Raising The Runelords
or, "How To Recover From a TPK and Make It Look Like You Planned It All Along"
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Once upon a time, I was running one of my favorite adventures, White Plume Mountain, for my players. They messed up good, got split up, and ended up all being dominated by a certain vampire charged with guarding a certain hammer. Now, I didn't want to admit I had a TPK on my hands, so I took a cue form another favorite adventure, "The Mud Sorcerer's Tomb," and introduced a whole ancient society of primeval necromancers over the span between game sessions, and next time we gathered, I had the now-dominated PCs sent by their new vampire lord to release the first of several slumbering wizards from a forgotten age. They let one out, but then escaped their charm and spent the rest of the campaign trying to undo what they'd done. But the idea was too cool to let my players fix. They defeated one of the ancient wizards, but once one woke up, the others came back in a chain reaction. Today, my world has several new nations ruled by these reborn necromancers, all because back in college a few friends of mine blew their saving throws.
And now, that fateful happenstance extends to Pathfinder. The ancient Runelords of Thassilon have developed into their own unique force, but they certainly owe their conception to that fateful day deep under the game's most famous volcano. Reproduced below are some of my notes on the nature of the Runelords and Thassilon. Warning for those who plan on playing in the Rise of the Runelords campaign: serious campaign spoilers ahead!
In the first Pathfinder blog post I mentioned how we needed to build a new region to set Rise of the Runelords in. In fact, it's more complicated than that. We actually had to create TWO regions. The first of these is Varisia, the realm in which the new Adventure Path takes place. The other is Thassilon, the ancient empire that once sprawled across much of this corner of the world. An empire that was, at its height, ruled by seven powerful wizards known as Runelords.
Thassilon was a sprawling empire that covered an area about as large as the western half of the United States. The Runelords were maniacal arcanists who used magic to fuel their own decadent vices. They forged alliances with dragons and enslaved giants by using secrets of rune and glyph magic stolen from the aboleths. With their enslaved giant armies, the wizards of Thassilon built massive tombs, enormous magical constructs, and staggering monuments that survive today, mute testimonies of a mysterious age long past. Yet as all evil empires must, Thassilon fell. The reason for this fall remains a mystery, but as the end drew near, the seven Runelords retreated into the depths of their greatest monuments, entombing themselves with orders for their minions to release them later to reclaim their empire. Alas, Thassilon's minions were enslaved or slaughtered. No one was left to waken them, and so the wizard kings of Thassilon slumbered for countless ages.
Virtues of Rule, Sins of Magic
At Thassilon's dawn, the Runelords held that wealth, fertility, honest pride, abundance, eager striving, righteous anger, and well-deserved rest were the seven virtues of rule—rewards that one could enjoy for being in a position of power. But the Runelords soon abandoned the positive aspects of these traits, instead embracing greed, lust, boastful pride, gluttony, envy, wrath, and sloth as the rewards of rule. Today, long after the fall of Thassilon, the original seven virtues are held as the great mortal sins, although only a few scholars who have studied ancient Thassilon know of their true sources.
The Runelords' magic was closely tied to these seven categories, to such an extent that they developed their own schools of magic. All of the Runelords were specialist wizards. They recognized seven schools of magic (lumping divination magic into the universal school), and each school was associated with one of the seven sins. A Thassilonian wizard selected one sin when he became a specialist, and that determined his prohibited schools, as detailed below.
Focused on the suppression of magic other than your own.
Prohibited Schools: evocation and necromancy
Focused on calling agents and minions to perform your deeds for you, or used magic to create what you needed as you needed it.
Prohibited Schools: evocation and illusion
Focused on using magic to control and dominate others to force them to satisfy your desires, and in the control of other creatures' minds, emotions, and wills.
Prohibited Schools: necromancy and transmutation
Focused on the destructive powers of magic, and the use of magic to channel destructive forces.
Prohibited Schools: abjuration and conjuration
Focused on using magic to perfect your own appearance and your domain through trickery and illusions.
Prohibited Schools: transmutation and conjuration
Focused on the use of magic to manipulate the physical body in order to maintain an unending thirst for continued life.
Prohibited Schools: enchantment and abjuration
Focused on the use of magic to transform things into objects of greater value or use, and for the enhancement of the physical self.
Prohibited Schools: enchantment and illusion
The Big Bad End Guy
Although Rise of the Runelords touches upon many different aspects of the ancient empire of Thassilon and its evil rulers, we knew from the start that we wanted to focus on one Runelord as the main bad guy for the campaign. Not only is it better to have a single villain for PCs to obsess over and hate, but by leaving the other six Runelords more or less undeveloped, we're leaving lots of room for further expansion to this Adventure Path and our campaign setting as a whole. We also knew that, in order to realize his evil plot, this Runelord would be harvesting the souls of creatures that had succumbed to his favored sin.
But still—which sin to pick?
Wrath seemed like the obvious choice, because who can't get behind an explosion-launching bad guy who has fire for blood and lightning for hair? (That's probably a little over the top, but you get the idea.) Wrath certainly fit well with the giants we wanted to use, but it broke down when you applied the themes to the second adventure, which requires a group of murderers who are murdering prominent citizens. If we went with wrath, they'd just be killing themselves off.
So then we looked at lust. Also a great sin to build a villain off of, and it certainly works well with the second adventure in a Jack the Ripper sort of way. But then we get back to our giants. These guys are huge menacing brutes. Not really known for being sexy and what not. So lust was out the window too (though it shows up in the GameMastery module Seven Swords of Sin).
That was when we hit upon greed. With the Runelord of greed, we had a big bad end guy who had a built-in way to tempt and gain his minions; he was filthy rich. Giants are certainly easy to see as greedy, and having our murderers stalking and killing merchants and politicians (and maybe even adventurers like the PCs!) worked perfectly. It also gave us some interesting options when designing his look. Gemstones embedded in his knuckles and forehead! Tattoos made out of gold! And if we do our job right, and our Runelord of greed ends up being a really effective villian, you get to see the looks of worry on your players' faces when, at the end of the Adventure Path, you remind them that there are six more Runelords still out there. Runelords associated with far more violent sins than greed…
And that's how we ended up with Karzoug, Runelord of Greed, becoming the first megavillian of Pathfinder. That's him up near the top of this page. He's lookin' pretty good for a guy who's probably over a thousand years old, eh?