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PF1E [Let's Read] Nidal, Land of Shadows

Tristissima

Explorer
I've long enjoyed many of the Let's Reads on this site and wanted to write one of my own, so here I go!

I've been catching up on Geek and Sundry shows by means of their YouTube channel, and have just gotten to the part where they head on over to the shadow-hugged land of Nidal, which is one of my favoritest places in Avistan. I've long adored the kytons (what's their new Starfinder name again?) 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. Which is weird, cause the kytons are perfectly placed in the uncanny valley for me, so I know that they 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 a 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.

So where better to start my glorious and profitable career as a Let's Read author with Nidal, Land of Shadows? We start, of course with the cover:

View attachment 24207

Here, depicted by an artist with the wonderful name of Kiki Moch Rizky, we find 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 wither 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 unkown and the lack of safety found in the 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, 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....
 

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Tristissima

Explorer
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).
 

Tristissima

Explorer
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.
 


Tristissima

Explorer
Sorry to have disappeared for a few days ~ my mental health needed a spot of attending to for a bit >.<

If you enjoy Nidal, check out this YouTube channel's Nidal lore video. This channel's production is really top notch and it totally deserves far more subscribers than it currently enjoys.
That video is, in fact, excellent! Thank you for pointing me at it!

****

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 fuck 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.
 

Tristissima

Explorer
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!
 

Tristissima

Explorer
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...
 

Tristissima

Explorer
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.
 

Tristissima

Explorer
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.
 

Tristissima

Explorer
Way back in the long-ago time of the Age of Destiny, Azlant maintained a trading outpost in the Mindspin Mountains, no doubt in the region that separates modern Nidal from Molthune or Nirmathas. It was called Calignos, and its seers managed to predict Earthfall, literally a day before the aboleths smashed the asteroid into Golarion. Heeding this prophecy and with essentially no time to think about it, the people of this outpost (which included among their number not only Azlanti humans, but also elfs, gnomes, half-elfs, halflings, and others) did the most sensible thing available to them: they fled underground.

Such a grand impact obviously collapsed the tunnels behind the fleeing Azlanti, who knew little of how to survive in the photosynthesis-lacking Darklands. Magic was their savior, magic and a group of demigods in the Shadow Plane known as the Forsaken, who transformed these primordial humans into the creatures now known as the “dark folk”. Every once in a while, however, a child is born to them, slender and gray-skinned and resembling in many ways the Azlanti race. They are called, with forgotten lack of creativity and vague wistfulness “caligni”.

Many such forsake their people, both socially and physically, and in the latter forsaking many come to Nidal, for its gloom and environs prove quite welcoming to them and their light-sensitive eyes. As Zon-Kuthon and the velstracs reside in the Shadow Plane themselves, Nidalese culture reveres most shadowy entities, and this helps the caligni integrate into their society. One of the greatest tragedies to befall this race is that they rarely breed true. Their children, too often, are dark folk themselves and not proud caligni like their parents. We are not told what happens to these dark children, the heartbreak of their people, but we are told that many caligni who wish for children adopt abandoned infants or steal them either by their own force or that of hired mercenaries.

The Forsaken are described in the very last Pathfinder module to use the 1st edition Pathfinder rules, Cradle of Night. Though they hoped to transcend their status as demideities by explosively harvesting the souls of the caligni, they mysteriously disappeared sometime in the Age of Darkness, which started with Earthfall. Both due to their location aboveground and the more precipitous nature of their own transformation, it seems reasonable to believe that the Black Triune made their deal with Zon-Kuthon sometime relatively significantly before the disappearance of the Forsaken. I do, however, find myself wondering how related the two events are, since they both involve deities from the Shadow Plane and occur at about the same time…

Shortly after the disappearance of the Forsaken, beings known as the owbs appeared and replaced them as the center of dark folk and caligni religion. They seem to have some connection to the Forsaken, possibly as fractured shards of their being, as certain owb can channel the power of the Forsaken to grant clerical spells to their worshipers. They include:
  • Enkaar the Malformed Prisoner, neutral evil Forsaken of fetters, lethargy, and physical corruption whose owb prophets cannot be paralyzed and can deform others; Enkaar seems in many ways to resemble the velstracs though Enkaar’s chains are encrusted with rust
  • Eyes that Watch, neutral evil Forsaken of feelings of inferiority, felines, and strangers, whose prophets can see without their eyes, which emit dim flames instead
  • Grasping Iovett, chaotic evil Forsaken of accidents, parasites, and reckless lust, whose prophets are immune to disease, poison, and grappling and can cause tick-bite-like pustules to erupt on a person’s skin; Iovett’s sacred animal, in fact, is the tick
  • Husk, neutral evil Forsaken of emptiness, loneliness, and narcissism, whose prophets are immune to bleeding, disease, mind-affecting effects, and poison and can enshroud their surroundings in silence
  • Lady Razor, neutral evil Forsaken of family strife, suspicion, and vengeance, whose prophets can fight with all slashing weapons, even with more than one at once, and can ensure their slices cut vital areas; Lady Razor was the magistrate who forbade showing kindness or mercy to one’s family
  • Reshmit of the Heavy Voice, chaotic evil Forsaken of broken things, forgetting, and unexpected violence, whose prophets make everyone around them unusually forgetful and can make objects explode
  • Thalaphyrr Martyr-Minder, lawful evil Forsaken of failed heroics, imprisonment and squandered time, whose prophets prevent morale bonuses and can make others slow down; Thalaphyrr guarded the prisons where the Forsaken kept would-be usurpers and destroyers.

That’s . . . well, that’s certainly a pantheon, and suddenly makes me much more interested in the dark folk/caligni, who’d always seemed kind of bland in my previous readings. Their perspectives on things seem beautifully topsy-turvy, even appealing to my Discordianism in its glorification of things like accidents and failure. They certainly bring a flavorful masochism to Nidal that the Kellid inhabitants seem to avoid. I imagine that all of the Forsaken ~ well, the owb prophets who channel their divinity, anyway, as said prophets refuse to allow any of the energy possibly gained by worship to pass through to their patron ~ are allowed shrines within the borders of Nidal.

I kind of wonder if the cataclysm of the Forsaken came when Thalaphyrr somehow failed in its vigil, or has something to do with Enkaar’s resemblance to an antique velstrac.

For the record, caligni racial traits (from Bestiary 5):
  • +2 Dex, +2 Con, -2 Int
  • 30 feet of speed
  • See in darkness
  • Light sensitivity
  • Explodes in a flash of dazzling light when killed
 

Tristissima

Explorer
Yet another group of Azlanti survivors, yet another mysterious Shadow-Plane patron.

Fetchlings, presumably, lived in the homeland rather than some farflung, backwoods outpost like Calignos. A little later to realize what was going on than those mountain-dwelling traders, the ancestors of the fetchlings nonetheless managed to figure out what the flood of meteorites in the sky portended, and took a deal offered by an entity known as the Widow. About whom, sadly, nothing seems to have been written beyond this, which came from Blood of Shadows. In the ten millennia since, these humans were changed and warped by the powers of the Shadow Plane, becoming a new and separate race: the fetchlings.

So now, in the century or two after Earthfall, we have:
  • Zon-Kuthon escaping the prison of Xoviakain
  • The Forsaken claiming the caligni and then disappearing, only to be replaced by the owb
  • The Widow secreting the proto-fetchlings away into the Shadow Plane
  • Count Ranalc, a fey Eldest exiled to the Shadow Plane, reaching out to try to influence the Material Plane

Gods. I should deep dive into that time period sometime, cuz tying those four things together could be fascinating! I think Doloras had already freed the velstracs and they’d made their home in the Shadow Plane by then, y/n? Was the Widow one of the things that Thalaphyrr guarded in the Forsaken’s gaols, and the fetchlings her escape plan? Did she date Count Ranalc? What is his relation to the Forsaken, and why doesn’t he have a stronger presence in Nidal ~ he’d make a fascinating Nidalese boogeyman, wouldn’t he?

Anyway…

Thin, fragile, grey-skinned and yellow-eyed, they are plagued by an inverse of the effect that helps the caligni assimilate into Nidalese culture. Their resemblance to Zon-Kuthon causes the average Kuthite to assume a similarity to the Midnight Lord in experience and personality. Though the book only calls out the fear this engenders in the “provincial” ~ who aren’t under the social pressure to at least fake daily devotion that the urban Nidalese are ~ I can imagine that the true believers among the population would end up exoticizing and idolizing them, or stereotypes of them, anyway. Certainly that dualistic approach ~ both racist, but coming at it from different sides ~ is one I would play up if I was in a Nidalese campaign that involved fetchlings.

Mention is made that “fetchling” is considered an insult to these Azlanti descendants, who use an Aklo word (kayal) for themselves. Interestingly, Aklo is closely attached not only to eldritch entities and the Darklands, but also to the First World. It is even called out as having similarities to Gnomish! Considering that fetchlings have no connection to aberrations and other such eldritch entities nor one to the Darklands (which is a caligni thing, and they have their own language), this might point towards an association between Count Ranalc and the Widow.

Fetchling racial traits:

    • +2 Dexterity, +2 Charisma, –2 Wisdom
    • Native Outsider
    • Darkvision 60 feet
    • Low-Light Vision
    • +2 Knowledge (planes) and Stealth
    • Increased miss chance against them in dim light
    • Cold resistance 5 and electricity resistance 5
    • Disguise self, shadow walk (self only), and plane shift (self only, to the Shadow Plane or the Material Plane only)

They can give up their low-light and disguise self to take others with them through shadows, become better liars and sweet-talkers if they give up the miss chance, or gain spell resistance against light and shadow spells if they give up that miss chance and their resistances. If they don’t want those skill bonuses, they can instead be treated as humans, be fearless, be better liars and sweet-talkers (again, though not as powerfully as the other way….but you can take both!), cast illusion (shadow) spells more powerfully, become an amazing liar (again, this can be taken with the other alternate racial trait), or understand the ways of Golarion better. They can give up (some or all of) the spell-like abilities to replace them with displacement or memory lapse (different racial traits) or gain an unnerving stare.

Of particularly interesting note is the alternate racial trait from Blood of Shadows called “Nidalese Recluse”. This replaces all three spell-like abilities with sanctuary, nondetection (self only), and veil (self only). It definitely underscores the desire of Nidalese fetchlings to avoid attention….

Fetchling favored class benefits are super-broad. I am intrigued by the focus on cold and electricity resistance, I must say, which shows up in like four of them!
 

Tristissima

Explorer
After the caligni and the kayal, the last of the races singled out for attention barely counts, in my mind. After all, as far as I know, there’s never been a racial write-up for the velstracs. Especially since there are so many different types with such different statblocks. Here's a list of the twenty types of velstrac (along with the origins of their names):
  • Almoners [an official distributor of alms, or charity], who forge the iconic chains of the velstracs
  • Anchorites [something like a hermit, only restricted to sometimes a single room and considered dead to the world], converted mortals
  • Apocrisiarii [representative of bishops to the secular authorities], who cannot lie and use torture to reduce others to a single truth
  • Apostles [carrier of the Word], also converted mortals
  • Augurs [Roman diviner by the motion of birds in the sky], the tiny spirits who can be familiars
  • Cantors [singer of liturgical music], the scouts and guides
  • Ephialtes [early advocate of democracy in 5th c. BCE Athens OR one of the Aloadae or Giants in Greek mythology OR the one who betrayed the Greeks to the Persians at Thermopylae], among the leaders of the velstracs
  • Eremites [fancy word for a hermit], the big bads
  • Evangelists [one who tries to convert others], the baseline kyton from D&D 3.x ~ also the most commonly found velstrac in their old Hellish home
  • Interlocutors [explainer of the government’s views and can also tell the government things from the people], surgeon-sculptors
  • Lampadarii [the one who carries the lamp or torch into the church], half-shadow Kuthite fanatics (to my mind, this separates them a bit from the Nine Truths-focused other velstracs)
  • Libitinarii [Roman undertaker], the frozen velstracs
  • Oitoi [I have no idea], the skeletal velstracs
  • Ostiarii [doorman, the first order a seminarian is admitted to after declaring they wanted to be a priest], gatekeepers and emissaries
  • Phylacators [I have no idea again], the jailers and executioners
  • Precentors [person who leads a congregation in singing of prayers], the storytellers and historians of pain
  • Sacristans [protector of the room for keeping vestments and the church], unintelligent slaves
  • Sextons [person who looks after church and churchyard, sometimes as bell-ringer and gravedigger], who are extra fanatical about their pursuit of pain
  • Suffragans [a bishop subordinate to another bishop], former Joyful Things who join the lampadarii as Kuthite fanatics rather than Nine Truths true believers
  • Termagants [ummm...a violent and turbulent pseudo-deity believed by Medieval Christians to be worshiped by Muslims...], who are always pregnant and give birth to abominations

Anyway, it seems that they are uncommon, but easily recognized by the population. Well, I would imagine so! As Zon-Kuthon’s primary agents, their image is no doubt emblazoned across the friezes and mosaics of their temples. I’m imagining, in fact, chains embedded in the actual concrete walls of the temple, hanging between sculpted images above the heads of the congregants. Velstracs likely cavort in the margins of Nidalese illustrated manuscripts, and crude velstrac costumes almost certainly adorn the performers in their morality plays.

This section doubles down on the kayal entry in terms of presenting a division between the upper classes (defined here largely politically, as “the Umbral Court and their agents” rather than by religious devotion) and the majority of the population. The latter, it seems, sees the velstracs as nothing but immensely fearful, while the former mostly see them as an opportunity or a threat. I might be invested in the idea of Nidalese culture being something good characters can reasonably come from and interact with, but this feels like it swings too far. If nothing else, the realm has served the Midnight Lord for twice the length of Earth’s recorded history in objective years and about as long as our recorded history when adjusted for multiracial differences in lifespan. The idea that the general population just cowers beneath an imposed tradition simply doesn’t seem to stand to reason.

Of course, rebels always see the arrival of velstracs as a deep “Oh, fuck” moment.

Anyway, there's really not much to be said about this little bit. It honestly feels more like fluff added in, mebbe in formatting, to fill out the space.
 

Tristissima

Explorer
The book does a lovely job of quickly reminding us that the Nidalese people cannot be reduced simply to their religion. They are people, with goals and interests and needs beyond the demanding cruelties of the Midnight Lord. In addition to his priests, the Nidalese count architects, farmers, musicians, and chirurgeons, all seeking to meet those needs and desires.

This is the real start of what I love about this book, as we are given information about Nidalese family practices ~ Earthfall created such intense population pressure that it introduced widespread contraception use to keep families small. After ten millennia (likely experienced as approximately the length of Earth’s recorded history, thanks to the presence of elfs and dwarfs and other folk who live longer than humans), I assume contraception use has dwindled from almost ubiquitous down to common and accepted; similarly, I would assume that the current standard family size of two children has increased dramatically from what it once was. Given the general benefit in agrarian cultures of having more children (they mean more workers, after all), I appreciate the note that this is encouraged by the Umbral Court as a means of control.

I also really love that the text specifically mentions that the Nidalese trend toward smaller families results in a widespread emphasis on fiercely loving one’s children. No doubt a large element of the Umbral Court’s manipulation of the populace, it nonetheless helps deepen the view of Nidalese culture and encourages motivations for its people beyond a simplistic desire to proselytize the ecstatic joys of pain. I would dearly love to see this worked into an adventure (or even a path) ~ great fun can be had by giving the PCs motivation to team up with people they find reprehensible because those people are trying to do something good and understandable that doesn’t negate their usual role as villains.

We are again reminded that true believers are a minority among the Nidalese as they are in any religion. However, this time the paragraph does so without resorting to the image of an oppressed culture cowering under an imposed religion for a ridiculous length of time. Rather, it draws the average Nidalese more realistically. These are simple casual adherents who say their daily prayers and celebrate religious holidays, all without experiencing anything dramatic or intense.

The Umbral Court has, over the millennia, filled every official military and academic position with its agents (and I would assume some are less “agent” and more “lackey”). Some answer is given as to the actual governmental structure of Nidal, as we are told that this allows them control over trade and building, providing a bottleneck on the distribution of wealth and influence. This would seem to indicate that the realm is generally ruled by its soldiers and sages, a military-academic junta. There is no nobility of the sort that tends to mark feudalism, nor are the Umbral Court’s agents function as lords. I’m still not perfectly sure how that would look, but at least I have a vague idea now.

This also provides a mechanism for the continuation of the Kuthite religion in Nidal. The main path through that bottleneck seems to be costly, elaborate displays of Kuthite dedication. This is what gets the casual worshipers to undergo the extreme rites that cement their faith in the Midnight Lord. It is not dissimilar to one of the main ways that Earth cults maintain control over their followers, and one of the methods most easily scaled up to entire populations. In actual play at the table, this can be a way to give PCs the difficult decisions to make that can really drive drama, as well as provide roles for Nidalese that aren’t direct opposition for the party. In order to position themselves to do what they need/want to do (saving innocents, defeating villains, etc.), they may have to impress an agent of the Umbral Court with a Kuthite rite.
 

Tristissima

Explorer
I forgot to mention in my last post that the seeming structure of Nidalese government has probably created something of a blend between the ancient Roman system of patronage and some areas of Europe under the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. This is significant because it can quite shift how one thinks of getting things done in this gloomy land ~ I can imagine that there is quite a vocabulary (of words, body language, and customs) associated with maintaining one’s relationship with whichever specific Umbral agent military leader or academician one usually goes to in order to get what one needs, but that the only accepted way to acquire that relationship is through showy and intense displays of Kuthite religiosity. This results in fun things such as being useful to a specific agent and gaining their patronage thereby is considered corruption by Nidalese culture, unless you arrange to get suspended by hooks in your back or partially flayed as a way of publicly giving them an excuse to make use of you. Moreover, it’s probably likely that the agent has to manipulate or backchannel you into appearing to do it for your own reasons and on your own initiative without appearing to be seeking your aid.

A sidebar addresses the rifts to the Shadow Plane that dot the Nidalese countryside, which allow travel across the veil, but more importantly allow that realm’s inhabitants to come into Nidal. A few specific ones are mentioned:
  • The Cathedral of Exquisite Agony in Pangolais has one in its dungeons that doesn’t allow mortals to cross over but only shadow-creatures to come to the Material Plane
  • Ridwan has one at its center that leads to the chasm known as the Deeping Darkness
  • A storm known imaginatively as the Shadowstorm (I actually kinda like the name) roams around the Umbral Basin
  • Blacksulfur Pool, south of Nisroch
  • The ruins of a wizard’s lair from centuries ago has one evocatively known as Edammera’s Folly
  • There’s one caught behind crystal in something called the Moonless Mirror; like the Shadowstorm it is said to be unstable and flickering
And of course, both permanent and temporary rifts litter Nidal like mouseholes in an old barn. Interestingly, they are opaque from either side ~ inky and diffuse from the mortal side and indistinctly bright from the other, without the ability to see what awaits should you go through.
 

Tristissima

Explorer
I like that the book notes that the lack of showy displays of self-mortification in rural villages isn’t due to a lack of belief or even of faith, but a simple consequence of the relative poverty of village life. Without the money or magics to perform or survive the big shows of pain, the folk out here celebrate much more simply. It gives a reason other than “pain is bad, mmkay?” for a Nidalese character to be a member of a party or show up in a narrative with much less possibility of squicking out those players who might be less comfortable with Zon-Kuthon’s ways.

There’s also more freedom out here from the hierarchy and dogmas of the Zon-Kuthite . . . church? Is there a church? We’re back to the question of the actual structure of religion in Golarion. Is this like a mini-Catholicism? Or is it closer to something like Judaism or Islam, where there is a monotheism but not much of a hierarchy beyond the local or the regional, and it’s all about which teachers you follow or ideas you adopt? Or is it closer to many polytheisms, wherein all the gods are worshipped all the time (although Nidal would be closer to monolatry, considering the Black Triune’s ancient deal, wherein the others would be recognized but only the Midnight Lord actually worshipped) and the priesthood*s* are a collection of religious professionals with specialties ranging from particular rituals or magicks all the way to specific spirtual practices or paths or the ways of individual deities?

Anyway, without Umbral agents barring access to the necessities of life and ambition as much, country Nidalese merely act with the guidance of a local cleric. Actually, I quite like the term vicar for this role, for some reason. It is now, in my head, a Kuthite vicar. They are noted to be either a local zealot or a washout without ambition from the big city. Beyond that, there’ll be a couple of visits from Uskwood druids or shadowcallers every year to snap up youths to train in their ways (with or without consent, of course).

The Umbral Court has once again done a wonderful job of populace control, in that they are known to react with overwhelming force to any hint of sedition and to masquerade their agents as travellers in order to learn of that sedition. This has led to a widespread xenophobia amongst the rural Nidalese, which of course will tend to contain and weaken the rebellious elements of Nidalese society. Considering just how long Nidalese history has lasted, this suspicion of strangers is likely almost reflexive and impossible to shake off.

The clouds which choke off Nidal’s sun aid this effort, as only the efforts of the Uskwood druids keep the people fed. Of course, the Uskwood is a fraction of the territory of the nation, so I imagine that the druids send out parties on a circuit of the land to ensure that the farms can produce enough food for Nidal to remain free from unwanted control by not importing food from elsewhere. This might make an interesting campaign for a party heavy in druids, rangers, hunters, spiritworkers (the so-called “shamans”), witches, or even clerics and oracles with the right domains/mysteries. The PCs could be a group of younger druids, just out of their indoctrination and not yet stuck in their evil ways, overseen by a stern NPC elder whom they have to circumvent in order to be heroes or even antiheroes. In addition to just the general moral dilemmas presented by the situation, the hive or the mi-go (both of whom infest the Uskwood) could work as villains of the campaign. Multiclassing (or the right archetypes) with vigilante could be useful here, too.

One mof my main agenda for fun is immersion, so I simply adore that we are told that wheat and rye serve as Nidal’s staple, as well as fish and gasping white fish.
 

Tristissima

Explorer
Here's the list of divine entities I see as being allowed worship within Nidal. It's longer than my usual posts (I try to keep under 1000 words usually, but this is more like 2500), but I do hope you'll power through anyway and let me know what you think?

**

Wandering Nidal are a variety of Umbral Court agents, inquisitors, shadowcallers, and others who police the behavior of those within the realm. Many among them bear a slim book of about 80 illuminated pages, hand-lettered by means of a Nidalese pen. These pens are specially constructed to pierce the thumb and finger and channel the writer's blood to mix with a dark powder and form an ink.

Within that book's slim, razored cover of rich, dull blue and gold-leaf, are recorded the following words:



The Black Triune, chosen of the Midnight Lord and rulers of Nidal lo these last ten millennia, would have it known to the Umbral Court, its agents, and all Nidalese who remember whence their salvation came after Earthfall that those foreigners who dare to treat with us upon our own sacred soil have earned by their courage the right to build and maintain shrines to their lesser gods, provided that said gods present neither annoyance nor threat to our hallowed ways. In discussion with the velstracs who serve Zon-Kuthon directly in Xoviakain and with the Prince of Pain himself, your ancient chiefs have determined the following deities to make up that category. Shrines dedicated to any other divinity are to be destroyed upon their discovery, and the devotees who built or frequented such places shall be converted by torture or cruelly slain, as is the wont of you who discover them.

Naturally, of course, all foreigners may consider themselves more than welcome to worship Zon-Kuthon and the velstrac demagogues who have come into alliance with him. They are able to do so without harassment or opposition whether they follow our more perfect ways or approach these divinities in the lesser ways that the other races have developed over the millennia.

The undying love of our cruel master for his sister prevents us from outlawing, interfering with, or hindering the ways of Shelyn’s worshipers or clergy in any direct way. Her shrines and altars here in Nidal are sacrosanct, though oblique efforts to limit her worship and influence are encouraged of you who bear this decree.

Our Chelish friends may worship Asmodeus freely, of course, as may any foreigners who likewise serve him. The Pallid Princess, also, may be honored with small shrines of the sort that adorn the kitchens of foreign taverns, and shrines to Abadar who gifted Zon-Kuthon with his home and the First Shadow may also pock the realm with impunity. The ancient deity Ydersius is halfway to understanding the Nine Truths and the deep understanding the Midnight Lord discovered Beyond Beyond; by allowing him in his throes of agony to receive foreign devotions in our land, we hope to guide him the remaining distance. Ydersius is one of several whose presence here is intended to convert even the gods to the wracking joys of our enlightenment.

In memory of one of their number having granted our velstrac teachers their freedom, two of the Queens of the Night may be worshiped here, though only devotion to them performed by foreigners is allowed by our decree. We Nidalese belong to the Midnight Lord. One of these so allowed is, of course, Doloras, who played a significant role in the events that led to Nidal’s salvation by freeing the velstracs from their prison, and so may be worshiped freely in our borders. Zon-Kuthon remembers the ancient days when Ardad Lili served his beloved sister, and so she too may receive foreign prayers here.

The caligni who have settled among us may feel free to worship the owb to whom they owe their devotion. Be wary, you who bear this decree, for their numbers are legion and so can provide easy cover in their permission to those who would seek to smuggle forbidden ceremonies into our realm.

The archdevil Baalzebul knows well the glory of anguish. Like Ydersius, we hope that by allowing him some meager, foreigner-haunted shrines here in Zon-Kuthon’s land, he might be brought the rest of the way, and see his misery for the gift it is.

Baalzebul is joined by certain of the infernal dukes who serve him and the other archdevils, as the following list delineates.
  • Moloch’s servants Alocer and Eligos both call to mind our ancientmost Kellid heritage, reminding us most wistfully of those olden days. They may be worshipped here, though Nidalese themselves are forbidden to join their foreign worshipers in their rites. Bearer of this decree, we bid you to instruct your fellow Nidalese in the treasure that is their inability to join in these rites when you see them looking upon the worshippers of these infernal dukes with longing upon their brows.
  • Deumus, liege of Barbatos, is another whose maimed history ~ this time at the hands of dread Ragathiel ~ readies him for the lessons the Midnight Lord and the velstracs teach. May that proselytization be easier by virtue of our allowing him foreign worship in our home.
  • Haborym, duke of renewal and shackles in service to Mephistopheles, is an inflictor of those very things we proud Nidalese prize; namely, he brings those in his charge austerity and the pain of immolation, and they rise again with unclouded eyes as a result. His worship shall be permitted here.
  • Another of Moloch’s servants shall be allowed shrines within our borders: Ruithvein, Blood Emperor. As we have many native vampires in Nidal and an environment highly amenable to them, we welcome foreign bloodsuckers and the devil they worship to come and join us.
  • Similarly, the Prince of Broken Glass, Zaebos, patron especially of the Ustalavic vampires, may be worshiped here by them. Let it not be said that we refuse intercourse with the greater world, as long as those who seek intercourse with us are worthy of our time and efforts.

Though we do not condone the boorish ways of the undisciplined demons, we find the following few to be in line with our own, and acceptable objects of foreign devotions.
  • Andirifkhu may be wild and raving and her traps convoluted, but there is much to learn from her torturous ways. Let the foreigner worship her, and study their inventions that we might put them to more purposeful use.
  • Mestama has forced herself into our borders, with the Uskwood and smaller groves sometimes hiding paths that leave this world of ours and meander into her Barren Wood. Reluctantly, we bow to these intrusions and call you, decree-bearer, to leave her shrines unmolested in the absence of her worshippers engaging in any act dangerous to Nidal. Watch them for such. We would love an excuse.
  • Our relationship to the Nightripper is much the same as ours to Andirifkhu. Learn from him the songs the body can play when plucked by a knife, for there is much to learn there, but do recall that only Zon-Kuthon is your lord.
  • As we welcome foreign vampires to our most welcoming land, we welcome Zura, as well.

The qlippoth lord Chavazvug is well-known as a foe to demons, and we hope that by allowing him a presence here, if small, he will serve to curtail the excesses of those demons previously allowed worship in our lands.

In those ancient times when we first met Zon-Kuthon, we promised the Dark Prince that we would learn his joys and attend to them. We have learned of the many types of pain, including the hurting ways that strike without need for skin to bleed. We praise the Midnight Lord, in part, by allowing the worship of some few asura ranas, some few of the grand mistakes of the gods so that Zon-Kuthon can dance in the ache of doubt beside us. But the ranas we allow are few, and limited to the following names.
  • We find Andak to have much knowledge to offer in the ways of the mortification of the flesh.
  • Chugarra has no skin and so his flesh must be a riot of pain.
  • Onamahli is a fascinating one to us, as her myths and stories tell of a departed goddess of beauty. The Midnight Lord has not seen fit to tell even us of the Black Triune whether Onamahli’s former mistress was involved with what he found Beyond Beyond or what he became after. Moreover, Onamahli knows the sound of her skin and her spirit tearing in two, and still feels the anguish therefrom.
All three of these are among those whose foreign worship here may be a means by which they come to see the truths offered by Zon-Kuthon and his velstrac allies.

Worshipers of those foul fiends known as daemons are to be carefully watched, for the oblivion they seek is a surcease to suffering. It cannot be denied, however, that Osolmyr, at least, brings blessed misery to rival that of the velstracs ~ though it may do so without success. Accordingly, worshipers of this daemonic harbinger may build shrines, but you are charged to curtail any doomful plans they may futilely attempt.

Many among our subjects follow the Nine Truths, seeking to improve themselves. Thus, shrines to Irori ~ who preaches his own manner of perfection and enjoys his own painful privations ~ are permitted by us. There exist those who have conquered death, and can writhe in agony forever. We the Black Triune deign to allow one such rakshasa immortal some presence inside our borders. Caera purchased her immortality at the cost of her skin. She is as ready as Chugarra to hear the teachings of the Midnight Lord and the velstracs.

The concerns of the malebranche mostly remain distant from those of our world, but some few have ways close enough to ours that they pose little to no interruption in our customs. They are listed below.
  • Cagnazzo, like Alocer and Eligos, is to be allowed free worship by foreigners to remind us Nidalese of what we are, what we were, and what we’ve lost. Savor the feeling.
  • Those who worship Rubicante are said to hear words of sense and peace as they burn. This seems not too far from the ways in which Zon-Kuthon has instructed us, and so shall be permitted.

It is perhaps inevitable, given their capricious ways, that some among the fey shall prove to be palatable to the Nidalese spirit. The Lost Prince is one such, and so may be honored with small shrines here. He knows well the restless mind-writhing, and is another good candidate for conversion to the superior ways of Zon-Kuthon and the velstracs.

No Kuthite seeks death, for though we may disagree about the capacity undead flesh and spirit have for blessed suffering, it is well known that death takes most well distant from pain’s brilliant touch. As a proud Kellid race, no Nidalese seeks death either, for such is a coward’s way. Nonetheless, a few of death’s servants have been found worthy to visit foreign shrines built upon our home’s soil. Those allowed are as follows:
  • Dammar invented the hangover, that pain which even those well distant from our borders and rites welcome and invite. This, and the natural interest the rest of the world has in our winery ways, has earned him a few scattered shrines across Nidal.
  • Vonymos was long worshipped by our ancestral god callers, and grief is the very reason for loss, an ache of the memory that never heals, a forever misery. The Mourning Prince may be worshipped by foreigners in our land.

We are much more welcoming of the ushers’ fearful brethren, the sahkils, and thus allow the following to receive worship from foreigners here.
  • Ananshea and Ozranvial both know the ways of pain. The Skin That Walks on Teeth generously tears the flesh and Despair’s Smile crumbles the illusions of those foreigners we allow to worship them.
  • Nameless Upon an Empty Throne not only brings the glorious torment of doubt, it does so to all those who seek power. By allowing it to be worshiped in our borders, we hope that it will do its work amongst those who would come here to take from us what we bargained with Zon-Kuthon for.

Though it may surprise some, we the Black Triune have found some among the empyreal lords to be safe enough for foreigners to worship in Nidal. Be suspicious of them, decree-bearer, for those types of people are well-known for their lack of trustworthiness, but do not prevent their practices for those rites are allowed.
  • Foreign workers who come to serve in our vineyards and alien winemakers curious to learn some scrap of our superior skills may worship Halcamora.
  • Though ghosts obviously lack the flesh to feel pain, thus obviating the question of whether the undead have the capacity for such wisdoms, there is nonetheless a dull woe only the eternally lost and lonely can know. Ashava is the angel of this ache, and so may be worshiped here by foreigners.
  • Foreigners are dangerous, of course, too often seeking to undermine our society or overthrow our rightful Kuthite rule. By allowing them the worship of Ghenshau, we incline them towards his ways ~ his ignorant, placid, simple ways that keep them easily controlled. What fools they are to seek comfort, and the lack of will that comes therefrom. Our ways of pain and grief have truly honed us into a superior people.
  • Neshen, on the other hand, understands the development of the will through suffering. In truth, he is but a short way from being a velstrac himself. Do what you can to bring him the rest of the way when you encounter the permitted foreign shrines to him.
  • Shemhazai is on the same journey from the other side. Lamashtu has done us the favor of readying him for the Kuthite message and the Nine Truths. By allowing his worship, we hope to make the angel of vision see, and bring him into our ways.

The dwarfs at our bepeaked borders may beseech but a single of their gods to carry their prayers and offerings to those for whom they were intended. That goddess is Dranngvit, for debt is its own misery. Likewise, elfs who know the Savored Sting may offer her devotion in our lands and attempt to seduce her into interceding with the other elfin gods if need be.

Likewise, Vudrans who have come to treat with our Umbral Court for trade or war are allowed to erect shrines for Dhalavei alone, as the ways of the Unsuspected Rot seem closest to our ways out of all the many gods they worship.

Whereas the Vudrans have their appointed divine representative, so too do the Tian, though the latter have two. General Susumu, like Alocer and Eligos, remind us simultaneously that we remain Kellid, born to the wind in our manes and the rhythm of hooves beneath us, and that we are now so much more by the grace of Zon-Kuthon himself. This pain has purchased the Tian right to worship him here. On the other hand, Làu Kiritsu reminds us of what our austerities and agonies have formed us into. Those Tian who come here must do so because they envy what we are ~ let Làu Kiritsu foment this feeling and push them to be good students of our superior culture.

We have heard of the strange gods worshipped among those whom our Chelish friends have encountered in distant Arcadia. Should any of those peoples visit Nidal, let it be known that we are curious about one, supposedly named Ah Pook, and thus permit him shrines in our lands. It is said that he breaks mortal minds on the rack of their doubts and dances in the miserable shards of their life. We approve.

Iblydans may bring their rumored vampire god Chinostes to our shores, should they have the courage to come here. Write down everything you may witness about this worship, however, O decree-bearer. We are as yet uncertain about this new god whom our vampiric subjects may wish to worship, and would like to learn more,

We are certain those so honored by this decree as to be allowed a scattering of small altars across our lands will do as they are bid by their brave fellows who take step upon our soil. If they do not, then perhaps those dwarfs, Vudrans, Tian, Arcadians, and Iblydans should worship stronger gods.

These forty-five divine beings ~ with the addition of the various owb prophets our caligni friends worship and our own teachers, Zon-Kuthon and the vestrac demagogues ~ shall be considered the only deities allowed worship wherever in Nidal our reach may stretch its fearful arm, and you who bear this decree are the weapon we wield in that hand. Should you see a foreigner in our lands worshiping any other god, or one of us worshiping any but Zon-Kuthon and the demagogues, you are hereby empowered by our word to enforce this decree by whatever means you so deem fit. Let your cruelty be loosed.

As a reminder, ten of these forty-five are allowed for the express purpose that we might proselytize the lessons learned from misery to them. These such are Ydersius, Baalzebul, Deumus, Andak, Chugarra, Onamahli, Caera, the Lost Prince, Neshen, and Shemhazai. Find what ways you can to accomplish this by the indirect means available to you, using their worshippers as your tools.

This has been decreed by the Black Triune, and the Umbral Court has been instructed in its reasoning and workings. It shall be so.
 

Tristissima

Explorer
The section on the resistance begins with the line, “The Umbral Court does not cow everyone in Nidal.” Frankly, I don’t much imagine they need to ~ they’ve ruled in an unbroken reign for 10,00 years (culturally speaking, again, about 5000 years, the length of Earth’s written history). My assumption would be that the greatest obstacle facing the resistance against the Black Triune would be convincing the Nidalese populace that another way is even possible. Especially with the efforts put in by the Court to ensure and create Kuthite faith amongst the prosperous of their nation, the resistance would likely be recruiting from the poorer and more oppressed people of Nidal. The kind of folk who, even in a setting like Golarion with information technology significantly advanced as compared to most D&D settings, have no idea how other nations work, no other examples other than the eternal reign of the Triune, the Court, and their agents to feed their dreams of freedom.

The rebellion, we are told, is mostly unorganized and composed of tiny cells or even lone wolf freedom fighters. As I supposed in the previous paragraph, dissidence is often associated with foreignness ~ contact with foreign ideas or foreign infiltrators. However, there is also an element of ancient Kellid spiritual traditions resisting the Midnight Lord’s intrusion upon their cultural territory. We were told earlier that the ancient Kellids of the region worshipped Gozreh and Desna ~ it is specifically the latter goddess of dreams and luck who feeds the ranks of the treasonous with oracles and spiritworkers (seriously, those two classes are called out in the text). The region known as the Atteran Ranches, which we will learn more about in the future, is particularly associated with this kind of resistance.

Everywhere but in the Ranches, rebels keep a low profile, performing very minor acts of sedition and only then with caution. The Atteran, however, send enchanted dreams to the Nidalese people, aiming to inspire mass revolt. There is a significant element of religious magical research amongst the Atteran resisters, as well, as they hope to exorcise umbral shepherds from those they possess and to free the Umbral Court from Zon-Kuthon’s influence.

The Umbral Court continues to demonstrate its deviosity when it comes to the relations it fosters with the nations around it. They purposefully keep these relationships full of distrust and fear in order to discourage their subjects from fleeing their borders and means that those who do are often killed or returned by the very lands they thought would provide them refuge.

Cheliax, of course, is a bosom buddy with whom Nidal gets along famously. We are given some idea how Nidal makes its money, exporting ornate silver jewelry, brutal Ridwani blades and dark Ridwani gems, and the exotic fare offered by the Uskwood and trade with the Shadow Plane. It doesn’t sound like the Nidalese are selling to the common Chelish; their brand is high-end and expensive, and support the Chelish taste for conspicuous consumption and finery.

The other thing Nidal exports, again primarily to Cheliax, are people. Workers, such as torturers, shadowcallers, experts in population control, and diplomats for the infernal empire to use in its own efforts across Avistan, Garund, and Arcadia. They also, of course, send much information back to Nidal and serve the Midnight Lord by steering Chelish decisions and policies.

The Mindspin Mountains no doubt give Nirmathas and Molthune quite a bit of relief, as their existence is the primary excuse they use to avoid having much to do with their gloomy neighbor. No mention is made of the dwarfs and other races that inhabit the Mindspin Mountains, which is kind of a shame really. The standard PC-opposition races (orcs, giants, etc.) might be all-too-easy to paint with a boring brush when it comes to their interactions with the Kuthites, but there are many interesting directions a skilled author could take them. Even better, the Mindspin Mountains house dwarfs from Janderhoff ~ with their standard toughness, I can only guess what kind of thing Kuthite dwarfs could get up to, and with a rather interesting racial pantheon to begin with, there's much missed opportunity there, in my mind.

Interestingly, Geb (the Garundi nation of the undead ruled by an ancient lich that’s been at war with the high-magic realm of Nex for millennia, leaving the magic-scarred faux Wild West of Alkenstar as their border) has recently reached out to Nidal. Honestly, if I’m drawing parallels with Earth cultures, this is kind of fascinating, as I often use the following rough equivalencies: Cheliax=Italy+Spain, Nidal=France, Geb/Nex=Ethiopia/Eritrea. I say this is interesting because Italy colonized Ethiopia and (I just recently heard; I’m not sure how much I believe it) played a significant role in the development of Eritrean identity. Anyway, the rumormongers suggest that the delegation has to do with learning Nidalese shadow magics for the benefit of Gebish vampires.

That sounds like a fascinating thing to play with ~ either shenanigans around the negotiations (PCs on one side or the other in a very talky game of political bargaining, or rebels trying to make use of the meeting to further the cause of freedom, or in 2e especially a character who uses this as an opportunity to take character options from both cultures, or a scholarly group who has to reluctantly deal with the politicians trying to sell or prevent the sale of their research, or some other such).
 

Tristissima

Explorer
One thing I neglected to mention in my last post is how disappointed I am that the book never explores the possibilities inherent in Kuthite Nidalese dwarfs or orcs or giants coming from the Mindspin Mountains. I imagine that anyone with the ability to drink so deep from the well of pain before being broken (read: Constitution bonus) would be greatly respected in this shadowed land! And dwarfin takes on Nidalese Kuthite praxis, in particular, are fascinating to contemplate! Sigh, another thing to add to my list of Nidalese writing projects.

Anyway, the next thing we’re given is a short, one-page timeline of the past 10,000 years. I have a strange love of timelines; just before they hit the point of trying to include way too much, they can end up helping one see some of the connections between events and trends. They spawn historical hypotheses like few other tools, simply by bringing our awareness to certain things’ proximity to each other.

Earthfall and the Black Triune’s meeting with Zon-Kuthon are the first two events on the timeline. Both have perhaps longer descriptions than I feel is strictly warranted. Chances are that readers of this book know what Earthfall is, and they certainly know the details about the Black Triune from elsewhere in the book. My guess is they decided to flesh it out a bit more here because timelines are the sort of thing people look at to figure out how interested they are in a setting, but it still feels a bit like filler to me.

It seems to have taken three years for surviving Azlanti and Thassilonian intellectuals to make it to Nidal. This sort of thing is the kind more likely to be verisimilitudinous than it seems at first, as one thinks about how long it would take for news of Nidal’s relative prosperity to spread and then for people to make even seemingly short journeys to the realm.

The Black Triune seems to have been trying to consolidate Nidalese government under their direct rule for about 18 years before they invented the Umbral Court, which was also the beginning of the Cathedral of Exquisite Agony and when their ageless immortality became known to their subjects.

The Age of Darkness lasted a thousand years as Golarion’s sky shook itself clean of Azlant’s ash. As I said before, I once calculated the approximate sociohistorical multiplier for a standard D&D world, based on the relative ages of maturity of the PHB races. I might have weighted it according to the racial demographics from the DMG’s settlement rules, but I can’t remember. Anyway, it came out to about 2.2, with elfs becoming adults at literally seven times the age of humans! This means that Earthfall would have been about as distant to the average Avistani at the end of the Age of Darkness as 1565 is to us, and as distant to the average elf as 1877 is to us. Expect more of these conversions as I discuss the timeline.

8918 years ago (experienced as the equivalent of 4054 years ago to the general populace and 1274 years ago to the elfs) the holy city of Ridwan is begun with a shrine overlooking the site of the Black Triune’s bargain. That makes it maybe as old as, like Damascus or Aleppo in Syria or Byblos in Lebanon or Kirkuk in Iraq, all of which are still inhabited. Hell, in the cases of Damascus and Byblos, that might even be true from the human perspective, as those cities are around the 8-9000 year mark!

Velstracs gave the Nidalese memory chains, allowing them to begin building the Cathedral of Embodied Wisdom to house them, 8521 years ago (equivalent to 3873 or 1217 years ago). Intriguingly, that’s only 491 years after the end of the Age of Darkness (or us to 1797, culturally and generally, or us to 1950 for an elf). That . . . actually feels quite right, like just about the right amount of time for the Nidalese to start becoming concerned with losing knowledge of something important.

Nisroch, the main port of Nidal and the most common place to encounter foreigners by far, began 7718 years ago as a simple fishing village. That would be the cultural equivalent of about 3508 years ago, or 1102 if you’re an elf.

5718 years ago (2599 or 817), Nidal became the center of a new type of philosophy, called “physical philosophy”. It was developed by some qween by the name of Irogath of Ridwan, and was all about storing pain somatically in one’s own body so it can be then unleashed into another’s later. This philosophy becomes the main teaching of the Irogath Monastery, and I think is the only specific datum given for the intellectual history of the monk class in Avistan, which is actually kind of exciting. The monk has always been a bit of an odd fit ~ largely due to the Eurocentrism of the average D&D setting, I freely admit. With polytheism reimagined as a bunch of mini-Catholic Churches, the Taoist- and Confucianist-inspired ways of the monk were rarely given the kind of grounding they needed to make sense in the setting. I like this tiidbit, which can give us a jumping-off place to imagine the other monastic philosophies (at least until the Aganhei Pass gets going).

Two entries tell the origin of the haunted place known as Edammera’s Folly (though we are not told why ~ it seems like it should be Mesandroth’s or Fiendlorn’s Folly…) An “archnecromancer” spent 25 years, starting 5141 years ago (2337 or 734 years ago) trying to achieve immprtality before the Shadow Plane consumed the base of one of his towers, flooding it with shadow creatures and causing it to be abandoned.
 

Tristissima

Explorer
306 years after Edammera’s Folly and 4810 years ago (overall culture equivalent: 2186 years ago / elfin culture equivalent: 687 years ago), the Umbral Court migrates shadow giants from Mitheeriak on the the Shadow Plane into the Ombrefell to live in Nidal. This was only 92 years before Aroden pulled the god-birthing Starstone from the depths and became god of humanity and prophecy. The shadow giants are descended from the shadow gigas (first descendants of the titans) and flat-out refuse to consider the possibility that their ancestors were slaughtered by the velstracs after Doloras released them from their Hellish prison. In more recent history, velstracs have tried to subjugate them ~ when the shadow giants have managed to overcome these attempts, they have literally bathed in the velstracs’ blood (as they do with every fallen enemy they face, of any kind).

Their religion, as described briefly on the wiki, seems to bear some resemblance to Mesoamerican religion with sacrifice and short-stepped pyramids (oh, what I wouldn’t give to find an RPG that depicted Mesamerican religion, including nextlaoaliztli/sacrifice, without branding it evil!); their clergy is evidently made up of members of the spiritworker (a.k.a., “shaman”) class. Some traitorous shadow giants are said to have hooked their wagon to Zon-Kuthon in Xoviakain, so those must have been the population from which the Umbral Court took their elite operatives. Isolationist to the point of only dealing with proven warriors who show them proper respect, they’re used when the Court wants to leave no survivors.

64 years after Aroden did his thing (so 4654 years ago, felt as 2115 years or 664 years), a caligni seer by the name of Fiersythe collects one of the most detailed chronicles of mortal interactions with the Dark Tapestry: the Voyages of the Void. That means that, to the general multiracial populace, the book is about as old as the first Roman temple of Venus is to us, and for the elfs it is about as old as the Golden Bull constitution of the Holy Roman Empire.

Eldith Lorin is founded for river transportation 4531 years ago (2059 years ago/647 years ago). That’s the last of the long-ago events on the timeline. A big gap jumps us to 618 years ago, felt by the culture as a whole as if 281 years ago and by elfin culture as 88 years ago ~ I’m a couple years into my middle age, according to Pathfinder, and my grandmothers are just a bit younger than 88, so this would be about your elf PC’s great-grandparents’ time. This is when some Nidalese attempt to forcibly convert the people of Jol, capitol of Southmoor in the Lands of the Linnorm Kings built upon the once-giant-ruled ruins of Thassilonian Torandey, to the ways of the Midnight Lord. Maybe they’d have succeeded if they tried this in the Kellid Land of the Mammoth Lords instead. The Ulfen tortured them to death ~ one of the nice things about being a Kuthite is that this was probably still considered a win by the proselytizing invaders.

Gawdz, that sounds like a rad historical event to play out! Open call to any DMs who wanna run a campaign set here….

413 years ago (187 years ago/59 years ago ~ so, like, as old as Michigan’s statehood, Oliver Twist, Queen Victoria’s reign, Chicago, Houston, Proctor & Gamble, the telegraph, and the daguerrotype from the point of view of the general population and in your elf’s grandparent’s time), Chelish Emperor Haliad III begins the Everwar, and Cheliax and Nidal battle for 33 years. At the end of those three decades, the Black Triune orders Nidal to surrender, which helps open up Nidalese culture to both moderation and outside influence. Huh. Last month, I attended the San Francisco Dickens Faire in celebration of Christmas ~ after all, the Victorian Era really helped create and shape our image of that holiday. Makes me wonder about the Nidalese relationship to Shadowbreak, and the cultural artifacts which owe their form to this period.

Speaking of, the next thing on the timeline is the opening of the House of Lies in the Uskwood. Shockingly what it says on the tin (sort of a bardic college/school for the best liars in the world), the House was founded but sixteen years into the Uskwood. We’ll obviously get into more detail about the Uskwood in the gazetteer section, but it’s worth noting that it’s a complicated place, with Kuthite druids, two different alien invaders (by the mi-go and by xenomorph expies called the hive), and the House of Lies.

The Chelish Civil War began 118 years ago (felt as 53 years ago to the culture as a whole and 16 years ago to the elfs ~ that’s historically as distant to the modern Golarionian as the Summer of Love, the beginning of the Cambodian Civil War, the Six-Day War, the Nigerian Civil War, Chinese support of the Vietcong and Che Guevara’s execution are to us, and is likely about when your elf PC was born. Nidal backed House Thrune with shadowcallers, velstracs, the Adamant Company, and a quiet purge of any diplomats and dignitaries from any Chelish houses other than Thrune in their borders.

Six years before House Thrune’s victory, in 4634 AR, Shadowbreak ends with a sudden purge of moderate Kuthites in Nidal. They are sent to the Cathedral of Exquisite Agony to suffer for decades and/or to become “repatriated” as velstracs. Historically that would be as far back as, like 1982 is to us (that’s the year I was born!) and only 12 years to the elfs.

42 years ago (think, like, as far back as 2001, or 2014 if you’re an elf) was a Golarionian Jack the Ripper equivalent ~ shadow beasts (the shadow template, I think, is what’s referenced here) roamed the Chelish streets of Westcrown. The vampire and former Pathfinder Ilnerik Sivanshin was supposed to stop or mitigate their attacks with a contingent of shadowcallers and Midnight Guard, but is thought to have encouraged them. Ilnerik shows up in the Council of Thieves adventure path, and I am fascinated by the similarity of his last name to that of the goddess of illusions, Sivanah.

White Estrid, the Ulfen Linnorm King of Halgrim, raided Nisroch with 15 longships fourteen years ago. She then broke through a Chelish blockade at the Arch of Aroden, and sold her treasures in Absalom (possibly leaving her cousin behind?). The combination of cultural elements there ~ Vikings taking things from France by way of Riddick and The Hell-Bound Heart and breaking through a Spanish-Italian naval blockade to sell things in, I dunno, Lankhmar? Sounds epic to me!

The Towers of the Fiendlorn have one last claim to fame: four years ago, one was found in the Umbral Basin, abandoned and somehow warped by the Abyss. An expedition tries to explore it and fails disastrously. This has all the makings of a ghost story that would explode across Nidal, with its mixture of closeness to their ideals and distance from their alignment (presumably matching their lawfulness originally, it is somehow tainted by chaotic energies?)
 

Tristissima

Explorer
A new chapter means a new, pretty opening page! In the obviously gorgeous art atop the two pages, we see a couple of wagons, brightly lit despite the general gloom in the image, decorated (though not richly) in white and red with flags and banners and awnings. A trail of about fifteen people follow, their postures not as festive as the wagons. I do appreciate that at least one elder is visible among the small figures. The wagon train approaches a city which lies at the end of a winding road between two hills. An odd bright, warm glow from the left intrudes upon the city’s blacks and greys and purples, colors reflected in the giant storm-like cloud above it that appears to be connected to the city in some way by giant chains. The chains dissolve into the cloud atop and have links that appear to be larger than most of the city’s buildings. This procession is being watched by three giant boars and three deers, all six of whom have eyes that glow with a cold blue for some reason.

I like this piece ~ it establishes the overall eerie mood of Nidal but also remembers to assert that there are other aspects to this gloomy realm, as well. We see how present the natural world is, even affected by the spiritual reality of the place. We see the common Nidalese pursuing their own lives, as mundane and comprehensible to us as they, by logic, must be, and even that there is a place for the warm and the festive in Nidal. It is not a one-dimensional place, and we are immediately reminded of that on the front page of the gazetteer.

Below the art on the first page is, of course, a relatively sizeable in-universe quotation. This one is from a Chelish ambassador to Nidal, writing to the person replacing her in her position. It describes Nidal wonderfully as a “strange and old place, capricious in the way that strange old things often are”, which is a lovely British fantasy author way of describing a place. The quotation establishes that even the Chelish fear Nidal, but it also reasserts the beauty of Nidal, and “fascinations that dig into your soul as surely as the Kuthites’ hooks bite into their skin”, as well as the invaluable knowledge shepherded by these ancient masochistic people.

This quotation, more than anything really, is what got me excited about Nidal, pushing past my concerns that its depiction would be one-dimensional, cartoonish, and annoying to me as a lifestyle masochist. But, as Ambassador Thelassia Phandros says, “It is a place, for better or worse, that you will never forget. You can’t. The scars remain forever.”

The actual text of the gazetteer opens up with a reminder of just how ancient Nidal is (a topic I’ve harped on as well throughout this Let’s Read). And yet, unlike might be expected in many other times, that antiquity is not locked away in a book on a shelf or a curio in a vault, but a vital part of what it is to be Nidalese, even today. The book tells us that the poorest of peasants will have an item (a pitcher, maybe, or a necklace) old enough to be in a museum. That’s a part of Nidalese culture that deserves even more attention, I feel ~ the idea that literally everyone has been around objects made as long before them as Jesus was to us, has used and worn these objects throughout their lives. The blend of comfort and caretaking they must feel with the physical objects around them must be intriguing, mixed maybe even to an exotic mindset. It’s a detail easily added into the game as well: the Nidalese fighter and the way she takes care of her sword or armor, or the Nidalese wizard who carries their spellbook roughly over the shoulder but always puts gloves on before turning the pages. Of course, Nidalese occultists would be the pinnacle of such a mindset.

This constant presence of the ancient even affects language and clothing, where the inclusion of centuries-old elements is considered a sign of sophistication. Pangolais’s fashion is even described as “defiant” in its mix of new, daring trends with ancient materials and techniques. This is another interestingly gameable detail, as the reaction of the rest of Avistan to Nidalese clothing must be confused and even stilted.

The final note in the introduction has to do with the homogenizing nature of both Nidal’s historic isolationism and its cosmologically-enforced state religion. Though regional differences do exist ~ a Nidalese could easily tell an Atterani hose-tender from a Pangolaisian aristocrat, for example ~ they tend to be so subtle as to escape the notice of outsiders. This could lead to NPCs (or even PCs!) who have the problematic notion that all Nidalese are exactly alike. Combined with the oddness of their traditional/cutting-edge fashion and distinctly alien philosophy, this probably marks Nidalese as outsiders across Avistan, which could lead to both exoticizing and ostracizing them.

Though I hate to apply the word “Orientalism” to an ostensibly faux-European culture, it seems likely that most Avistani (whose culture has been so shaped by the faux-Byzantine Taldans anyway) might take such an attitude to the Nidalese, and this introduction succinctly lays out the reasons why, without ever mentioning such a thing.
 

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters

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