Brain Vines and Hierodules

Inspired by Gene Wolfe

I've been re-reading Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun in yet another attempt to figure out what's actually going on. Granted, not having all the answers is part of the fun—kind of like a never-ending blind date with your spouse, in that you're in mostly familiar territory, but there's always a bit of mystery to keep you keen for the thrill of discovery (at least, that's how I describe my marriage).

Anyway, as I read, I can't help but view Wolfe's Urth from a GM's perspective. How would I, were I running a campaign set in Urth, handle this or that? More important than specific characters or encounters, though, is capturing the setting's "feel." Urth offers an enticing blend of ancient and high-tech, with extraterrestrial beings, disparate social classes, a nervous sense of oldness and decay, and the constant question: What the hell just happened?

What GM wouldn't want to set this platter in front of his hungry players?

Literary musings and bad nuptial analogies aside, what I really want to share are a couple of monsters inspired by Wolfe's material. They're statted for Chimera, but I think the descriptions are full enough to make them highly portable.

Brain Vine (Hedera Cerebrum)
Small plant (Fod 0)
Frequency: Very Rare (1/1)
Attributes: (P) n/a (S) n/a (T) CON
MR 0″ (0″/+0); Pr +0; PV +0; WL 2; AL n/a

  • Special (see below)

Skills: nil
Traits & Adaptations

  • Disease: see below
  • Weakness: +1 damage die vs. acid, fire, frost

Habitat: Sub-tropical forest

The brain vine is a parasitic creeper that grows from a tiny, shiny orange berry. Anyone ingesting the berry must make a CON check or become host to the vine. Hosts suffer dull headaches and have difficulty concentrating within a week of their failed CON check (Fatigue checks and INT rolls at –1). This condition is caused by the vine, which attaches to the inside of host's skull and slowly spreads its thin tendrils across the brain like ivy over a stone wall.

As the vine grows, the tendrils thicken, constricting the brain and applying pressure to the cranium. The host's head grows larger and noticeably disproportionate to his body. At this stage of the vine's development, the host gains limited telepathy, and can read and project thoughts from and to other brain vine hosts within 60'. What the host will not realise, however, is that as the tendrils absorb cerebral fluid to nourish their growth, they become saturated with the host's thoughts and memories. After 2d6 weeks, there is a 5/6 chance that the host receives flashes of unfamiliar mental images and impressions, as if he were experiencing snatches of another life through someone else's memories.

In game terms, treat as the Delusion flaw for 1d4 weeks, until the host learns to apply sufficient control so as to benefit from the impulses. After this adjustment period, the host gains one skill, perk, or flaw for each generation in the brain vine's lineage (i.e., each person whose thoughts and memories have been absorbed by previous plants; assume 1d8 generations if not specifically known):

Skills (1/d6)

  1. Diplomacy
  2. First Aid
  3. Knowledge (1d4 fields)
  4. Observe
  5. Pilot
  6. Ride

Perks (2-4/d6)

  1. Appraise
  2. Bad Feeling
  3. Beast Empathy
  4. Bluff
  5. Demoralise
  6. Economise
  7. Egghead
  8. Enemy Mine
  9. Etiquette
  10. Heal
  11. Investigate
  12. Motivate
  13. Oratory
  14. Persuade
  15. Savvy
  16. Street-wise
  17. Survival
  18. Taunt
  19. Track
  20. Wager

Flaws (5-6/d6)

  1. Berserk
  2. Clueless
  3. Delusional
  4. Fanatic
  5. Grudge
  6. Honour Bound
  7. Inexpert
  8. Loose Cannon
  9. Oath (not actually binding)
  10. Oblivious
  11. On the Lam (not actually wanted)
  12. Pacifist
  13. Phobia
  14. Quirky
  15. Restricted Alignment (alignment change possible)
  16. Slow
  17. Speech Impediment
  18. Spineless
  19. Unfriendly
  20. Vice

If the roll results in a skill already possessed, increase the host's Skill Bonus by +1. If the roll results in a perk or flaw already possessed, increase the trait's strength by one step.

Eventually (2d6 months after ingestion), the vine grows thick enough to burst the host's head open in a spray of flesh, blood, stem, and bone. If left undisturbed, the vine takes root and extends narrow, orange-spotted leaves, its tendrils maturing into a thick ground cover or spreading up the sides of adjacent structures. Seeds from this vine impart memories of the most recent host, as well as all the previous hosts in the plant's lineage. In this way, and with careful planning, the brain vine may be employed as a means to preserve the memories of those long deceased.

An individual who realises that he's hosting a brain vine may ingest an alchemical brew that temporarily stifles the vine's growth. Each draught adds another 2d6 months to the host's lifespan, but applies a cumulative 5% chance per draught of killing the vine. If the vine dies, the host's brain suffers trauma as the tendrils whither and harden amid the soft grey matter. In game terms, the brain-damaged host makes all fatigue checks at DL +1, and his INT and CHA Attributes are reduced by one slot (Tertiary Attributes become disabled, and apply a Target Number of 20). More often, however, those who drink the brew enjoy more productive lives, enhanced as they are by the knowledge and abilities of past hosts secreted in the vine's delicate matrix.

Alchemists also produce a tincture from the vine's berries that, when ingested, imparts flashes of stored memory and telepathic ability with other hosts. The skills and traits gained are determined via the tables above, but they last only until the tincture passes through the imbiber's system (4d6 hours). Further, it should be noted that while the ethanol used to create the tincture effectively negates the vine's parasitic properties, the beverage's safety is not guaranteed; users must still make a CON check (though at DL –2) or become a host, as described above.

Medium humanoid (Fod 4)
Frequency: Very Rare (1/1d6+3)
Attributes: (P) CHA (S) INT, WIL (T) STR, DEX, CON
MR 8″ (8″/+1); Pr +0; PV +4; WL 3; AL N to C

  • Claws (x2)/16 (IM +0, Dmg 1d6, Rng 1)
  • Bite/16 (IM +0, Dmg 1d6+paralysis, Rng 1)
  • by weapon (only in polymorphed form)

Skills: Diplomacy/8, Fight/16, Knowledge (choose field)/12, Observe/16
Traits & Adaptations

  • Armour: Natural PV +4
  • Clueless: Decrease Common Knowledge rolls by –2
  • Delusional: Difficulty distinguishing between past, present, and future
  • Infravision: See in darkness (4")
  • Paralysis: Freeze target 4 rounds on CS bite attack (as Paralyse power; CR/40)
  • Quirky: Leaves a trail of gold rune-rings behind
  • Supernatural: Polymorph (x4/day); Teleport (at will)

Habitat: Any

Erroneously nicknamed "holy slaves" by the few who know of them, hierodules are off-world creatures, native to the campaign world's moon, a nearby planet, or another star system. In their natural form, hierodules resemble bipedal, crab-like humanoids with two claws, a teeth-ringed mouth filled with stinging tendrils, and bodies encased in a grey-green carapace; in this form, they possess a natural PV +4 and can attack with their claws or bite (which acts as the paralyse power (CR/40) on a CS attack result).

The hierodules' native civilisation is quite advanced, through the application of science and magic. Their cities are great sprawling masses of stone, intermixed with natural landscapes. Within their cities, wondrous devices exist: energy weapons, infallible scrying devices, voidships capable of travelling between stars, advanced medical facilities, automaton servants, and non-magical means of transport across vast distances in little or no time.

Hierodules live in "spherical" time, which differs from linear time in that events can be postponed, revisited, or never experienced. One can envision this best by considering a thread (linear time) crumpled into a ball (spherical time) so that all points on the continuum touch countless other points along its own length. As a result, hierodules can traverse the boundaries between past, present, and future simply by "stepping off" the thread at one point and jumping on at another, which might lie before or after the hierodule's original position.

Living in spherical time grants a sort of chronological omniscience, though because hierodules "skip" across linear time, they find it difficult to place a particular event into correct temporal context. Their insight into the potential reality along a given continuum's past or future is tempered with the certainty that nothing is actually "required" to happen at a given time or within a given sequence. The unfortunate consequence is that most hierodules are perpetually confused: They have great difficulty distinguishing the present from the past or future, and because they realise this limitation, they harbour an innate expectation that reality is highly mutable.

To combat their mild insanity, hierodules have developed a keen interest in the affairs and events of other civilisations, particularly those who are limited by linear time. Travelling on their voidships, hierodules have made sporadic (and nondescript) contact with worldly civilisations.

When meeting with other races, hierodules use their innate polymorph self ability to appear as normal denizens of the world they're visiting. Polymorphed forms are permanent for as long as the hierodule wishes, though they can change form no more than four times per day. Despite their mutable form, however, hierodules cannot escape their proclivity for spherical time. After a short amount of time with a hierodule, it becomes apparent that cannot fathom the boundaries between past, present, or future. This limitation reveals itself through the hierodule's habit of speaking in the third person, using cryptic phrases, and evoking enigmatic speech: Frequently, hierodules seem to speak prophetically (and often sycophantically), though what they speak of may have already happened, will happen later, or (because of their altered concept of cause and effect) may not ever happen at all.

A hierdodule's "time travelling" abilities grant significant linguistic talent, and hierodules need only pass an INT check to understand and speak any tongue to which they're exposed. Hierodules also possess the ability to teleport at will, though they prefer to coordinate this ability with certain stages of the local solar cycle. Their talent for language and desire for social interaction makes them extremely friendly and accommodating; they are highly diplomatic and make excellent first impressions, though prolonged interactions will eventually reveal the hierodule's perceptive limitations.

Hierodule voidships are invisible within the atmosphere of most populated worlds, and they always land at or near sites dominated by ancient stone henges. Encountered hierodules carry "rune-rings" as treasure. Each individual ring resembles an octagonal gold coin, pierced with a central hole and inscribed with unrecognisable runes (though the pattern of these runes invariably mimics the arrangement of stones at the henge where the voidship landed). Although rune-rings retain an intrinsic mineral value, hierodules seldom use them to purchase goods. Instead, they are left with seemingly careless abandon wherever hierodules have passed. Some sages posit that rune-rings are placed as markers along a given continuum, serving as chronological "bread-crumbs" to reference a hierodule's presence in a given place and time. If this is true, the fact that they are sometimes found and plucked by lucky travellers must be a considerable inconvenience to the unfortunate hierodule who left them.

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