Realms of the Dead

An article from my previous blog, first published in 2021.

Character death is often held up as a positive feature of OSR games, sometimes associated with a degree of machismo and the idea that without the possibility there's no challenge or interest. I don't believe this – video games manage to have challenge with no real possibility of failure, you try again until you get it right. Stories where you know the hero is going to survive can still be tense and interesting. There are other stakes.

In my game it's technically possible to die by the roll of the dice, but there are a couple of safety nets – magical healing, the Black Hack d6 roll for survival, and if all else fails, coming back as a ghost.

Ben Laurence's Shades of Zyan section in Issue 2 of Ultan's Door provides a wonderful model for this, which doesn't feel like a merely mechanical recourse but rather adds to the mythical atmosphere and lore of the setting itself.

The truly dead dwell in Ushanpoor, the City of Brass Sepulchres:

The living will never know the city of the dead’s geography—endless clustered sepulchres, stacked like empty baskets atop incense filled arcades, rich with pungent cherry blossoms, and black mirrored pools.

I love Ushanpoor. Like everything Laurence comes up with it's heady and evocative. The city of the dead is a specific place, neither a heaven nor a hell but something sombre, exotic and beautiful, and utterly unattainable for the living.

It is perhaps the only place the awesome wishing engine of the Parapraxis cannot take you – or at least, cannot bring you back from. Just as the living can never enter Ushanpoor, the dead can never leave (save perhaps through obscure roads leading to reincarnation or apotheosis).

So the brass gates provide a cut-off point; the dead of Ushanpoor have 'moved on' to the next life. In the city of brass sepulchres there are no restless spirits. The domain of ghosts, who still haunt the living, is the Hinterlands...

...that lie between the lands of the living and the gates of Ushanpoor, [...] leafless forests and moors under the terrible light of the Necromantic Moon. [...] The silver violet light of this whispering moon produces a melancholy appetite, a desperate fuse burning ever towards a yawning, aching hunger.

So the newly slain find themselves in a bleak purgatory, drawn by the light of the moon toward the gates of Ushanpoor, their attachment to their old life relentlessly worn away by a melancholy longing.

Most will simply depart to the city without lingering, but through “curses, contracts, and tragedies” they may be bound to this life until their issues are resolved.

There's a lot to like about this:

I've added a few details – Ushanpoor is the afterlife not only for Wishery but for all the layers of dream, I didn't want to deal with a lot of different destinations, I'm not running Planescape, much as I love that setting.

The Hinterlands overlap with the real world at midnight in places where the veil between life and death is thin; the moon shifts subtly in colour, and it becomes possible to depart into one realm or the other, though with more difficulty for the dead leaving the Hinterlands or the living entering them.

Though no PCs have died yet in my campaign, they've had several memorable encounters with the dead:

Kasparan: Navigator of the Parapraxis, who lingered on to beg the PCs to help correct his terrible error.

Miminasouri: An explorer and ally of Kasparan, whose chirpy demeanor belies her formidable willpower. She waited a century to aid him out of sheer patience and determination.

Amar Amalkus: Detailed in Through Ultan's Door #2, so I won't spoil.

Aximund: Brother and sworn foe of the PC cleric Garviel, along with several other members of their rogue's gallery lurked in the Hinterlands and ambushed them when they Plane Shifted into that gloomy realm. (Some shades have the strength to return and trouble the living, others can merely bide their time amid the bleak moors waiting for their opportunity.) Each time he was defeated he came back younger, revealing a new layer of resentments and anger toward his brother, until Garviel in remorse cast Raise Dead directly onto his shade, leaving us with an Aximund who remembers none of his crimes. (Update: Dying a second time at the climax of the campaign, after the PCs slew the archvillain Callazzo, Aximund sacrificed himself by dragging the fiend bodily through the gates of Ushanpoor.)

Aelix & Ulina: The daughters of Saint Balix were born in a stone coffin where their mother had been entombed alive; she raised them in a cave beneath the earth of the Hinterlands, and ensured that in all their time there they never saw the light of the Necromantic Moon.

Captain Kellaway: A treacherous pirate who made a deal with the PCs to help her pass through the gates, but reneged on it to become the captain of a ghostly fleet. Pirates seem to have a particular talent for resisting the whispers of the Moon.