[Let's Read] Nidal, Land of Shadows


Lost Omens Campaign Setting General Discussion


First of all, I'm honestly not sure if this should be here or in the Paizo Products forum. I decided to put it here because I'm approaching the text from an immersionist perspective (has any RPGer used that term in the last decade?), meaning I want to do a deep dive into Nidal as a setting element. Moderators, if it's more appropriate elsewhere, I welcome you moving it!

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I love Geek and Sundry's Knights of Everflame, and in fact just finished watching Season Two. However, I kinda feel like Jason Bulmahn done Nidal dirty. The shadow-hugged land of Nidal is one of my favoritest places in Avistan. I've long adored the velstracs (nee kytons) as proponents of the exquisite enlightenments of pain ~ I see elements of myself mirrored in their personality and exaggerated until horrifying. Zon-Kuthon . . . well, I want to like him, but it feels like Paizo has often tried to stress WAY too hard for li'l ol' masochist me to stress how corrupt, evil, and alien he is for liking pain (this is a large part of why I disliked how Jason portrayed Nidal and the Kuthites in Knights of Everflame ~ I'm not trying to make them good, but I am interested in crafting them as a place and a religion with which good people can interact reasonably). Which is weird, cause the velstracs are perfectly placed in the uncanny valley for me, so I know that Paizo can do it. I'd love to read (and might try to write) a syncretic deity composed of the two siblings (Shelyn and Zon-Kuthon) much like Shimye-Megalla is a syncretization of Gozreh and Desna. Might try to cherry pick a few empyreal lords and kyton demagogues for those devotees to include.

But anyway: when I first read Nidal, Land of Shadows I was ready to hate it. I was bracing myself for a one-dimensional "Hurr, hurr, hurr, see how evil and edgy we are!" realm; what can I say? I'm of such an age that I was escaping from being a not-boy at an all-boys' school by playing D&D and a lot of Word of Darkness at peak-edgelord in the late '90s, so my expectations of such things are low.

But I LOVED the book, finding that it keeps the pre-ouchyouchyfunfun history of the kingdom alive, rounding out the Chronicles of Riddick meets Hellraiser vibe of the place with a settled horselord culture that felt quite real and pastoral vineyard rusticism scattered throughout. It's a nation of fiercely proud people, unbent, unbroken, some of whom still remember that they were that way before the Chained Hooks sunk into their soul-flesh and whom one can easily imagine enjoying a quiet moment with some simple food and a great wine beneath the gloomy sun. The combination even lends itself to an emergent fertile ground for ghost stories.

The cover, by an artist with the wonderful name of Kiki Moch Rizky, depicts the iconic hunter Adowyn, her pet wolf, and the escaped halfling slave bard Lem fighting an umbral dragon, no doubt somewhere deep within the Uskwood. They're intriguing choices, and not what I would have suspected for the iconics that might be presented on this cover. I actually kind of dislike Lem, whose backstory includes an important moment where he burns down his master's villa and then walks away disgusted by the halfling slaves who rushed to rescue their demon-worshipping masters (he's Chelish). It's left a bad taste in my mouth, as it seems to lack understanding of what liberation actually means and a disavowal of the ongoing work necessary to actually build folk a better life. Half-assed and objectifying revolution is oppression in its own way.

Sorry for that aside ~ I'm a bitter ol' anarchist and that comes burbling out sometimes >.< Anyway, I would not have expected either Adowyn or Lem to be on this cover, as they seem not have overmuch to do with the themes of Nidal. Which makes their appearance a good sign that the book will avoid the one-dimensionality I was worried about before my first readthrough. It's a clear message that there will be thematic weight and adventure here for even pretty bright, more traditional (less Gothic/dark) fantasy heroes as well as for, well, Riddick and the like. But come on, there's an iconic FROM Nidal, the iconic villainous inquisitor Zelhara. Why couldn't we see her somewhere in the tableau as well?

Actually, my biggest complaint with this cover image is that the umbral dragon just doesn't feel very umbral to me. It's more like a gray dragon than anything else. Even the wisps of shadow around its mouth read more like smoke than anything. A smoke dragon? A cigarette dragon? The image tells me there's more here than I feared it would be limited to but doesn't evoke any of the actual themes of the realm. They overcorrected with this one and missed a lovely opportunity to concretize a creature that, at least for me, can sometimes be difficult to conceptualize. The umbral dragon is almost queer in that it attempts to straddle seemingly contradictory tropes/themes/archetypes ~ the imposing muscle and maddening treasure hoard of a dragon with the fear of the hidden and the unknown and the lack of safety found in the formless, gossamer shadows. This cover would have been a great place to really help sink that image into many gamers' minds.

Oh, well. The rest of the book certainly makes up for the cover!

P.S., I really like the lead author's name ~ Liane Merciel. It's quite beautiful, and almost Kyoninite in its sound. Ever notice how Kyoninite names seem to mimic some sort of hybrid between Hebrew angel-names and French? Except for the country, of course, which always sounds so Japanese to me. But, yeah, Seltyiel and Merisiel and Tariel (from Knights of the Everflame) immediately come to mind when I see Merciel on a Pathfinder product..... Although I can't help but imagine the book being written by the half-elf Alkenstarian iconic gunslinger, Lirianne, who just seems to always be in it for the wild rides and the gonzo adventures of everything. It's an interesting voice to imagine this book written in....


The next page is a rather pretty map of Nidal. Sadly, I can’t seem to find a picture of it easily on the Internet ~ everything that comes up is either not Nidal or ugly.

One of my favorite things about this map is that they draw images of the common animals on it, presumably in the same reagions where the animals are most commonly found. There’s five of these: a horse north of Edammera’s Folly, a dragon at the rather poorly-named Shadow Caverns, some sort of imp thing outside of Brimstone Springs (a much better name), a vestrac of some sort above Ridwan, and most surprisingly a bison or somesuch in the North Plains. The North Plains, ironically, are in the southwest of Nidal. Presumably, they’re named for their placement in relation to whatever country is south of Nidal ~ the core of Cheliax, the bit of it that hasn’t won its freedom in revolution.

These animal pictures are accompanied by quite beautiful little highly-detailed images of the settlements depicted on the map. These are ornate and specific enough to give you, at a glance, some of the street-level feel of the place which seems like a nice touch that I really enjoy.

I’m often fascinated by the scale of fantasy and scifi realms, especially because it’s so often misunderstood. More importantly, however, it’s one of those things that can really aid immersion into the setting, as we players can analogize what’s going on to very concrete experiences we have and share. In this case, the map covers approximately 120,000 square miles (almost 400 miles by about 300 miles); that’s about the size of, like, New Mexico, Poland, Oman, or the Phillippines. That’s a nice size, not ridiculously large (the most common issue with fantasy maps) nor overly small. Poland was about the same size as this dating back to the 12th century, so (while large) it doesn’t strain credulity for it to be unified as a nation. At the same time, it’s large enough that one could reasonably expect regional differences to have some real weight; I would expect the Atteran Ranches and Ridwan to have distinct cuisines and holidays and clothing styles and things. Recognizable as part of an overall Nidalese culture, and yet distinct from each other.

The Uskwood is between the Sumatra Rainforest and the Virgin Komi Forest in size ~ large but nowhere near unbelievably so, as Earth retains forests in the millions of square miles, even in this age of deforestation. Continuing this trend of lovely restraint and reasonability of size, Usk Lake is only about a third the size of the Great Salt Lake. Nidal is an almost unbelievably believable size.

I decided to Google “Nidal” and discovered that it’s an Arabic word meaning something like struggle, but in more of a competitive or controversial sense than, like, the more famous word “jihad”. It’s used as a given name, carried by everyone from a director of Bulgarian National TV, Syrian and Palestinian politicians, and an Ivoirian singer to a soccer player, the creator of a type of rocket, one of the bombers of the first World Trade Center bombing (in 93), and the Fort Hood shooter. It’s also in the name of one of the Palestinian revolutionary groups ~ the ANO is the Abu Nidal Organization ("Abu Nidal" = "Father of Struggle", I believe?).

Does anyone have any inside baseball on why they chose the name, actually? There is an English adjective referencing nests, the uterus thickening before ovum implantation, neuronal aggregates, infection points, and originations. I’m kind of hoping that was the reason they named it that, cuz the idea of pulling in a random Arabic word for one of the dark/evil countries (no matter how much I love said nation) is kind of . . . icky. Especially since the Avistan cultures that inform most of the human ethnicities in Nidal would indicate something closer to Celtic/Cimmerian, Romany, or maybe French/Italian/Latin influences (kind of in order of strength of influence; that’s Kellid, Varisian, and Chelish in Avistan terms).

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Let’s Reads rarely have much to say about tables of contents, and I doubt this one will really buck that trend. The credits list no names I recognize as involved in this particular book, and I’ve already mentioned the two names I found most aesthetically interesting (Liane Merciel and Kiki Moch Rizky), though I do enjoy a few bits of names scattered throughout ~ one of the Interior Artists is named Federico and another has the last name Pajaron, while one of the cartographers carries the surname Mammoliti (note to self re: the Omnipresent Inspiration Hypothesis ~ the Most Serene Republic of Mammoli, a pseudo-Italian Renaissance city-state inhabited by loxodons (is there a Pathfinder equivalent?) called the mammoliti, perhaps based on Genoa or San Marino). The rest of the credits are the standard list of Paizo’s general team.

It does list the Starfinder design lead and the Starfinder Society developer, which I find somewhat surprising. I do appreciate Paizo listing as many folks as they do, down to the data entry clerk and the warehouse team. It’s nice to see the workers in the less-glamorous parts of the company getting relatively equal credit.

The chapters seem pretty standard:
Living in Shadow
Gazetteer
Threats in the Gloom
Bestiary

There’s a sizeable content note with specific trigger warnings around what is to be found within the book that will benefit from explicit consent for inclusion. It also includes a sentence driving home that a single person not wanting or having the spoons to play with these themes is a reason to do something else with your game and a pointer to a deeper discussion of consent and horror in Horror Adventures. That discussion, while excellent, sadly doesn’t provide any technologies to negotiate prior consent and monitor ongoing consent, like the system of Lines, Veils, and X and O cards so favored in the storygame scene. I really wish it did. I like how up-front this content notice is, non-apologetic but also sensitive to the realities of players’ various experiences. It does still read very “No Means No” and I prefer to come from a “Yes Means Yes” consent culture. I’m not sure how to put that well in an RPG content note, however, as saying something like “Only play this if everyone at the table is excited to play with these themes” feels a little too close to inviting edgelordiness….

Other than the standard OGL notice, there’s only the standard Pathfinder reference section, listing what are presumably the most commonly-referenced books in the text and giving them little superscript abbreviations to ease reading. Anything not on this list will be spelled out in full when being referenced. Listed are the Advanced Class, Player’s, and Race Guides (cuz duh), Bestiaries 2 through 6 (including 5, which is my favoritest), Occult Adventures (yay! I simply adore what Paizo did with the occult classes), and Ultimate Magic. This is all a very good sign for what is to come.

The next page includes half of a gorgeous blue-hued two-page header image featuring a standardly gorgeous woman with interesting hair looking out over a suitably Gothic-medieval Brutalist city. There seems to be smoke floating through the air, which lends a very atmospheric obscuration to the city but also, well, obscures it a bit. Also, the city is dotted with what might be termite-hills or very large tents, conical spire things that curve out to a slightly wider base than would be expected; what are those? I am jealous of her dress, ridiculously thin as it is (some of the back flourishes appear to be painted on). I would so wear that. She has a bracelet that seems to float at some distance from her wrist ~ I’m going to interpret that as being composed of thin spiky needly things cuz worshipper of the pain god ~ and the blue tone allows the red liquid in and spilling around her wineglass to really pop. There’s nothing in the picture to resolve the question of whether it’s claret or blood, which seems just exactly the right artistic choice.

As the title page for the Living in Shadow chapter, the only text here is the name and an excerpt from the “traditional Festival of Night’s Return sermon”. This is the kind of thing I just eat up; I love it. These little bits of religious microfiction can go a long way to expressing both the grand theological elements of a setting and the social history/people’s history/psychosociology of describing the nitty-gritty details of how the average fantasy-world person views the world.

Two things jump out at me in this sermon, which I love. One is the sentence “Death came to hunt us, and Zon-Kuthon taught us its leash.” The Nidalese are not a people who see themselves as having escaped death, but as having gained the ability to give it orders, to turn it into their cute pet who slobbers up excitedly to greet them when they come home from work. The other is that most of the sermon prides the Nidalese people on surviving Earthfall. These are not empty-headed conquerers-for-conquest’s-sake, like the Necromongers they take so much inspiration from. Though this understanding of themselves can easily provide a pretext for seeking military domination, it is deeper and more self-possessed than that, and can easily be built upon to reach a perspective that can be considered “good” by fantasy RPG standards.

It helps that the sermon reminds me of a Radical Fairy song that I’ve always assumed goes back to the 90s, when AIDS was wreaking havoc in our community (I am too young in both breath and the Radical Fairies to remember those times, but I’ve often listened to my elders who were there for it):
We walked and we walked and we walked and we walked
And the echoes of our cries
Brought us to the other side
We almost died…..
But now we thrive

That is, I think, something I forgot to praise about Nidal ~ while its culture is obviously one built upon and predisposed toward evil, very little of their society and psychology is reducible to evil, allowing players to create believably Nidalese good characters without having to make them Do’Urdenites who unrealistically reject everything about the memescape which formed their understanding of the world.


OK, so now we finally get into the beginning of the meat of the book (what can I say? I’m a bit of a completionist!) Everything starts at the beginning, and the beginning (of course) is Earthfall, that time when a bunch of aquatic tentacley things tried to kill the planet with meteors. It happened 10,000 years ago.

It’s time for another look at the scale of things. Time is a big one in fantasy settings, perhaps largely due to Tolkien’s need to tell an amazing story that stretches over ridiculous amounts of time. If not that, then the roots of the modern fantasy genre being grown at a point in history when we were realizing and grappling with the idea of “deep time”, that evolution and astroplanetary processes required flat-out incredible stretches of years. If not that, then the simple pressures that develop from the need/desire to create myriad little pockets of setting to accomodate a wide variety of genres, stories, and authors.

So 10,000 years ago, in our world and from our perspective, was the time of, for example, Çatalhöyük (Catal Huyuk), famously one of the first ever cities on the Euroafroasiatic tricontinent. This predates writing, and in fact agriculture was the new big technology changing the world. Europe was just leaving the Paleolithic, as Asia Minor was teaching it these new ways. Only about, say, 5 million people existed at the time.

This seems, at first glance, to be a ridiculous stretch of time, but if you consider the length of the nonhuman races, it becomes much more reasonable. I did the math once (like a decade ago, so please forgive if I misremember numbers slightly) and, if we go by the relative ages of majority, elfs would experience history at about 1/7th the rate of humans. That is, elfs take about 7 times longer to reach their adulthood than humans. And the culture as a whole, assuming we can average out this ratio amongst the core PHB races would have a rate of historical change equivalent to just slightly half (2.2). This would mean that Earthfall would happen more like 1430 years ago (or the equivalent of, like, the beginning of the Bengali calendar and the Byzantine-Sassanid War) from the elfin perspective and 4550 years ago from the perspective of the general, multiracial culture. That would make it closer to, like, the origins of Proto-Indo-European and the domestication of pigs/cultivation of rice in China.

Honestly, that still feels like a f+%# of a long time ago in terms of the multiracial general populace, but it’s not unbelievable if we think of Azlant as being basically the Atlantean precursor to civilization. Humans would consider it unbelievably ancient and it would be a recognizable period to elfs as the precursor to the pseudo-time-period in which their fairy tales are set.

So, that many years ago, the ancient horselords of Nidal found no benefit from their traditional gods in the face of cosmic catastrophe and were offered solace from the Midnight Lord, Zon-Kuthon, son of god of hunters and beasts who turned on both father and sister (goddess of love and beauty) after going too far into the empty spaces between the stars. Now he likes whips and chains and shadows and things. In contrast to the tone of the sermon on the previous page, the text here specifies that they bound themselves in fealty to Zon-Kuthon out of terror and desperation ~ I suspect that any good Nidalese would bristle and stab at this suggestion, should it be made in character!

One of the interesting things about Nidal is that it achieves the trope of the shadowed land at least partly not from some weird magical sky effect but from the thick canopy of the Uskwood’s giant, black-leaved trees, which cover the “glittering shade city” Pangolais. I really appreciate how this image drives home the blend of Gothic and barbarian that gives Nidal its particular flavor.

We are told that Nidal is ruled by the Umbral Court, which is in turn ruled by the Black Triune. This sentence is particularly cute: “They govern in murmurs and feather-light touches, for shouts are unnecessary when every whisper carries the promise of unimaginable pain.” Sure, it’s a weensy bit purple, but it gets across quite beautifully that this is a realm of creeping threat and constant paranoia, rather than the bog-standard military state. The latter would simply bring forth all my anarchist revolutionary desires, whereas the former actually brings chills down my spine with thoughts of Foucault, the closet, and real-life repressions.

Nidal doesn’t feel safe, and part of that is that there is no obvious target to strike against to achieve one’s liberation. Armies can be defeated, despots can be killed, but the uncertain panopticon can never fully be pulled from beneath one’s skin.

The text does note that there are rebellious elements in the nation, but it doesn’t mention any plots or organizations, to its credit. This resistance feels, from this paragraph, more like the refusal of hope to die than it does an organized movement with actual goals and even some faint idea of how to accomplish them.

The page ends with a note that Nidal is the only place on the continent of Avistan (maybe throughout Golarion?) where pre-Earthfall knowledge is preserved. This gives PCs a reason to visit the realm other than “bad guys live here, go kill them”, which is really kind of neat, and adds a third point to the complex nature of what could have been a single-pointed kingdom: Nidal is a land of pseudo-Celtic barbarian horselords worshiping a Pinhead pastiche that have some of the most important libraries on the continent.


Evidently, the Kellid ancestors of the Nidalese were tan-skinned and dark-haired. I’ve been thinking of them as essentially Celtic (though, of course, Golarion and fantasy role-playing generally speaking seems to lack any equivalent of, say, Epona, goddess of horses) but this description, which focuses heavily on their nomadism and mentions so-called shamans (a word I tend to shudder at unless it’s referring to near-Arctic indigenous religions) and warlords as their ruling classes, is bringing a much more Mongolian image to mind that what I’d had previously. The picture of a horselord on this page doesn’t push me one way or the other. She’s a thin woman, presumably human but looking rather elfin, with golden, warm skin, dressed for warmth but not, like, super bundled for snow. Definitely a fur cape, though, and her horse has some nice jewelry (armbands on a horse, though?), including something in its hair that looks like stars against the night sky of its locks. I don’t know how it matches up to other depictions of the Kellids, but I will now be imagining them as a cross between the Celts and the Mongolians ~ maybe something from about halfway, like the Scythians, would be the best model for them.

Despite their spiritual leaders being described as shamans, the ancient Nidalese are described as worshiping both Gozreh and Desna. I’m kind of curious how the otherworldly/altered-state-of-consciousness/animist religion usually intended by the word “shaman” interacts with the more theistic notions of these two gods. Certainly, I have friends whose theologies bridge these two worlds, who will do things like going on trance journeys to the grand fields of night to talk to the butterflies there, but I’m curious how the Old Nidalese used to reconcile them.

I wonder how the Nidalese who have encountered the Bonuwat think of Shimye-Magalla, the janni-like syncretism of Desna and Gozreh they worship… It’d be a cute character, perhaps: the half-Bonuwat half-Nidalese cleric, or oracle, or “shaman”.

I also find myself wondering about preservation of this older religion into Nidal’s more modern spirituality. Do they have “shamans” who follow velstracs using traditional methods of altered states of consciousness and otherworldly travel? Do they use the more institutional, worship-based Kuthite ritual forms to approach the nature and dream spirits of old? I think one thing that would have made me beyond happy would be to see velstracs or demagogues who had started out as such spirits and then had heard the word of the Nine Truths, forsaking their old realms and ways for the Shadow Plane and the ways of pain. There’s (of course) real-world precedent for such things; some of the stories of the djinn involve converting them to Islam.

Anyway, the Old Nidalese preferred to live on the hoof and were well-known as master horse-breeders (shades of Mercedes Lackey ~ I’ve thought about exporting Nidal into a patchwork setting before; maybe Aldea from Blue Rose would share a border and an ethnicity with it?).

That whole life-way ended with Earthfall in –5293 AR, as dust dimmed the sun. The book makes a point of saying that humans could survive such a disaster, but their beloved horses could not and that the Nidalese sold themselves to the newly-returned Midnight Lord in service to their love and devotion for their equine familymembers.

So the previous statement about their maintaining libraries of knowledge from before Earthfall (twice as long before the present day of Golarion as the development of writing is from us) seems almost false. “Almost” because we are told that straggling survivors of Azlant and Thassilon crowded around the Old Nidalese for safety. These would have carried with them the ancient knowledge that Nidal now keeps preserved alongside the few scrolls and painted hides that represent their own knowledge of old.

The “Last Civilization in Avistan” turned inward and insular and isolationist, pursuing ends described as “increasingly inscrutable and arcane”. No doubt that they were busy! Completely overhauling their entire spiritual practice, collating and collecting and making use of the random bits of knowledge just discussed, settling into cities and permanent settlements, and exploring the enlightenments that pain brings ~ there was a lot on their docket.

But the account skips nearly 9600 years of history to the expansionist Chelish attack of 4305 AR (414 years ago, equivalent to about 188 years ago to the culture as a whole and just 60 years ago to the elfs), unprevented by Nidal’s fearsome reputation. It was part of a larger effort that involved also invading Molthune and Varisia. The war between the two lasted 30 years (equivalent to about 14 years to mixed culture, or 4 years to the elfs), until the Black Triune ordered the Nidalese soldiers to stop fighting.

The period known as the Shadowbreak began with the formal acceptance of Chelish conquest in 4338 AR (381 years ago, equivalent to about 173 years ago to the culture as a whole and just 54 years ago to the elfs). This was a time when the Kuthite faith blunted its sharpest cruelties, Nidalese sages began to participate in the overall Avistani academic conversations, and the House of Lies opened its doors to all of the world’s braggarts. More on that institution later!


John Compton wrote:

In addition to your in depth study of this book (appreciated), I encourage you to write a review for any Paizo books you read.

Just be sure to type the review in another program and paste it into the text window, as the website occasionally tries to "eat" reviews, and it's a lot easier to copy-paste what you have written rather than have to retype it.

Oh, I never responded to this! >.< I'm sorry, my bad... I would love to write a review ~ mebbe I will once I'm done with this close reading. I'm relatively new to the forums, though; where is the appropriate place to post such a thing?

Contributor

Head to the product page on paizo.com, click the reviews link below the product info, head to the last page of reviews and click the “write a review” link!

Dark Archive

Yeah just remember that review thing times out quick so if you dont' do copy paste of it, you will lose it

Saying that even though it was already said because I've lost many reviews to that ;-;

On side note: I thought by shaman they were referring to shaman class aka communing with spirits and the world. Could be wrong about that though since term has been used in setting before the class was ever a thing


CorvusMask wrote:


On side note: I thought by shaman they were referring to shaman class aka communing with spirits and the world. Could be wrong about that though since term has been used in setting before the class was ever a thing

Oh, I thought the same thing! I just look at that class and see a theological element to it ~ an animist perspective of the individual spirits in things who can be interacted with as friends or community members, as opposed to the cleric's great big gods who require devotion and worship, the oracle's numinous mysteries to lose oneself in, or the druid's wild pantheism. It's how I'm able to understand the difference in-fiction between an Earth-domain cleric, an Earth-domain druid, a stone oracle, and a stone spiritworker....

It's also why I've been thinking I need to write up a pain spirit for the spiritworker a.k.a. "shaman" (tho it does feel odd to want to write 1e content now that 2e's here) to represent the union of Kellid culture and Kuthite theology. Well. velstrac praxis more precisely.


The god of humanity died 113 years ago (the equivalent of about 51 years ago in terms of cultural/historical processing by the multiracial society as a whole, or of about 16 years ago to the long-lived elfs ~ yes, it is very possible that your 1st-level elf PC was born before Aroden’s death), His death brought civil war to Cheliax, in which Nidal; sided with the devil-worshippers of House Thrune. Their victory brought independence, an alliance, and a purging backlash to Nidal. Dissidents and heretics were rooted out and murdered with pain.

The very next paragraph describes Nidal as becoming politically powerful by means of its alliance with Cheliax, as riding their coattails into international relevance. Frankly, I find the idea that this state of things is palatable or even bearable to such a proud people as the Kellid Nidalese ~ the Kellid seem like a fiercely independent people who would insist on being mighty n their own right (or by right of their own thews, perhaps I should say), and millennia spent flinging themselves upon the gentle spikes and hooks of Zon-Kuthon would likely have only exacerbated their self-reliance.

A brief foray into divine history follows. Zon-Kuthon was once Dou-Bral. He and his sister Shelyn (beauty, art, love) were the children of Thron, the Prince That Howls. Their father was a spirit-wolf whose howls praised life, love, and song ~ the very image of the pastoral woodland. But Dou-Bral fought with his sister and fled from her beyond the borders of the planes.

Something waited there for him there that taught him the rapture of suffering in all its forms, the beauty of being maimed, the joy of loss. He took his new name, wounded his sister, and twisted his father into his new herald, now called the Prince in Chains.

Abadar did his favorite thing and developed a scheme to neutralize the cruel god. He offered banishment to the Shadow Plane prison realm of Xovaikain for as long as the sun hung in the sky. In return, Zon-Kuthon would be able to claim a single item from the First Vault. I imagine the Midnight Lord creepysmiling at this offer, and capitulating with an unsettling eagerness.

Earthfall banished the brightness of the sun from the sky, and Zon-Kuthon burst free from his prison and claimed the first-ever shadow from the First Vault. His prison became his new deific realm.

That was when three of the greatest leaders of the Kellid horselords quested for salvation from the spirits, their tribal gods, and Desna and Gozreh. They found a giant cloud covering once-shining green hills, a wicked and foreboding presence that balked the shamans. But the horselords knew that help was needed for their people to survive.

Zon-Kuthon whispered promises of survival in trade for the servitude of them and their descendants. A tear in the world appeared before them, and those quiet offers became screams. The three horselords did what they had to so they, their people, and their horses could live on. Zon-Kuthon crawled into the world, touched them, and evaporated their humanity. Where once three Kellid chieftains sat upon their horses, now the Black Triune were. No longer could they feel anything ~ not the heat of the sun or the varied delectations of a feast or the caress of the river’s waters ~ except for the shocking glory of pain and the slickness of their blood as it spills. They also became the immortal leaders of a new Kuthite theocracy.

In truth, their immortality is important, as Nidalese law consists only of the vague prescriptions of their high holy book, the Umbral Leaves. The Black Triune is their charter, their constitution.

We’re told that some faiths are approved for worship by foreigners, and Asmodeus is name-checked as having small shrines in the realm for that very reason. I hate when some detail like that is dropped, and there’s no specification. Like, I think I get it ~ leaving it open allows more GM interpretation and customization for the specifics of their campaign. Only… it doesn’t allow for such, it more like invites it. GMs can and do change details like that all the time, so I don’t see preserving that functionality as sufficient reason to avoid communicating a more nuanced and specific vision of the setting. Like, there are 130 lawful evil divine beings. I can’t imagine that all of them are accepted within Nidal, and it would reveal something about Nidalese culture to know what they allow and don’t allow.

Next we get a recognition that, well, pain isn’t for everyone, and that in fact entire communities may pay the Midnight Lord no more attention than a Christmas-and-Easter Catholic gives their god. The vast majority of Nidalese do not commit themselves to the spiked chain’s kiss eight times a day.. Folk superstition and, especially, the worship of Desna continue throughout.

I rather enjoy that Desna is the main revolutionary force in Nidal ~ Shelyn would be easy,but it’s established that Zon-Kuthon still loves her in his way. He might enact any number of cruelties upon her and her followers, but he still wants her to succeed. Narratively, this makes it difficult for her to be a good opposition to her brother. And Desna has associations both with Zon-Kuthon’s place of transformation and to the human ethnicity just north of Nidal ~ the Varisians have long been fond of the butterfly goddess...


Next we get a sidebar with yet another pet peeve of mine >.< A description of three powerful, ancient, and mysterious beings (the Black Triune, the three horselords who made that deal with Zon-Kuthon that recreated Nidal in his image) . . . who “hold themselves remote from its day-to-day affairs.” Like, that’s the worst possible way to say that cuz it’s essentially saying “Haha, but you don’t get to see them!” WHy not just say “They only get involved in matters of the highest stakes as regards Nidal, or in the kind of cosmic matters scrutable only by the highest-level adventurers”?

We are told, however, the (possible) classes of the Triune, as well as the suggestion that there are three of them because of the three types of obedience/obedience-related prestige classes. This is almost too neat in that way that AD&D2 is often accused of being grid-filling, but it’s still super-cute. Possibly because the class choices aren’t boring :-D One was a cavalier/sentinel of Zon-Kuthon (capstone obedience ability: blindsense), another was a ranger/exalted of Zon-Kuthon (capstone obedience ability: summon and control an interlocutor velstrac 1/day), and a third was a witch/evangelist of Zon-Kuthon (capstone obedience ability: unarmed strike that does 2d6 nonlethal pain damage per round, nauseates, and gives a +4 bonus to your Intimidate checks against it for 10 rounds, save for half damage and sickened).

While I’m curious about the sentinel’s cavalier order, it’s the witch’s patron that fascinates me more. The Kellid ur-Nidalese are described as having “shamans” ~ presumably, the Pathfinder1 class of the same name (that I have renamed the “spiritworker”) is the best way to represent this religious practice. That class is a hybrid class mixing and matching elements of the witch and oracle classes, so knowing the patron of one of the Black Triune could really flesh out not only that ancient culture’s spirituality but how the Kuthite Reformation blended with, superseded, and appropriated that substrata.

Next comes a description of the Umbral Court, complete with a pointer at Paths of Prestige for the Umbral Court agent prestige class. Court membership isn’t granted to someone merely for having been born to the right family. No, it’s piety to the Midnight Lord and merit that earns one a place in this great group. Their origin as roving proud nomads shows up here, as Court members receive no formal title.

They do, however, receive a ritual that transforms them somehow. The change might be subtle and non-physical, but it can include getting turned into a vampire, shadow creature, shadow lord, or some other mystically empowered and appropriate form. Presumably, anyone who becomes a vampire thereby would become a moroi, the standard European conception of the vampire that’s popular nowadays, though I suppose getting turned into a nosferatu (monstrous and ugly) wouldn’t be too much of a surprise; the jiang-shi (hopping vampire) or vetala (psychic vampire) are, I would imagine, not quite Zon-Kuthon’s bag, baby.

The shadow creature template is pretty bog-standard for D&D3.x, giving expanded vision, damage reduction, spell resistance, and resistance to cold and electricity. Its special lala is that it gains concealment when not in bright light as it blends into the shadows. The shadow lord is, at its base, a pumped-up version of the template with better vision and better defenses. It also means that the creature is incorporeal but only while its moving, including (called out in the Bestiary 4 entry) a very situational deflection bonus to AC. It gets a melee touch attack that can be negated witha Fortitude save and that can do a tiny bit of Constitution damage, as well as a cone of cloying gloom that can blind and slow opponents and a bunch of spell-like abilities (ray of sickening at will; shadow conjuration (shadow creatures rather than fiendish/celestial) and shadow step 3/day; greater shadow conjuration (same) and shadow walk 1/day). Finally, they can open gates to the Shadow Plane (except in normal or bright light) to make it easier for their buds to come to the party, a significant boost to Dexterity and Charisma, and a mighty boost to Stealth. So, yeah, that’s a whole thing.

The first member of the Umbral Court to whom we are introduced is Eloiander of Ridwan (human druid 15), the albino master of the all-albino Shades of the Uskwood (repesented by a feat in the Inner Sea World Guide that adds two mostly necromantic or invisibility-related spells per level to your spell list and removes your ability to cast spells or take wild shapes involving fire), who goes around garbed in a continuously ad-hoc robe woven about his body by a multitude of spiders. Take that, Lolth; maybe you should go to Eloiander for some fashion advice! Eloiander is the answer to my earlier concern about the Kellid-descended Nidalese chafing at the idea of riding Cheliax’s coat-tails. He is whispered to be leading the Shades in sabotaging the diabolist realm. Nothing is said about his motives, but I suspect pride in his people is behind a lot of it.

Following that is his rival, Kholas (vampire sorcerer 14), the official advisor to Queen Abrogail Thrune II. Everything that Eloiander is not ~ urbane, polished, sophisticated, and dedicated to the alliance with Cheliax. No doubt he personally waited, tapping his foot, those three centuries to find out why the Black Triune ordered the nation to surrender. He suspects Eloiander, and would jump at the chance to act on actual proof of his subversion. It would be nice to know his bloodline; I’d guess shadow since he was trained in the Dusk Hall as a shadowcaster, but that’s also kind of boring, y/n? Considering his posting, an infernal, vetsige, or (if he was human before) imperious bloodline might be appropriate, but something like a div, dreamspun, martyred, psychic, starsoul, or even unicorn bloodline might be fun….

The last one for today (more in the next post) is Meleyne the Sun-Dimmer (half-elf bard 9). She does a lot of work souring relationships and burning them down with flames of jealousy and distrust. She is the frenemy with the biting tongue that drips tiny comments all over the place which drown your confidence and allow resentments to slip under your skin. By pushing her victims toward vengeful self-destruction she turns them into instruments of bitter envy. She’s the worst kind of bully and social predator. I have this kind of funny image of her running afoul of a pakalchi sahkil (who specialize in finishing off decaying relationships and, coincidentally, are CR 9) for essentially overworking the sahkil and not letting her have her choice of targets, or of tainting the work by artificially decaying the relationships in question. She’s a good enemy for an Ultimate Intrigue campaign because she likes to target the rulers of good-aligned nations, allowing the PCs to act as defenders of the realm.


Mykos Roarik (male vampire fighter 10) is the member of the Umbral Court who wanders the farthest. What race was Mykos before his Embrace? Presumably human, but why not state it? Deceptively gentle-mannered, he’s the leader of the Adamant Company, a subset of the state army (appropriately called the Adamant Guard) and hires them out to people other than Nidal (the Black Triune? The Umbral Court itself? Who actually is in charge of the Adamant Guard, anyway?) Evidently, the Company’s cruelty is so famous that their mere arrival on the field can cause the enemy to surrender with only one condition: no one, civilian or soldier, will be given over to their uncertain care.

The final member of the Umbral Court we’re given a description of is Virihane of Pangolais (female caligni ranger 8/rogue 2), a lovely (and rare) example of a veiled assassin done up in classic Kuthite goth-y style. I like the spiked steel rings that fringe her veils ~ it’s a detail that can either end up delicate and elegant, or exaggerated and hella metal. She’s a hunter of forbidden faiths, killing their worshipers and taking their stuff, and ties into a relatively weighty plot thread running through the book. Her current quarry is the Harp of Night’s Hope, a relic dedicated to Desna that helps them dream and get rid of Zon-Kuthon’s influence. It’s somewhere in the Uskwood, lost by a worshiper of the night sky who was caught trying to get an umbral shepherd out of a loved one. (That would be a Shadow Plane-based outsider who actually serves the Midnight Lord ~ as opposed to the velstracs who are merely deeply allied with him ~ who look like something out of a Lovecraft story and spend their time possessing people and turning their flesh into dissipating shadow.)

We’re given the details on the occult ritual known simply, descriptively, and effectively as enter the Umbral Court. It’s a big’un, level 8 and requiring 2-7 spellcasters. Oh, and ouch ~ it involves being whipped with a whip made from one’s own skin. That’s a little over-the-top, I’d say, but certainly makes a point! For some reason, I am deeply happy about the inclusion of an Intimidate check as part of the ritual ~ it feels very gratifying and realistic to me that many rituals involve some sort of action covered by a non-obvious skill like this. Why is this ritual possible at close range? That means a 20th-level lead caster can initiate someone into the Umbral Court from half a short city block away!

Backlash causes all involved casters to take a permanent negative level, while failure sends them off to somewhere near Zon-Kuthon’s realm of Xoviakain (on average, that would be 252.5 miles away, which is about the distance between Fremont and Shasta in California) and then get attacked by apostle velstracs. I wonder how often the ritual is failed, and how Nidalese culture processes it ~ is it a sign of the Midnight Lord’s displeasure with the supplicant? With the caster? Is it a test? Is it just something that happens sometimes, a consequence of working with such murky energies? Apostle kytons are powerful beings formed from those who have become infected with the madness of shadows (CR +2 template), either by another apostle kyton or some other source. The example in Horror Adventures uses a human slayer 11 as the base, resulting in a CR of 12. Since three more attack than the number of casters, that would result in a difficult CR 16 to a difficult CR 18 encounter, which doesn’t seem all that hard for spellcasters capable of doing an 8th-level ritual.

The fact that the ritual involves custom tortures derived by reading the target’s mind might make the distance of the ritual make more sense ~ many tortures would only be possible at such a distance (certain humiliations, fears of pursuit, etc.). While being tortured, the supplicant must recite the story of the Black Triune’s meeting with Zon-Kuthon against a background of epic poetry concerning the god’s time outside of reality and what he can do to his worshipers.

There’s this thing in religious studies scholarship that the achievement of altered states of consciousness is one of the main purposes of religion, with the particular state preferred by a religion defining much of how that religion works. This particular ritual surprises me by not going for the endorphin-fueled altered state caused by extended pain but rather the adrenaline of fear (in fact, anyone immune to fear would fail the ritual). Or perhaps it’s something similar to the panikon (panic) sought out by the cults of Pan in ancient Greece who would often get themselves lost in the mountainside forests. It wasn’t the state we call panic they worked with (the freakout when you realize you have no idea how to get back to somewhere safe/familiar), but the state afterwards ~ the wide-open freedom of no expectations.

Anyway, the ritual turns the supplicant’s eyes inky black and renders it immune to shadow spells (though they can lower this as a standard action, if desired). They also gain a bunch of unholy protection: regeneration 5 (“good weapons and spells and silver weapons” ~ is that good weapons and good spells or good weapons and any spells?) and DR 15/good or silver. Finally, they are forcibly turned lawful evil and have a 1-in-4 chance of getting summoned to Xoviakain for eternal torment if they do anything against Kuthite doctrine or dogma.

D&D-style fantasy games often refuse to describe what certain things look like, describing them solely in mechanical terms. The Umbral Courtmember lowering their immunity is one of those things. While this can often reduce games to simple strategy, it also allows players to develop the fiction of their character’s religious practices. What are some possible ways that could look?

We’re also told a little about the Midnight Guard and the Adamant Company. The former is a group of Nidalese spellcasters that serve House Thrune in quelling rebellion and the Black Triune by spying on Cheliax. Liane includes a short shout-out/pointer to her two Nidal-focused novels for more information about the Guard.

The Adamant Company, on the other hand, are pseudo-mercenaries who enforce the will of and loyalty to the Black Triune, with a specific focus on the Uskwood. Mykos Roarik sometimes hires them out to bosses other than the Triune when possible (although there is a slight discrepancy: his description says he does “when otherwise unoccupied” but this says “when resources permit”).

It doesn’t answer the question of the Guard’s, and therefore the Company’s, ultimate commander. Nidal obviously isn’t a feudal state, seemingly run as a nested oligarchy, with a larger group of rather independent agents (the Umbral Court) taking charge of most matters, and a tiny junta (the Black Triune) at the top. But/and many of its structures and institutions, like the Adamant Guard, seem to call for it to either be some form of absolute singular rule (monarchy, despotism, etc.) or to have some sort of governmental level in between the two. Though I suppose a more unified Umbral Court could also be a solution.

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