Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mad Wizards and Insane Geniuses

From Dungeons and Dragons, Volume One: Men & Magic, page 6:
"...the participants can then be allowed to make their first descent into the dungeons beneath the 'huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses.'"

What if Olaf Stapledon's Odd John grew up in Mervin Peake's Gormenghast?

The sentence above from Men & Magic really caught my eye and instead of getting embroiled in yet another tempest in a teacup over whatever miscommunication is currently ruffling feathers and stirring up angst and vituperation out on the internet, I want to consider this particular concept from the stone age of RPGs, as it has very real implications to my setting of Riskail

Mad Wizards and Insane Geniuses could easily be the name of its own RPG.  I'd consider buying it.

The notion of "a vast castle" in and of itself is quite interesting, doubly so as it was being put forward by a very knowledgeable Medievalist like Gygax.  Historically, most castles were fairly small.  Most, but not all.  A large castle implies a level of prosperity, power and political influence that is quite extraordinary.  This is not some small, dirty Keep out on some bleak and benighted Borderland, though it may well be run down and seedy if not decayed and collapsing around the edges either from sheer age, fatigue or neglect.  It could very well be a major center of power, possibly even located within the older precincts of a larger metropolitan area such as a palace within the boundaries of Paris, or some manor in London, or an ancestral estate in the immediate vicinity of Rome, some villa in Asia Minor or even a former monastery carved into the side of a mountain like Potala in Tibet.  There are so many really interesting examples and ideas that can be drawn from actual history even before the fantastic gets added to the mix.  Ah history.  Generations of insane geniuses imply a history of sorts, if only to keep the family tree sorted out.  Hybrids, taints, curses...there's a lot that can be done with a lineage like that, not counting the specific undead or demon-possessed beings that might be prowling about in the cellars, grandfather's vengeful homunculus who is kept suspended in a cage down in his old anatomy theater, or the great uncle who is now a lich and so on.

Instead of some blasted tower out in the lonely wastes just past the local dark and dangerous forest, what if this vast castle were right smack-dab in the very heart of a thriving, hustling-bustling city-state?  Is it really, truly ruined, or just in bad repair, or suffering from the after-effects of failed experiments, previous riots by irate mobs of the outraged local peasantry, or have the masters truly fallen upon hard times?  Maybe the place was abandoned by the real owners and these mad wizards are a degenerate lot of interlopers who are clandestinely squatting in the place.  Possibly the huge ruined pile is a great laboratory erected for the serious work of a Tesla or Edison, some ground-breaking genius who singlehandedly shoved the technological/sorcerous envelope far beyond anything the world was prepared for, and suffered a nervous breakdown and possibly even suicide as a result. 

Tragedy, betrayal and misfortune are all wonderful components to the underlying soap opera that serves as the backstory for a particular dungeon having been built or being in the currently ruinous state of disrepair, disruption or decay.  Generations of mad wizards might have strange uses for the ancestral tombs and catacombs that their ancestors built over the remains of whatever was there previously.  Insane geniuses may very well have paid a fortune to have extended their own private network of tunnels into the local city-state's sewer system so that they could travel by subterranean gondola from the most bohemian art galleries and all the best museums to illicit crematoria-cafes run by discrete yet discerning ghouls and secret apothecaries catering to the peculiar needs of non-humans to the basement of the local opera house and elsewhere.

In short, this is a truly excellent way to get the whole dungeon design process started.  So I went back over my notes and selected a few tried-and-true wizards and spontaneously knocked-together a couple others in order to assemble a list of my Top Ten Mad Wizards for Riskail.

Old man, young boy, or a man in the prime of his life, Aesic appears as any of these at any time as though his aging process were somehow deranged by his persistent obsession with mazes of every kind, type and style.  The single thing that remains constant about Aesic, aside from his obsession with mazes are his hands; they are backwards.  Some say it was a sign of his dealings with a less-than-kind former mentor, others say it was a punishment he received from some unmentionable transgression against the wrathful potentate of some distant plane whom he managed to offend during an unfortunate period in his wayward youth.

C'Len the Withdrawn
Dark, sinister and perpetually brooding, C'len cruelly rules over a massive fortress-estate carved into a single stalactite suspended over the deep sea of Imbrooja far beyond the more familiar lands of the Great Rift.  Her agents and her servitors can be found prowling restlessly at the fringes of many settlements or trading discretely in the less well regulated markets of those city-states least likely to ask too many questions as to their mistresses' intentions.  A militant adept, C'len only teaches her most basic attack spells to chosen acolytes who have passed various difficult and demanding trials, not the least of which is surviving sorcerous gladiatorial combat in her private arena.

Jeg Dael
Her eyes seem to almost be carved from the most exquisite amber, but few would willingly look into them for any reason.  She was raised among witches, adopted into a clan of chymists and is reputed to have traveled to the very court of the astrologer-king Mardui himself in order to learn all she could of the esoteric secrets of the bitter and spiteful stars that haunt the darkness beyond the Great Rift's outermost rim.  Cold and distant, Jeg Dael is allegedly almost as spiteful as the stars herself.

A master craftsman and accomplished artisan known for his elegant drawings that demonstrate various arcane realities and especially his work detailing the subtle anatomy of the energy-centers of each of the known races which had been available for his study more than a century ago.  He has been doing research, traveling and laboring over his amended, revised and updated version of the manual which is much overdue and long awaited.

A grim, taciturn being clad in the heavily worn armor of an antique spell-fighter and the black-edged robes of a combat-karcist who never reveals his face and whose true name is unknown.  'Tharlon' is an antiquated title somewhat akin to lieutenant or colonel, depending on the emphasis.  He is very possibly the foremost exorcist and expert in the art of banishment and the release of spirits in the entire world.  One need only tie a note requesting assistance to the leg of a red pigeon and whisper 'Tharlon' to it as you release it at sunset and in a matter of a few hours or days Tharlon will come in answer to a sincere summons.  Few ever trifle with this being and lesser demons have been known to flee in abject terror upon hearing that Tharlon was approaching.

An orator and ranconteur with a ready wit and a glib tongue, Balzoor is a polyglot-master of myriad dead and obscure languages, some lost to history, other better forgotten.  He is a very private collector of manuscripts, scrolls, ancient tablets and any and every other form of writing or information storage either technological or otherwise, and he has paid immense sums for the merest fragments of certain old journals or golden disks etched with unreadable characters and other such things.  Large, fat and very much a creature of comfort and conversation, Balzoor has extensive connections amongst various criminal enterprises, underground movements, fringe groups and other stranger groups including several secret societies.  Few know as much about the deep past, or the darkest dealings and hushed-up secrets of the various tyrants, demagogues and petty-emperors and the squabbling lineages of the city-states as does Balzoor.  You can count on it.

A mysterious reclusive scholar curiously maimed during a strange experiment that resulted in his left hand becoming a dull gray thing that somehow extended into more than a dozen adjacent planes simultaneously.  Forsaking his name and previous identity, Grayhand set about rebuilding his ancestral estates with the help of allies and servitors called forth from other spheres of existence.  He does not like to be bothered, and only a privileged few are ever invited to one of Grayhand's few and sporadic fetes or private audiences.  His interests are far ranging and obscure, in some instances even quite bizarre, but in all things Grayhand operates honorably and fairly, and never precipitously.  Grayhand is responsible for numerous re-translations and extended/amended revisions to many of the most important works on Ley-Lines and the phenomena of emanatory spheres and resonant spaces.

Freakish, garish and outrageous, Lorshal has so modified his own body as to have become the unique specimen of his own species.  Eminently mutable, mercurial and capricious, Lorshal often refers to himself as a work in progress (usually in third person).  Utterly devastated by ennui and tortured beyond all mortal ken by boredom, Lorshal is always arranging special entertainments, peculiar garden parties, sorcerous salons, and he sponsors a variety of live theater groups as well as finances various poets, artists, and authors that he might have the pleasure of their company, the benefit of their work, and the servitude of their souls for all eternity.

An incredibly rich and ancient lich who occupies the bodies of triplets who were drowned before reaching puberty.  There are rumors as to how that happened, but it was so long ago that no one really knows for sure except for Haelon themself.  Urbane and very civilized, Haelon has managed to establish a very open and independent existence for themself that no one dares challenge without running afoul of all manner of legal matters, political entanglements, and commercial repercussions that have served to make them as untouchable as possible.  Several different sects of assassins serve Haelon first and foremost, having been personally established by the lich centuries ago.  Many of the most commonly known spells, sigils and rituals were originally developed, refined or stolen and claimed to be the work of Haelon, some few are inaccurately attributed to them, but that is not important enough for them to set the record straight.

Mengwa Zal
Architect of the Tiered Gardens of Devukarsha and the deep canals leading to Aghoridar and the Buried Ocean.  Mengwa Zal is one of the foremost scholars and inventors who ever lived, with an abiding interest in the workings of all mechanical things from the simplest valves and pumps, to intricate clockwork automata, to the applications of electricity and steam.  Long enamored of Vaadris, Mengwa Zal has remained so ruthlessly dedicated to his great work that he only learned of Vaadris' abandonment of Devukarsha nearly a year after the fact.  It goes without saying that a more dedicated artisan and focused intellect than Mengwa Zal would be difficult to find among the living or the dead.  His spells are unique in that they incorporate a wide array of devices, mechanisms, and contraptions as major components of their sorcerous process, and his rather idiosyncratic take on bindings rivals that of Vaadris in some respects.  Mengwa Zal's single-minded pursuit of his various projects has continued unabated for over a thousand years and more and it is not known if he is immortal, undead, or some other, even more bizarre sort of thing that once was a man like any other.

Undisputed mistress of bindings, the author of numerous texts and guides to the intricacies and methodologies of working with spirits and the spectrum of consciousness as it pertains to enmeshing the spark of consciousness into a material form, be it the process of inculcating an elemental, animating a mechanism, or stirring a golem into awakening.  She is rumored to have left her ancestral workshops in Devukarsha to join the forces gathering under the Tripartite Azure Banner of the War Colossi of Nudendra.

So there you have eleven of ten Mad Wizards for Riskail in no particular order.  Next I'll put together ten or so Insane Geniuses.  There's some overlap, between the two groups, but that is to be expected.


  1. Very cool! A great idea for a rich, living castle.

  2. So, I have to ask. What does Tharlon usually ask for in return for his aid? :)

  3. Nextautumn & Eric, thank you both for the support. I am looking forward to continuing along these lines and it is nice to get some positive feed-back!

    Yanantil: My usual response is that you need to play the game to find out, but seeing as that is not necessarily all that likely right now, I guess I do need to come clean. Tharlon is interesting in that their price has actually changed over time, refined is probably the better word for it. When I present Tharlon in more detail later-on I will provide a table for each DM that decides to borrow Tharlon for their world/setting, or who find some measure of inspiration in this character, to build their own unique version. That's part of the appeal of the Old School approach--making things customizable, adaptable and capable of being changed to suit your setting. And yes, I am going to spot-light each of these Mad Wizards and give some more details on their legacies, lineages and eventually their libraries.

    Thanks for the question. Lorshal is getting the spotlight treatment first over at Riskail later this week. (He was the most impatient...)

  4. Cool, thanks! I'll watch for info on all these folks at Riskail.


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