We could see the column of smoke for miles, rising into the still air. Our party approached carefully, fearing reavers had struck the village, but nothing seemed unusual as we rode past the desolate, withered fields. The farmers' hard lives went on as normal: As they struggled to gather their meager crops, the signs of famine were written on their pinched faces.
The column arose from a massive stone altar in the center of the place, but no wood or fuel was visible. It appeared to be a twisting pillar of billowing smoke, but something about it made it feel solid, almost like a tower. Before it knelt an old man, some sort of priest or elder.
'The gods be praised! They have sent us aid after all!' declared the old man jubilantly.
In some rural areas, the villagers customarily sacrifice much of their wealth, burning it on the altars of their gods to demonstrate their devotion. Lifted on wings of flame, their sacrifices will be carried to the very gods. It is thus that they show their piety and gain prestige among their own.
For these people and their gods, it is not only the sacrifice that counts. Those who lack moral integrity will not be allowed to pass on to the gods' rewards, and their sacrifices will not be accepted, but returned to the living when most needed. When famine and want stalk the land, the Tower of Ash appears; within are the sacrifices of the unworthy, rejected by the gods and restored to the people.
Despite the treasures waiting within, the villagers are not always willing to brave the dangers of the Ash Tower. For one thing, the unworthy dead cannot rest, and often feel bound to what they have sacrificed, resisting anyone who wants to claim it. Second, and not less important, few can endure the trauma of seeing their family and friends as vengeful ghosts.
Often, several communities will band together to help each other retrieve the sacrificed items before the Tower of Ash, the undead, and the treasures all fade again, but sometimes, heroes are necessary.
The Tower of Ash is a strange and unworldly place, seemingly a twisting pillar of billowing smoke, yet still solid for the most part. Within are scores of rooms or chambers, each a shadow of the places most favored by the restless dead that haunt the place. These strange chambers are not exact copies, but their distorted, surrealistic impressions.
Ascending the tower is arduous, with the chambers overlapping in spots, forming haphazard paths that heroes could follow to clamber up the 'tower'. Additionally, some natural rifts or thin spots within the smoke form navigable chimneys.
Within the tower, everything but the rejected sacrifices is made of ash and soot, even if it appears otherwise. Windows open to unknown vistas of smoke and ash, translucent and impassable. The walls and floors are solid, almost as ash turned to stone, but not too solid for the heroes to dig hand and foot holds in the material.
What doors and shutters may be found within are shaped from ash as well, but of a normal ashy look and texture. They can be quickly passed through with little discomfort, the ash simply staying in the door frame, held as if by fields of power. Walls may be torn down with great effort, but the doors remain open, not to be seen through or secured in any way.
As the tower's undead guardians approach, the cold, hard ashes of the walls and floors will grow warm, with embers sparking to life again, restored by the suffering of the Unworthy Dead. The more powerful spirits may make their chambers uncomfortable indeed.
In the presence of the undead, walls and furnishings damaged by the living slowly return to their former shape. Handholds, holes, or other changes gradually evaporate as the chambers of the dead restore themselves.
The Guardians of the Tower
Undead and accursed creatures, the Unworthy Dead bear no sign of decomposition. As their hearts and souls had become hardened, so their fleshly forms seem to have as well, becoming dessicated shapes of unyielding, selfish malice. There is no known way to free them from their fate.
Several different sorts of these unfortunates lurk within the tower, each bearing the signs of their spiritual weaknesses.
Mors Avaritias, the Greedy Ones
The mad eyes of the creature gazed down at its victim as the thing's lethal grip tightened around his neck...
The Thralls of Greed have a relentless, choking grip. While they appear to be surrounded by magnificent treasures, all they possess is made of ash and soot. Nothing of real worth is with them; all of their possessions have been already taken and given to others. Mad with desire for wealth, they angrily confront anyone they perceive as denying them the treasures they 'deserve'.
Mors Acedeas, the Slothful Dead
The guardian stumbled from behind one of the piles that littered his chamber, covered with filth. As he approached, we could feel a palpable sense of exhaustion radiating from the thing.
The Wallowers in Sloth are able to drain strength and energy with their grimy touch and monotonous words. Their chambers are often obstructed with huge stacks of debris and clutter, dangerous piles of sooty bric-a-brac that totter menacingly at any attempt to pass through. Unwilling to face their weakness, the slothful ones seek to entangle those they encounter and drain their energy and initiative with their corrupting touch.
Mors Luxereas, the Lustful Dead
The chamber was sumptuously appointed, with an elegantly-covered bed and a sideboard covered with fanciful dishes. Within were the first friendly faces we had seen, several men and women that besought us to sit with them a while, yet some hidden desperation seemed to animate their features...
The Deceivers of the Flesh have the power of confusion and seduction. Their chambers look well preserved, as their bodies. Weak-willed visitors may find themselves tasting their ashy kisses as these tragic undead repeat the patterns of their empty lives.
Mors Superbios, the Prideful Ones
The massive, marvelously-armored figure that awaited us gestured dismissively with his armored fist. 'Begone and trouble us no further, for you are thieves and will not be suffered to pass further!'
The Disdainful are the most impressive of the guardians, yet they are hollow inside. Their large form can deal only weak blows, and one serious hit is enough to shatter them into a choking cloud of soot. If driven away, but not defeated, they will escape by passing through the ashy walls, returning to trouble the heroes later.
Mors Ireneas, the Wrathful Dead
The ash and soot of the walls burst into flame as the spirit, shrieking with anger, slammed into us, its blows driving their targets into the shaft that filled the room...
The Slaves of Fury tear into those they encounter with destructive rage. Their chambers are filled with traps and unstable floors; within, all is sharp and cruel, seeking to wound the unwary.
Mors Invideas, the Covetous Dead
The thing set upon us without warning, appearing from within a cloud of sulfurous smoke. Surrounded by a nimbus of green flames, the horror grabbed at our faces and arms, envy written plainly on its angry features.
The Pawns of Jealousy literally 'burn' with envy. Within the billowing cloud of smoke that often surrounds them, they plot how they will seize any treasure they see and how they will tear down those greater than them. Within the tower, they gather the treasures of others, seeking to feed their unending desire to outdo all around them.
Mors Gulaneas, the Gluttonous Dead
The creature before us appeared to be a massively obese man, clad in archaic garb covered with the stains of hundreds of feasts. He sat, crying, at a table groaning with food and drink, but even from where we stood, we could smell that the food was nothing but ashes...
The Ravenous Ones can cause foes to suffer the weakness and pain of starvation with nothing more than a touch. Surrounded by the ashen illusion of a feast, these sad creatures seek endlessly to satisfy their ceaseless hunger. Should they come to any real food, they will devour it immediately, for there is nothing to eat in their presence, save the illusions that pass for a feast.
The Caretaker of the Dead
At times, the manifestation of the Tower of Ash has been accompanied by encounters with a strange entity, known as the Caretaker of the Dead. Appearing as an ancient mendicant or anchorite clad in humble robes, this withered figure offers advice or gives cryptic warnings to those who are about to enter the tower. Strangely paternal toward the unfortunate spirits that dwell within, the Caretaker is seemingly impervious to their angry words and senseless attacks.
As the men strove to ascend the narrow rift, they could hear the ancient's voice echoing from the smoky darkness above, 'You have been chosen as the Champions of the Living, but do you understand the purpose of this place? Have you learned yet the cost of embracing folly, the price of clinging to sin? You shall see ere this day is done!'
The Caretaker's true nature is unclear, but he ensures that the 'lessons' of the tower are not wasted: He will sometimes appear within the distorted chambers to question the living souls that have entered, demanding that they describe what they have learned, even as they fight for their lives against the angry undead within.
It often happens, that those exploring the tower fall to its snares, trapped or slain by the accursed ones within. If the tower's hazards claim those who venture within, the Caretaker will often appear to the village folk, describing their deeds and their fall, that the lessons of the Tower of Ash might not be lost.
Chambers of the Tower of Ash
The rooms found within the Tower of Ash will vary, but a few examples are provided here:
The Tower of Gallampred
This series of chambers appears to be the interior of a slender tower, with a narrow stair winding up the wall. The steep and treacherous stairs have a handrail, but the crumbling ash of the sagging railing will not support any meaningful weight. Hundreds of pages of parchment lie scattered on the stairs, piled on the floor, and haphazardly affixed to the walls. Each sheet is covered with arcane diagrams and spells, written in a nearly illegible scrawl. On one side of the room, empty and begrimed with soot, sits a wooden hope chest. It is nearly buried by the arcane texts that have been dropped upon it.
Soon after the PCs arrival in the chamber, an elderly figure descends imperiously from the trapdoor at the head of the stairs. His weight supported on a gnarled staff of scorched oak, the heavily-robed figure of the wizard Gallampred looms at the head of the winding steps, calling out in an strident voice, 'How dare you disturb my solitude! I am on the verge of great discoveries! Great discoveries! Enchantments that shall propel my name to greatness and free me from this prison of the mediocre!'
In life, Gallampred was a moderately-skilled wizard, a driven man who neglected his family in his quest for fame. His wife died while he was away researching and his daughter Delil left while still young, falling in love with the first man that showed her the affection she hadn't received from her self-centered father. His self-centered arrogance and unyielding pride kept him in his tower, a slave to his ambitions: Now, imprisoned within the Tower of Ash, his shade fruitlessly labors on.
Several sacrificial items may be recovered from Gallampred's chambers. These include the hope chest and some of his pages of magical researches, hidden beneath the litter of his failed schemes to free himself. The parchments that he has penned since his demise can be plainly seen to be nonsense by any skilled wizard that examines them; once someone notes this, the examined page promptly crumbles to dusty ash.
The only valuable pages are buried beneath heaps of rubbish. They include a series of parchments translating the Ducerion of Fallon the Mystic, an ancient text of religious lore about leadership and cooperating in ways that benefit both the leader and his flock. Gallampred sacrificed the text when he completed his translation, deeming it irrelevant to his researches. Leaders or priests may find the translations very useful, perhaps even bringing Gallampred the fame in death that eluded him in life.
The hope chest is a beautifully-carven chest of polished cherry wood, an heirloom of his wife's family. He sacrificed the chest in a fit of pique when his daughter eloped, first destroying the meager dowry she had accumulated prior to her mother's death. His daughter and her husband live humbly in the village; they would reward anyone who recovers the valuable antique. While the reward they offer might be meager, those who accomplish this good deed will be well-remembered by the village folk.
Gallampred will become angry if anyone begins reading the documents he has strewn about, if anyone tries to enter his 'sanctum' (the unremarkable room at the top of the stairs), or if they continue to interrupt his 'valuable researches' for more than a few minutes. Although he is certainly slovenly, with some of the attributes of the Mors Acedeas, he is truly one of the Mors Superbios, a creature of intellectual arrogance. Gallampred lacks the physically imposing appearance common to shades of his sort, for his misplaced pride lay solely in his intellectual gifts.
Within the confines of the tower, Gallampred's spirit wields considerable magical power and will blast intruders with the spells common to a mage of unremarkable skill. Given the opportunity, he will first cast a spell to block the stairway, keeping opponents from reaching him. Afterward, he will summon monstrous assistance in the form of 'Flame Spiders', hideous supernatural arachnids that burn with white fires. The webs of these unholy creatures wither at the touch of holy objects, but are impervious to flame.
More dangerously, as he becomes angry, a soot-filled wind begins to fill his chambers, a whirling vortex of burning cinders and flying parchment. While this wind does not damage him or the treasures of the chamber, other characters in the area may be knocked off the staircase or be battered by flying debris and papers.
Like others of the Mors Superbios, Gallampred can be dismissed with a sufficiently powerful blow, for he is full of hot air. If powerfully struck, he will wither away, vanishing into a blast of foul soot.
The Garden of Luxury
Visitors to the Tower may find themselves clambering into a sheltered garden, a beautiful bower lined with roses. Although the garden seems real at first, the walls and ceilings of ash can be made out beyond the beautiful plants that fill the place.
Those exploring the small garden soon find a gazebo, where three beautiful maidens await their arrival, seated upon elegant velvet cushions. Before the ladies, low tables are placed, laden with sweetmeats and cool flagons of wine.
These women, Milias, Valentia, and Argent, are actually some of the Mors Luxereas, the Lustful Dead. Unable to free themselves from the meaningless patterns of their lives, they will attempt to seduce those that encounter them, a seduction that is more insidious than it appears. Those who eat or drink from the ashy-tasting luxuries within the chamber will feel some of their life essence slowly drained from them, growing weaker and more fatigued. The ladies' kisses also taste of ash, and have a similar effect.
They will cling piteously to those who seemed receptive to their seduction, begging them to bring them from the Tower. Despite their pleas, the only way that these accursed shades may leave this place is if someone gives their own life up in their place: If some fool allows himself to be entirely drained by these creatures, one of them will be set free into the world. Unfortunately, the lustful spirit that would be freed will simply become a homeless undead, a pathetic shade no better off than she is within the Tower.
In life, these women were cold-hearted manipulators, creatures that used their sexuality to control men and incite the envy of other women. Not truly slaves of lust, they instead used the lusts of others as a means of domination. Within the Tower, they try to continue this pattern, oblivious to the ultimate futility of it.
The garden holds several items that were sacrificed by the unfortunate ladies within. One secluded nook holds a satchel of tooled leather, filled with needlepoint supplies. These gleaming silken threads and bright needles were a gift from a lover, one who was spurned when he confronted his lady over her lies and infidelities.
A small cabinet within the gazebo holds other items: A set of ancient glassware that had been passed down though one maiden's family for generations. Valentia sacrificed these items in thankfulness when she was offered a position as nanny to a nobleman's family, planning even then to seduce her noble patron.
Those hoping to ascend past this chamber may climb the vines and trees within, to where several rifts in the smoke above lead further into the Tower.
The Mill of Vengeance
This chamber is filled with ponderous wheels and gears. Apparently the interior of a large mill, sacks of grain and flour are piled among the endlessly turning wheels. Steep staircases lead to catwalks above the mill's floor, giving access to the gears and axles that fill the place. Within this chamber, visitors will encounter one of the more dangerous of the tower's denizens: The miller Hynman Slaytor, one of the Wrathful Dead.
In life, Hynman was a short-tempered man, a vicious brute whose family lived in constant fear of his reckless rages. He murdered his son in a drunken rage, but concealed the deed from the other villagers, claiming that the boy had fallen among the cruel gears of his mill. Only his wife Agate suspected the truth, and she dared not speak for fear of his brutal retaliation. Not long after his he murdered his young son, Hynman fell ill of a grim fever, one that left him weak and shivering. In his weakness, his unfortunate wife saw the opportunity to be free of his abuses: She smothered the weakened man with his own pillow.
The vengeful shade of Hynman angrily stalks the chambers of the mill, fury consuming him. When he encounters strangers, he attacks viciously, visualizing them as his 'disobedient' wife. Hynman will try to knock them into the workings of the mill, or may pick up some of the tools used within the structure: Knives, heavy sledges, or chains. In the distorted mill of Hynman's mind, these items behave in strange ways: Hooked chains may viciously swing through the ashen pillars and gears as if they weren't there, or mallets strike like massive sledges even though Hynman handles them as if they weighed nothing.
Treasures to be found within this place include numerous books and trinkets that truly belonged to Hynman's family members, treasured items sacrificed by Hynman as a means of tormenting and intimidating his family. These items are lovingly stored in the mill's office and have been carefully kept free of soot or grime by the vicious miller.
Rifts in the smoke lie behind loose boards in the walls of this room, hidden but easily found by a determined search. These allow ascent along a shaft that corkscrews up, its rough surface forming an irregular staircase.
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? Responses (23)-23
I can see this one so very clearly. It is a macabe visual that resonates well in my head.
I see the 'cosmic purpose' of this place. I do love the style of the monsters here (though it works best in a judeochristian world).
I see the game purpose of this place. It is a cross between a dungeon and a hero quest. Most excellent.
I would think city folk would also sacrifice to the flames as well.. in fact, you need to make sure that such sacrifices have been seen by players in the game before so they realize the hows and whys of what is going on. A city might recieve a tower, but instead of a tower it might be a castle or building (given the number of people and creatures of sin that live there....).
One of the reasons we identified this as a rural custom was to make it credible for the player characters to be ignorant of what they are about to encounter. If these potlatch sacrifices are a custom of isolated, rural areas, the heroes can be expected to know little of them and the supernatural effects associated with them.
It is of course a question of how far do you wish to go with the whole theme - you need to institute a religion, or at least a small cult in your world that makes this possible. You need a stronger concept of sacrifice, the 'sins', or wrong modes of behaviour for the believers, and the higher beings that make this possible. Once you have this, you can easily extend the belief system from a backward place to a whole region, or country - but then you may have to adapt the tower's size, and how good are the customs and their effect known.
But there are other alternatives for a little village:
a) The locals may just keep the last detail of their worship private. No need for others to know, that their vigorous sacrificing also contains a certain insurance - especially in times of need would be others quick to seize what they have gained. In this case, the adventurers will be surely sworn to secrecy.
b) Even if the religion was fully known, it does not mean others will follow it - what if the price is a bit too steep? Constantly giving up a large part of a propery, on the off chance they will get something back one day... no, thank you.
I really enjoyed your sinful ghostly guardians, they're are well designed and I want to see pictures
The Caretaker is benevolent? If the heroes within are not worthy, would he still praise their attempt on the tower, if they are malevolent and only going inside for their own greed, would he still act this way, if they aren't learning a damn thing
The structure is interesting, but the purpose is strange especially for something so merciful and miraculous as an aid to a small village.
How many times has this happened before?
I hate to vote now, so I wont...
The Caretaker is, it appears, a benevolent creature. If you are foolish, or greedy, then he will certainly not praise you - but a lesson will you make, be certain of that.
The rest of your questions shall be answered in time. I need sleep. :)
In some ways, the Tower of Ash is a supernatural morality play, a series of vignettes showing the ways that wickedness leads to suffering. Within, the righteous will be rewarded for their courage, while the sinful will have what was once theirs taken away.
The Caretaker of the Dead may be benevolent in his ultimate purposes, but he is a mysterious figure. He would certainly encourage a party whose goals were selfish and malevolent, for their own evil might tempt them to folly within the tower. Either they learn wisdom, and thus survive, or they may provide another edifying tale for the villagers...
(I like to think of him as a sort of supernatural Rod Serling...)
Impressive! Most impressive :)
I like it, the imagery is very good and the reasons behind the tower are excellent.
Dangerous but a useful place. 5/5
Wulf has convinced me
This sub made my jadedness go away and for that I applaud you. I love these fresh and innovative ideas. However, there is one flaw in this submission: It feels incomplete. It is short and fragmented leading me to wonder if you sacrificed perfection for the sake of brevity. It pains me to do so, but I have to deduct half a point for that. Nevertheless: Truly outstanding and 4.5 + HoH from me.
nice place, I certainly like the pagan morality of it and the list of the types of ash ghosts within was really quite a gem. Kudos.
its all been said.
I have added a few rooms as examples of the chambers to be found within the Tower.
I like this a lot.
This one is really cool.
Mind if I have a go in drawing one of the undead? They sound like they'd be fun.
I just wonder: needy half-starved villagrs are certainly not the kind that would have an easy time defeating undead - thus the returned offerings are hard to claim by the needy.
Why did the gods allow the sinners to dwell in a tower that is meant ot be a gift?
It's a good question, and suggests that either the gods desire that their people prove themselves worthy by symbolically overcoming sin or that their desire to return gifts to the people has been subverted by less beneficient forces.
Echomirage's sub, The Sinners, had one answer that works well, with the sinful restless dead needing a confrontation with the living they have wronged before they can move on...
I would answer that they exist to show the price of sin to the living, but they are there ultimately to be defeated. I would expect that the dead that the villagers encounter might not be the most fearsome of those within the tower: The worst of those within would be unleashed only when those able to offer them battle appeared.
To put it shortly, it is not merely a gift, it is also a lesson.
Wulf has a good point about 'scaling' of the danger one can meet here - very proper for this supernatural location. It does not matter, how powerful you are, the moral challenge stays the same, or even gets more difficult.
What Muro said ;)
BUMP! Four years have passed and I am bringing this to the front page with a well-deserved HoH for our new users to read.