Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Unicorn Nemesis

There is no such thing as unicorns. This does not mean that you'll never see a unicorn, shimmering silver in the night like a river on legs, its horn shining like the moon, its eyes deeper than the night. Ageless. Untouchable. Perfect. There is such a thing as a unicorn, and even many instances of a unicorn, but there is no such thing as unicorns.

They are guardians of life and bringers of peace. Which means they are born to kill.

I've written about this in a couple of places before but bear with me for another paragraph: the planes which matter to me, less planes than overlapping spheres, inside and around each other, moving around a central pivot of what we call the world, are the Spiritual, Physical, and Arcane spheres. Lawful, Neutral, Chaos. The animating force of life, the material medium and matrix life can be sustained in, and the possibility which allows for life only by dint of allowing for all possibility. I like this interpretation because it helps, to me, sustain the idea of the world you're in existing by accident or whim. There's no divine plan, this is just some kind of fantasy Newtonianism. You're far more likely to not exist than to not not exist, and the epochs of the raised peoples are not just a blip in timespace but, in all sense, an accident, waiting to be corrected, or running out the clock before its own internal pressures pushing in different directions just disintegrate the whole thing. Of late I've fancied taking this one step further and looking on the physical world like a scab or pearl where the Spiritual and Arcane spheres meet, the important divide between matter and antimatter. But uh made of matter and mixed metaphors.

The point is, that this is SO and will not always be SO does not mean that these states of affairs aren't trying to sustain and perpetuate themselves. There Are Rules, unspoken and unlearned which everyone intrinsically knows. To even intellectualize these, so obvious they are, is like wrestling with a zen koan. "Describe water to a rock." There's not even entirely language for it. It's not even instinct because that's usually tied to survival or reproduction or safety but this is just an imprint on your double helix that reads You'd Best Not, Mate. It is the implication not of danger, or only danger, but of transgression, not a sense of cause and effect but of the invisible barrier of the procedure of law. Think of every reason why you would never rob a bank, and then think about still knowing all those things if you had never seen a bank and didn't know what money was, or stealing, or numbers. Like, reasons an eagle would never rob a bank. That's what we're talking about here...

and adventurers really only exist to interact with that level of existence. They're always adjacent to it, even if they never go digging into the forbidden things, but they're also always stumbling into it, lured forth with the promise of great powers, brought to the brink by an enemy who is near unto breach in the voids....

When you Do What You Don't Do this is a fundamental sin, and when I mean fundamental I don't mean like commandments I mean like gravity. There is an almost scientific reaction when these things happen. If we were talking in terms of the universe as a body we might say antibodies, but we're talking about D&D so the universe isn't made of atoms it's made of fairy tales, heavy metal, classical mythology, movie monsters, and Marvel Comics. Which means we are talking about nemeses.

Unicorns are nemeses.

If everything is fine in the world then there are no unicorns. If everything had only ever been fine in the world there would never have been any unicorns. Seeing one is not a sign that the world is more beautiful and perfect than we thought, or a reminder of a time when it was. It's the world we know fighting back as hard as possible against something terrible, something so horrible that an equal and opposite response of glorious fucking greatness happens. It should not be. It cannot exist but it does.

It's fucking pissed.

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Unicorns are powerful magic. This is a one of a kind animal in D&D, so there are types.

1. A powerful magic motherfucker - if you care then say 9th level because this gets real - may cast upon themselves a seal. This is something of a literal seal, a mark which not only takes a portion of their power (level 9 spell slot or some shit) but also seals their power as sacrosanct and untouchable (and also unable to advance their power further). This mark is tied to their life, or, in the case of a powerful lich, this mark IS their life, a sustaining force in their flesh, apart from their flesh, which sustains them. The MU herself needn't be the target of this magic. Their home, or the borders of the land they own, or the unblemished virtue of one they love, may be subject to the same. If this is breached on the terms of the seal...in the most common manifestation, if someone casts this upon themselves and they are then killed...the unicorn appears.

2. A place becomes sacred the longer it is left alone, free from the footprints of gods or men, untouched by the warping tendrils of the arcane world beyond. Some such places accrue around powerful entities, like a grove of treants, or this guy, or a thornbush which has never been harmed and which has grown over the whole forest, or, yes, high level druids. They are pure places, or, rarely, places which have been irrevocably profaned and are not merely no-man's-lands but utterly forbidden to the tred and eye of any. Should the sanctity of these places be violated or corrupted in some way they will slide inexorably into the mundane and, for this crime, a unicorn erupts from the soul, or a tree splits and rolls open revealing a unicorn within.

3. A scion of the gods, their chosen voice on earth, their most holy of holies, or their most unforgivable sins are transgressed against. Certainly killing a so-called True God qualifies for this, which would be cut and dry if anybody agreed who the True Gods are. Simply being evil or stabbing a priest or teaming up with succubi won't summon a unicorn. It requires some Jesus-Tree level transgression. Then a unicorn will manifest in the sanctum and presence of the god in question, and then makes its way toward the transgressor.

Unicorns have the following abilities:
  • Horn does damage as a greatspear and they fight like a creature of HD equal to the level of the transgressor +5. They attack once per round.
  • They save as a Level 8 Halfling, or just motherfucker saves.
  • They have Morale 12.
  • They can move at warhorse speed x2 overland and in combat.
  • Their horn would be its own reward in terms of both coin value and as a magic item, except that it has no power if not taken from a living unicorn.
  • They have AC as Plate+Shield+1. They may only be harmed by magic weapons.
  • They cannot be ridden or tracked.
  • Their hit points don't matter, really. Unicorns are immortal and immutable. They may be hurt, and wherever their blood lands mutant flowers grow, even on human skin. But they may not be tamed or killed.
What?

That's right. There are ways to kill a unicorn - wish, certain magic weapons, kill spell, certain other magics, decapitation, disintegration, petrification - but these are surmountable for the unicorn. A petrified unicorn will eventually burst out like Disney's Gargoyles and give chase again. A stopped heart will beat again. A unicorn wished away simply starts over. Cut off a unicorn's head and another emerges from the neck stump, slowly and grossly, stretched out and screaming. Reduce it to ash and the ash will swirl together, still smoldering, and give chase through a cloud of smoke.

Unicorns are inevitable.

When they reach the target(s) of their ire, these nemeses simply touch them lightly with their horn, transforming them into some unliving form. Fire. Crystal. Lightning. Ice. Tree. Salt. Ivory.

Then they will forgo all other presented enemies and simply fade out of the world like a film transition.
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Much like Klort, the prospect of a unicorn became daunting to my players once it was introduced. They are something of a cheater monster but they also...aren't. Remember, this is D&D, so the door to death is never closed forever. Additionally they may be put off and avoided indefinitely through certain trickery.

As an example, one player used his final wish to erect a temple to himself where a mighty magic forest (to which he was the bonded guardian) once stood, burning and razing the green which stood in order to erect his golden ziggurat. This summoned the greatest nemesis the world had ever seen - The Ubercorn, a Smaug-sized unicorn - but the effect of the item he used to make the wish dropped him right out of the universe, to a place where the Ubercorn could not follow. So it simply waits by a temple it cannot destroy because of the details of the wish, kicking it for eternity, and my players just had to redraw the map to cross off yet another place they can't go.

Now why the fuck do I do unicorns like this?

Because Lisa Frank can back right off. Because Legend can take a hike. Because you shouldn't have to cover it in metal and fire and fangs and extra heads to make anything truly mystical and wondrous also shaking, frightening. "Oh shit it's a unicorn!" No one is meant to see one, and seeing it at all is usually a transgression, followed by further evil committed in catching it, riding it, keeping it, killing it. There is always disastrous consequences for this blasphemy, but the unicorn is the ultimate passive participant in these tales, Beagle aside. They might as well be a big fancy rock. Guy isn't supposed to take rock, guy takes rock, guy goes through lots of suffering to redeem self and restore fancy rock.

I wanted to give the unicorn more power so I cut out the middleman between the untouchable and the reprisal. I wanted "Oh shit a unicorn," something that would make people run because they immediately knew what rules were in play in a way that even dragons don't provide.

So I just literalized the metaphor and ignored their stat block.