the tide on significant days of the year, he is a Spider King, turning female and consuming himself as the hour changes. Only at such moments is she truly satiated; other times she runs back and forth from Anvil to the Abyss along her interdimensional web looking for new prey. Each quivering tendril guides her to a new target: a fat priest grown succulent with sin, a hollow tax collector to be filled with eggs, a much-loved child whose agonizing disappearance will send up diverting threnodies of despair. Her subjects (they prefer the term “kindred”) the dark elves, driders, and jorogumo carry out her wishes in matters of murder, spawning, and kidnapping, each act changing the balance and tension of the web. Her phase spiders take word to her other agents: prepare this town for conspiratorial looting, or set a trap for this over-bold barbarian. Her subterranean siblings the Underworld Oracle and Great Ghoul know her moods and methods and sometimes thwart her will, but she feels herself in true competition only with the Snake Father and only truly despises the Hunter of the Abyss. (That said, she is none too fond of her sisters the Black Goat of the Woods and the Thousand-Faced Moon.) Her emblem is the Spider, shown in royal purple. (Possible Avatars: Destiny, Merchant, Thief Master)

The Tattered King

Hastur wears patchwork robes of yellow and rust, but carries himself with sure and haughty demeanor. He seeks knowledge of the high places and flying realms, and patronizes artists, musicians, bards, lotus-growers, playwrights, and poets. Sorcerers of all races seek his aid and inspiration. He dwells on the slopes of Starport until the Emperor is soon to die. Then Hastur’s mirage city Carcosa appears across the channel from Axis, hovering against a white sky studded with black stars. Those who see it (not all at first) begin their campaigns of betrayal and back-stabbing to secure their place in the new reign; when Carcosa’s towers rise behind the moon for all to see then begin the orgies, proscriptions, purges, and settling of scores within the palace. Hastur holds great balls in Carcosa and attends them in the Imperial Palace, invited or not; at such times nobles promise him anything to preserve their places. He opposes the Dreamer in the Deep constantly, the Serpent King occasionally, and the Underworld Oracle erratically. His emblem is the Pallid Mask, as his Yellow Sign is forbidden by Imperial edict, perhaps the only imperial decree the orcs follow. (Possible Avatars: Artist, Fool, Stranger)

The Thousand-Faced Moon

Mormo is a seductress, a witch, and a dryad; she is a blind maiden, a mute matron, and a deaf crone. She waits at the crossroads to grant boons to those who swear to her, and sends her galleys seeking treasure and slaves. Her rangers capture rare monsters for her menagerie; her druids grow rare orchids and turgid mushrooms; her paladins fight the champions of other Icons to earn her twisted smile. She crushed the elves who disobeyed her in a previous Age, turning them into the goblin races. She remains most popular with the high elves, but enough of the other two elf-shards wear her badge to anger her rivals the Black Goat of the Woods and the Spider Queen. (The feeling is quite mutual.) She ferociously hates She Who Scratches, and her hounds (canine and human) fight those of the Hunter of the Abyss regularly. She dwells in the Court of the Moon, a sacred grove at the heart of the Queen’s Wood. Her emblem is the Triple Crescent. (Possible Avatars: Elf Queen, Three Ladies of Sorrow, Werewolf)

The Underworld Oracle

Tsathoggua once ruled in the north through a dynasty arcane; the Wizard King of an earlier Age was his greatest champion. When the Wizard King fell, Tsathoggua retreated underground, in all senses. His formal temples closed, he began to deal in magical lore, black blood of the earth, and in the secrets of creation. Slowly the world beat a number of cruel, stony paths to his cavern and his power on the surface grew. He has followers (even open ones) among all subterranean species (even the dwarves), but he most favors the troglodytes and the derro for their strength and cruelty. He keeps black puddings, purple worms, and bulettes as pets, and some of the latter wear his brand. He teases and chides his siblings the Great Ghoul and Spider Queen, which does not endear them to him. But his main concern is the Dreamer in the Deep, who bears him a dangerous grudge for suborning the derro. His living dungeon N’Kai most often bobs beneath the Owl Barrens, but he has a sizable retinue in Drakenhall among those who seek to hedge their bets after offending a dragon. His emblem is the Bat. (Possible Avatars: Bloated Sybarite, King Under the Mountain, Shadow Lord)

The Veiled Ancient

’Umr at-Tawil, the Prolonged of Life, wears a veil at all times. His school of wizardry in Horizon is the finest in the Empire, guarded by fearsome and luminous spheres and bubbles of eldritch puissance. His true name remains a mystery: some guess it to be Choronzon, or Aforgomon, or Ioxothoth. His devotees believe that his is the face on the Northern Colossus, and make dangerous pilgrimage there to behold his features. To hear them tell it, he created chimeras, owlbears, and gargoyles, and that was just warming up. He can build zombies out of grave earth or bone dust and golems out of anything. He is known to deploy chaos beasts against his enemies, and hagumemnon against more powerful foes, including paladins of the Hunter of the Abyss and scions of the Great Ghoul. Manticores generally seek the Veiled Ancient’s approval for their own magical activities, except those who wear the colors of the Emperor or conspire with the Underground Oracle. His emblem is the Key and the Gate. (Possible Avatars: Archmage, Hanged Man, Opener of the Way)


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