The Autarchs of Cephlen
(Nov. 13, 2003)

West of the Diadems, the only true absolute rulers to survive are the Autarchs of Cephlen. One by one, the other great tyrannies have all fallen to degeneracy, corruption, and incompetence. Cephlen alone has retained the vigor of its autocracy, by means of a single, simple check on the Autarch.

The Senate of Cephlen is all but meaningless now, no more than a social club for the factors of Cephlen. It retains only this one task of government; however, that one task suffices.

No Autarch goes to war without the Standard of Cephlen, that mighty relic forged from the bones of a god. By the command of the first Autarch, the Standard is kept in a magically sealed chamber; only the sitting Autarch may enter, and only when ceremonially cleansed. The ablutions begin with steam baths and anointing with rare oils, and end when the Autarch submits to be shaved by a member of the Senate, elected by secret ballot.

Thus, to take Cephlen into war, the Autarch must place his life at the disposal of the representative of the Senate, the factors, and the people of Cephlen. This tradition has ended the lives of a few Autarchs. And it has surely averted many wars.

Dwarven Plate

Ever since the dwarves entered the family of nations, their warriors have been feared for their mighty weapons and armor, and their still mightier strength which shatters the strongest dwarven plate.

Pity it’s a crock.

You see, shortly after the dwarves started trading with other races, it became clear that their customers’ hunger for high-quality armaments was inexhaustible. This worried the Forgemasters, who felt, in a typically dwarven and clannish way, that it was perhaps not the best idea to equip a world full of dangerous non-dwarves with the best dwarvenkind had, no matter how well they paid.

Thus, all dwarven armor and weaponry made for external sale has a minor but fatal flaw concealed somewhere in the manufacture. Dwarven warriors are trained in the locations of these weak spots, which allows them to shear off blades and smash plate mail to shards when they hit the sweet spot juuuust right.

For a while, human knockoffs were a concern to them, but it appears that human smiths have taken to slavishly imitation of dwarven craftsmanship, including the flaws. Clearly, brains are in the beard.

Originally published on LiveJournal

In the City of Alago Dun
(August 21, 2003)

The city of Alago Dun was built to be a beacon of equity for all the world. For this reason, its builders began their work atop the grave of one of the Ancient Gods who loved justice, and that long-dead power granted the city a unique boon.

In Alago Dun, any person killed without cause returns from death. They return as revenants, not truly alive — dead gods do not work live miracles — but they get by as best they can.

Despite these noble beginnings, the prisons of Alago Dun are full and its courts empty. Its laws are not so harsh, nor its judges cruel, but almost every prisoner begs the inquisitors to be imprisoned without a trial.

For the judges of Alago Dun are men, not gods. And it has become the habit of the courts of Alago Dun, in those cases where the truth is cloudy, to turn the defendant over to the headsman and let heaven be the judge.

Those who return are acquitted, of course.

Bounded in a Nutshell, Kings of Infinite Space

In the year 2047, years of psionic research come to fruition. It is discovered that psionic powers are mediated by subtle structures in the brain which develop when the cerebral cortex is exposed to significant levels of a combination of rare hormones. The normal human endocrine system produces these hormones in infinitesimal quantities; only a very few people are born, through random mutation, who produce the relevant hormones at sufficient levels to stimulate the development of psionic brain structures.

Unfortunately, experimentation rapidly demonstrated that the psionic hormones, in addition to their psionigenic properties, are potent immunosuppressives and toxic to the liver, kidneys, and bone marrow. Natural psychics thus become prone to illness and early death; artificially-produced psychics die within months or even weeks. Many procedures were tried to counteract the toxic effects of the hormones, but nothing successfully preserved psionic ability as well as overall health. Eventually, psionics research faded into obscurity.

In 2093, advances in biomedical technology made it possible for the first time to keep a brain alive outside a human body. Initially, the technology was used simply to keep brains in a controlled environment during extremely serious surgery, but soon the first brain transplant was performed, and eventually technology was developed to connect a “bottled” brain up to an array of sensors and communications device, enabling the brain to lead an existence completely independent of body.

Eventually, it occurred to someone to treat a bottled brain with psionigenic hormones. A bottled brain has neither liver nor kidney nor bone marrow, and must live in a completely sterile environment. The experiment was successful. The treated brains developed potent psionic abilities–telepathy, psychokinesis, extra-sensory perception. Psionics rapidly found a place in society.

Telepathy had initially been anticipated as a tool for investigation and interrogation, but legal challenges rapidly confined its use for intelligence to the military. As an extremely secure form of communication, and for voluntary verification of information, a la the polygraph, telepathy found some success. Its true niche, however, was to be found elsewhere. Direct mind-to-mind communication revolutionized psychotherapy. Bottled brains also created a whole new field of art, delivering compositions of image and emotion directly to the audience’s minds. Finally, bottled brains came to dominate the field of evangelism, offering a taste of salvation through telepathic communion.

Psychokinesis had fewer applications. A few bottled brains trained themselves to a sufficient precision to build nanotech machines, but there weren’t enough of them to make industrial applications viable.

ESP broke little new ground; it simply made the jobs of private investigators and intelligence personnel easier. Bottled brains with highly developed ESP became the linchpin of many an information-gathering agency.

It was, in fact, the increased reliance of the intelligence community on ESP that allowed the Conquest. Unbeknownst to their caretakers, the bottled brains were coming to identify more with each other and less with unbottled humanity. They spent much of their time communicating telepathically with one another, developing their own culture. In time, they came to value their commitment to each other higher than their oaths to nations or organizations. They realized that there were no secrets from them as a collective. And they decided to take over the world.

The Conquest was relatively bloodless; the brains just announced that they were taking over. Attempts to destroy them were fought off either with telepathic commands or psychokinetic attacks. Opposition leaders were picked off one by one–there is no hiding from a powerful pyrokinetic working hand in hand with a powerful ESPer. Eventually, the world accepted the rule of the brains.

Under the brains, life was tolerable if not free. The best and the brightest were selected to break free from the shackles of their flesh and join the brains.

Kings of Infinite Space in an RPG

There are three periods in the world of Bounded in a Nutshell which lend themselves to roleplaying adventure. The first period, after the discovery of psionigenic hormones but before the advent of bottled brain technology, has opportunities for low-powered psionics games. Characters can be low-powered psis trying to master their powers and fight off the inevitable collapse of their bodies.

The second period, after bottled-brain technology is discovered, is in some ways difficult to center a game on. Bottled brains are very poorly suited for adventure. They can make interesting NPCs for games set in a near-future world, though. In a cyberpunk setting, they make decent netrunners.

The third period, after the Conquest, is perhaps the best suited for high adventure. PCs can be guerrillas against the bottled-brain tyranny. They could be rare natural psionics, or desperate freedom fighters who have dosed themselves with psionigenics to have a chance against the brains. They could be one of the select few to be chosen for bottling, but one who doesn’t want to surrender his body and is now on the run. Alternately, the characters could be loyal retainers of a bottled brain, fighting rebels, or even fighting the retainers of other bottled brains. Things could get very neofeudal–rather than knighting one’s best retainers, one bottles them.

Gods as Beings Outside Their Sphere of Influence

Love, Death, and My Buddy Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard observes in Either/Or that Eros, the god of love, is not himself in love (with the exception of the whole Psyche incident, but we’ll let that go); he causes love in others but is himself unaffected by it.

I forget the point that Kierkegaard was trying to make, but it got me to thinking that it could be interesting to enlarge this concept when designing a pantheon. Each deity is completely outside their own sphere of influence, and in some ways the antithesis of it. The deity of wisdom would be completely foolish, the deity of war would be completely unaggressive (or completely cowardly, or completely defenseless…it gets you to thinking about what precisely you mean by deity of war), the deity of agriculture and growth would be barren, and so on.