Friday, February 10, 2017

The City at Night - They Stalk Darkened Streets - Blackhearts

Michael Whelan - Descent

This began as a random encounter list companion for the most recent post of random urban landmarks for the capital of the Fallen Empire, but became a long monster description relating to a form of ghoul designed for Fallen Empire.  Ghouls are one of my favorite D&D monsters and almost always make an appearance in my games, being a truly horrific source of imagery for me, and the 'Blackhearts' below are an especially horrible and pathetic variety.

One of the things I decided when running Fallen Empire Games was to use mythological monsters from less common mythos, and for various reasons the folktales of the Caribbean became the source of some of the monster design, Blackhearts being based on the legend of the Blackheart Man/Uncle Gunnysack (not Bunny Wailer's reinterpretation as a symbol of resolute anti-colonialism but a boogeyman that steals children and carries them off in his gunnysack).  Likewise Duppys and the Rolling Calf are likely to appear on Fallen Empire random encounter lists, though in equally twisted forms
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There is no safety in the winding and convoluted streets of the Capital, paths overlaid, rewritten, and turning in on themselves and ruin crumbling next to commerce, while hideous things creep up from the underways, down from the abandoned stories above, and out of the canals.  Palisades of repurposed masonry and expensive imported timber protect the dockland redoubts of the Resurgent Merchants a Wreckers, magical wards still have some power around the manses of the craft and trade castes and the nobility and their servitors are more often than not themselves predatory beasts that hunt the night.


Most citizens and visitors to the Capital have no such protection and rely of stout doors, heavy locks, iron shutters, silence and low folk magic to protect their homes and family.  These protections are effective for most, but each night at least one family is reduced to red ribbons and one band of late night revelers dragged under the green scum of a nearby canal by something long dead.

While many potential dangers stalk the Capital’s crumbling streets from renegade Knights Perilous to duppies formed of an angry spirit and cyclones of trash, one of the most common and most awful is the Blackheart, skulking at the fringes of society with their sacks of human bones and preying on the weak.


Painting by Pierre Chatillon "Kinderflesser" - a German statue
1. Blackhearts - The Blackheart condition, disease or curse is ancient, and has been eradicated no 
less than six times over the past 800 years with grand auto-de fes, secret pogroms and military crackdowns, but it always returns.  Fear of death is one of the abiding terrors that holds the human soul back from the sublime, and until it is eradicated the Blackheart’s promise of immortality will always find eager subjects to take up the curse.

Blackhearts are simply men and women, though their dead, black, sluggish blood tends to give them an unhealthy grey appearance and as their condition progresses, flesh slowly rots away at sites of injury (usually the mouth and fingers), when they fail to devour enough living flesh.
Blackhearts may be much like other people, but they are also immortal undead cannibals afflicted with contagion that easily spreads from their bite.  Having given up their humanity and life to a magical contagion that keeps the body and mind active, but demands life energy of other sentients to halt decay Blackhearts have many advantages over humans - they are nearly indestructible, healing at accelerated rates and with hard woody flesh that is difficult to injure, they can see in the dark, and are immune to normal hunger, disease and climate.

Luckily most blackhearts don’t seek to recruit new members of their band, though many will try to infect family and friends, as they are driven by unnatural hunger for the meat of sentients and the life energy it contains.  In addition to their uncanny flesh and steadily worsening personal hygiene Blackhearts can be detected through two other mechanisms.  The site of the initial Blackheart infection (a human bite mark) will remain an ugly dark red and raised welt, known as the Black Mark or Black Spot.  Additionally Blackhearts constant hunger and tendency to steal their gruesome fodder from each-other means that most will carry a large sack with them, filled with both pitiful possessions (Blackhearts are still human enough to feel acquisitive and desire consumer goods) and fragments of bone that they gnaw and suck on when fresh flesh is unavailable.  This popular image of Blackhearts as hunched and skulking through the night streets with a sack of bones over one shoulder has led to the both the nickname “Uncle Gunnysack” and the tradition that the Capital’s itinerant tinkers, vendors and rag pickers use small pushcarts to go about their business.

Constant hunger and universal fear means that only the newest, most self-controlled, or most cunning of Blackhearts can retain any semblance of human life, work, family, friends or hobbies.  Most quickly flee into the ruins, either finding an existing pack to join or trying to recruit family members to their immortal curse through a sneaky bite or two.  Blackhearts quickly devolve and descend into insanity as their hunger for life energy, crudely consumed through cannibalism, dominates their thoughts.  Most encountered in the nighttime streets of the capital are too far gone to do anything but scream and rant or lunge hungrily at anyone they perceive as weaker.

Still these Blackheart mobs are a threat, but in the way of the Capital they are largely ignored or mocked, an accepted risk of late night peregrination.  The Vestai rarely bother with them, though they will fling a dart or fire an arrow at any Blackheart they chance upon, and Demes will only undertake the disturbing task of rooting out a Blackheart pack after especially barbaric depravities or in an effort to chase them into a rival’s territory. Only the Cult of the First Emperor seems to really care about the growing infestation of Blackhearts (though it is rumored that feral thrall king of the Porcelain Factor in the old industrial quarter pays for Blackheart heads in the factor’s shaped bonewhite) but the charitable priests can do little more then cure anyone afflicted and whip up an occasional torch wielding mob.

Blackheart Bites:  Blackheart bites carry the immortal taint and anyone bitten by a Blackheart (usually this is done intentionally, though those that escape their attacks also often suffer contagion) risks becoming one over the course of 1D6+1 days as their blood is poisoned and curdles after a high fever and delirious sweating hallucinations that can start within hours of being bitten.

After a combat with Blackhearts any character or NPC that has taken damage must Save vs. Poison or have suffered a bite an infection.  Any character or NPC that has made a successful death save against blackheart inflicted injuries will become infected. While the Blackheart infection is incurable once it has killed its host and turned them into a Blackheart, it can be cured through a course of anti-inflammatory herbs (A successful Medicine Skill use) or even the most simple of magical healing.  Most shrines of The First Emperor will provide such healing for a simple tithe of 10% of an infected person’s portable wealth, or even a promise of future service.


Blackhearts in Combat:  Most Blackhearts are normal humans, untrained in war, with minds addled by unnatural hunger and the foul reality of what they have done to stave off death’s inevitability.  They will surge forward in garbling howling crowds, attacking with crude or captured weapons and often try to grapple stronger foes to the ground where a group of them can tear the prey apart [STR 12(+1 per additional grappler), normal Grappling damage of 1D6/3(+1 per additional grappler) on winning the STR contest each round, unless armed with a [close] weapon.]  Blackhearts tend to be fearless, but since they still feel pain, even if they are hard to kill, the mob may be broken if enough of its members begin to retreat.  If they are driven off, Blackhearts will try to carry off any bodies, unconscious or injured prey, though they will abandon their own dead who they cannot eat.

Blackheart Warriors, Ebon Priests and Blackheart Kings will fight far more intelligently as they have either training, belief or a sense of meaning and purpose to overcome their raw hunger and self loathing.

Blackheart: HD 1*, AC 11, ATK +0, DAM 1d6/2** or by weapon, MV 4 (normal), SV F1, ML 12***
*Blackhearts are immune to normal weapons, their wounds healing rapidly and their woody flesh shedding most blows, but are damaged by fire, magic and enchanted, silver or hexed weapons.  Blackhearts are undead, but only nominally, they may be turned by the appropriate type of clerics and are affected by magic that specifically targets the undead, but they are not immune to sleep or charm effects.
** Blackheart carry their deadly arcane disease and all who take damage from them must save vs. poison after any battle or be afflicted with the Blackheart Contagion.  Any victim dropped to 0 HP or lower by a Blackheart attack who survives will also automatically become infected by the Conagion.
*** Blackhearts may be immune to damage from normal weapons, but they still feel pain. Being stuck with a blow that would do four (4) or more points of damage will both stun a Blackheart for a round and cause them to make an immediate Save vs. Paralysis to avoid limping away from the fight, fleeing while squealing with hurt.  

Blackheart Warriors - Blackhearts don’t just bite the poor and weak (though this is their preference), and the foolish desire for immortality isn’t just limited to the downtrodden.  Through accident or intent skilled men and women of war sometimes become afflicted with the taint and they make for dangerous foes.  In the Resurgent lands, especially the Pine Hells where winter snows a strong tribal identity keeps communities small and relatively isolated, packs of armed and armored Blackhearts roam the taiga and stalk through the dense forests, descending on isolated settlements to kill and feast.  In the Capital Blackheart Warriors are also a danger, either as lone predators far more effective than regular Blackhearts, in small gangs  or even as entire companies of mercenaries that have accepted the disease as a means of making themselves more effective.  Blackheart Warrior troupes are sometimes hired by Resurgent Kingdom slavers, as the threat of being handed over to their guards as food is a very effective means of pacifying their slaves and because the anti-slavery laws and norms of the Empire are already so deeply ingrained that any additional penalties for cannibalism and employing forbidden sorcery are meaningless if they are caught by Vestai, Clerics of the Golden Emperor or an Imperial Knight.  Because of the danger represented by Blackheart Warrior companies, who are quite capable of breaking into a guarded mansion or besieging a trader’s palisade to devour all within, they are more fiercely persecuted and Vestari families, Demes, Shrine Guards, Wrecker Companies and Craft Families will band together or hire assassins to eliminate Blackheart Warriors when they are discovered.  To prevent this some Blackheart Warriors will go to great lengths to conceal their curse, even using an infected infant to transfer the Contagion and so minimize the size of the Black Mark, making it easier to hide.

Blackheart Warriors are effective in battle, with armor, well maintained weapons and often mindful of tactics.  A favorite tactic of Blackheart Warriors is to rain arrows into melee, even as they fight, as the shafts will not harm them even if they miss their intended targets.  Blackheart Warriors are also inured to pain and will not react fearfully to blows that don’t cause them damage.

Blackheart Warrior HD 1+1 - 4+1*, AC 11 (or by armor - avg 15), ATK +2 to +5, DAM 1d6/2** or by weapon, MV 4 (normal), SV F1-F4, ML 12
*Blackhearts are immune to normal weapons, their wounds healing rapidly and their woody flesh shedding most blows, but are damaged by fire, magic and enchanted, silver or hexed weapons.  Blackhearts are undead, but only nominally, they may be turned by the appropriate type of clerics and are affected by magic that specifically targets the undead, but they are not immune to sleep or charm effects.
** Blackheart carry their deadly arcane disease and all who take damage from them must save vs. poison after any battle or be afflicted with the Blackheart Contagion.  Any victim dropped to 0 HP or lower by a Blackheart attack who survives will also automatically become infected by the Contagion.

Blackheart Kings - Not all Blackhearts fail to become successful human predators, and the most successful, or those who can bully and coerce other Blackhearts into providing them with portions of their prey, grow huge, strong and fast.  Blackheart Kings and Queens (Blackheart Royalty) tend to be quite old, having spent at least a generation as an undead cannibal, and have eaten well the entire time.  Gorged on life force and flesh, Blackheart Royalty has become superhuman, stronger, faster, hardier and larger than any human.  While Kings vary in size from 6’ to 12’ tall depending on age, diet and origin their body shape tends towards either a popping over developed muscularity or shambling obesity.  In either case however, they still remain faster and more agile than regular humans, with even a 2,000 lb Blackheart King, it’s face hidden in rolls of fat capable of prodigious leaps and climbing like a squirrel up the sides of any building capable of supporting its weight.

If Blackheart Kings have one weakness it is that they are mostly simple men and women become monsters, and the psychological toll of their monstrous lifestyle means that most are utterly insane.

Blackheart King HD 4 - 10, AC 14, ATK +5 to +11 x3 (claw/claw/bite) or x2 by weapon, DAM 1D6/1D6/1D6+4** or by weapon+4, MV 5 (fleet), SV F4-F10, ML 12
*Blackhearts are immune to normal weapons, their wounds healing rapidly and their woody flesh shedding most blows, but are damaged by fire, magic and enchanted, silver or hexed weapons.  Blackhearts are undead, but only nominally, they may be turned by the appropriate type of clerics and are affected by magic that specifically targets the undead, but they are not immune to sleep or charm effects.
** Blackheart carry their deadly arcane disease and all who take damage from them must save vs. poison after any battle or be afflicted with the Blackheart Contagion.  Any victim dropped to 0 HP or lower by a Blackheart attack who survives will also automatically become infected by the Contagion.
M. Whelan - Crimson King

Ebon Priests -  The Blackheart Contagion is not simply a magical disease, it is a cheap path to immortality, invulnerability to normal injury and freedom from deprivation or disease whose cannibalistic downsides can seem a small price to a certain kind of person.  Many an aspiring savant or scholar will find reference to the Contagion if they begin to research necromancy or eternal life, and some are tempted by the shortcuts it offers.  These individuals sometimes continue their research and knowingly infect themselves with the Contagion, becoming Ebon Priests and bringing a plague of Blackhearts with them to any new area.  

Ebon Priests are akin to Blackheart Royalty, larger, faster, and stronger than normal humans having properly sated their hunger.  They are also often capable people, practitioners of the secret arts who almost universally find that they cannot continue their studies even after infecting themselves with the Blackheart Contagion as a constant burning desire for living flesh is too distracting to allow arcane study.  More powerful Ebon Priests (those with 3 or more HD) will often have found a way to overcome this loss of power, pledging themselves to the worship of the 544th Emperor - The False Emperor, The Possessed, King Hell.  The Demon Emperor still has power and while his cults are rare (far rarer than those devoted to regular Demon Kings at least) Ebon Priests make up the core of his followers, though the Demon Emperor is not pleased by this and only begrudgingly grants them boons.

An Ebon Priest may use these powers to: control other Blackhearts, cause fear in the living, increase the vitality of the undead, cause insanity or even create a roaring column of abyssal black flame.  Like all Imperial Saints the Demon Emperor requires that his followers (living and undead) wear a special mask and robe when asking for his favor.  The robe of the Ebon Priest is always black sewn with gold trinkets and the mask a demonic visage of carved human bone, dyed brownish red with blood. Living humans may also become priests and priestesses of the 544th Emperor, but they will be immediately set upon by any Imperial clergy who recognizes their regalia.

Ebon Priest HD 2 - 10*, AC 11 (or by armor - avg 15), ATK +2 to +10, DAM 1d6/2** or by weapon, MV 4 (normal), SV CL2 - CL10, ML 12
*Blackhearts are immune to normal weapons, their wounds healing rapidly and their woody flesh shedding most blows, but are damaged by fire, magic and enchanted, silver or hexed weapons.  Blackhearts are undead, but only nominally, they may be turned by the appropriate type of clerics and are affected by magic that specifically targets the undead, but they are not immune to sleep or charm effects.
** Blackheart carry their deadly arcane disease and all who take damage from them must save vs. poison after any battle or be afflicted with the Blackheart Contagion.  Any victim dropped to 0 HP or lower by a Blackheart attack who survives will also automatically become infected by the Contagion.
SPELL CASTER:  Ebon Priests may use divine magic of the 544th Demon Emperor, who along with Emperors 540 - 543 has been cast out of the Imperial Cult as an object of veneration.  Treat the Ebon Priest as an Imperial Priest of a level equivalent to its HD minus 2, meaning that only Ebon Priests of 3 HD or more can use divine magic.  Otherwise the Ebon Priest may cause fear in living humans and control undead (returning fleeing Blackhearts to combat for example) using the standard turning tables.  Likewise an Ebon Priest may ask for the following boons by making a roll on a D20 + their preist level against the target number of each boon.  On a roll above the number they will cast the spell, and on a roll under the target number nothing will happen. Lower rolls, with a number (adjusted by level of course) under the ‘Fail’ number will result in a negative effect.
Ebon Priest Boons
1. Necrosis - 12 - Fail 7 or Below
A rotting wound appears on any target the Ebon Priest points at, inflicting 1D6 damage unless the target makes a Save vs. Spells.
On Failure - The Demon Emperor takes the unlife of a nearby Blackheart or does 1D6 damage to Ebon Priest.
2. Sibilant Whispers of Vitality - 14 - Fail 9 or below
The Ebon Priest whispers promises of immortality and satiety as well as the burning syllables of the Abyss to inspire and comfort nearby undead.  Damaged undead within 30’  heal 1HP per round and all un damaged undead within 30’ gain an additional attack each round.  These effects last as long as the Priest whispers and takes no other actions.
On Failure - The Priest’s words twist into a booming shout that silences/deafens all within 50’ (Save v. Paralysis) and causes the Undead to Save v. Paralysis or Flee
3. Shambling Horror -14 - Fail 9 or below
Reanimates 1D6+level shattered and butchered bodies as shambling 2HD zombies under control of the Priest (assuming there are bodies nearby).
On failure - Nearby bodies rot and explode in a shower of gore.
4. Black Citadel - 16 - Fail 11 or Below
Calling for protection from the Abyssal deities is dangerous, but if this spell is successful an ornate tower of gleaming black power, with the consistency of smoke coalesces around the Ebon Priest.  The tower may not move, but while inside the Priest himself fades into a smokey non-existence and cannot be touched or harmed by spell or weapon.  Inside the Citadel the priest may make no attacks, but may cast spells.  The Citadel will fade in 1d6+ Priest Level rounds (but may be renewed), and it can be broken by anything that dispels magic.
On Failure - Priest is pulled into the Abyss, may return in 1D6+2 turns, may not.
5. Abyssal Cyclone - 20 - Fail 15 or below
Priest summons a roaring column of black abyssal flame that roams slowly at the priest's command (move 2) and attacks with with a +14 against any it touches, doing 5D6 damage (Save vs. Spells for ½ damage).  The cyclone of flame will fade out after consuming (killing) the Priest’s level in souls or burning for 66 rounds (6 turns).
On Failure - The Priest is consumed by abyssal fire and destroyed/killed instantly

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