Sunday, April 24, 2011

Renovating The Fiend Folio: A

Modern players general hold one of two opinions on AD&D's second monster book, the Fiend Folio:
1) It's totally fucked, or
2) Its totally fucked and that's awesome.
Though naturally I'm a lot closer to the second camp, even I will admit that I have no idea what to do with, say, a flind. I don't even know what to do with the word "flind". Jesus that's a terrible word. And gorilla-bear? Hey, Gonzo was my favorite Muppet, but, in the words of this guy:
"Look, either you need a gorilla, or you need a bear. You are never going to need a gorilla bear." (Yes, Jeff, I see you in the back raising your hand. Yes, we know you need a Gorilla Bear. Over at the Armored Gopher. Next to your Spleen Ape and Lava Weasel. Yes. Ok. Anyway...)

(Interlude: I go get takeout sushi for Mandy, then 2 giggling assholes come by on bicycles, one tries to take Mandy's sushi, he fails. I knock him off his bike and punch him a lot and scream extremely loudly and he and his friend are freaked out. They run away. I hate people. Anyway, where was I? Oh, the Fiend Folio, right...)

..Or do I need a gorilla bear? Or something like it. My theory here is every soul can be saved. Every monster soul anyway.

So I'm testing it. My plan is to to find a way to use every single monster in the Folio--to make them useful for me in my game. To accomplish this, I will, if necessary, re-conceptualize and, necessary or otherwise, re-draw every monster in the book. Alright, let's go.

A is for all these guys, click to enlarge them....

So the Aarakocra are like boring intelligent bird-men. They live in the mountains and have flags. I suppose you could make a case for them that they're kinda China Mieville, but China Mieville is kinda Fiend Folio, frankly, and that bird guy in his book was about the least interesting thing in it. Anyway I decided that they were like marsh cranes instead of mountaintop vultures and had sort of numchuk-morningstars and an extra arm/leg and drew that:
Though I think the weapon looks good in the picture, mentally picturing it moving around and flying and swinging that thing around makes it seem silly. So I'm gonna say their schtick is actually they mostly use short swords. This guy's clearly some young avante garde upstart (thus the haircut and leg jewelry). Mostly what they do is stand eerily staring with their apathetic eyes at you in huge numbers among their marsh flags and then they move with terrifying speed when anybody comes near their swampy home and claw and peck them to death with horrible keening cries.Here's a first draft, trying to stay closer to the original concept before I decided vanilla bird people suck and going vulture just runs you smack into Warhammer's Lord of Change, so I just said fuck it.

Speaking of sucky bird monsters. Really really the next monster was a challenge. The Achaierai is a giant spherical budgie with four super-long legs that "emits" poison gas and is in no way not ridiculous. Seriously look at this:Oh, the furled eyebrow! How arch, achaierai!

So two monsters in and I'm thinking I'm thinking the Fiend Folio has completely defeated me. The point is it's a giant bird so tall you can't get to its body and have to attack the legs and I've already used the only bird (crane) that manages to pull of this long-leg-bird concept non-ridiculously.

So I started drawing and praying and came up with this guy:

I still think the "so tall you can only hit its legs" thing isn't gonna fly (yeah yeah, pun, I see it) but I feel like it does fit the part of the entry where it's called a "loathsome bird summoned from the infernal regions" and, considering what I had to start with, I'm considering that a victory. About nine feet tall I'd say.

Next trainwreck: The Adherer. His underwhelming schtick is he looks like a mummy but is actually just a really sticky guy! I can see some late night 50s horror host with a comb-over and a thick Queens accent saying that "Hey kids! It looks like a mummy, but it's actually a real sticky guy! How are Abbot and Costello gonna get out of this one?" This is one of the worst examples of monsters just made entirely in a DM-vacuum by a guy whose players have no sense of wonder or mystery left and just see a mummy and think "Ooh, a mummy, those are hard to turn!" and so is just trying to surprise them. You know the type: Gas-spore, pseudo-undead, ear-seeker, surprisingly-tough-kobold. Meaningless unless you're playing the boringest level-grindiest vanilla D&D.

Plus, the teratological niche is filled: the Lodestone Golem--which I don't know if D&D ever got around to but that Google shows me Magic:TG has, does basically the same thing with less lame. As does the Man of Wounds. Speaking of him, my first draft of reworking the adherer just looked like a dumb Clive-Barkerified version of the Man of Wounds. So I gave that one up.

I decided instead to go with the idea that the Adherer walked on walls and was made of tar.
The fact that he's pointing all J'accuse! made me think maybe the adherer is really morally upright or something. Which made me think of maybe he's not just an Adherer but an Adherent as in a subscriber to some faith or moral code. However, since I got too much work cut out for me turning other people's stupid ideas into good ones, I am too tired today to gratuitously pile on my own stupid ideas, too. Let's just say that this Adherer is a more politically correct name for what might once have been naively dubbed a "tar baby" and leave it at that.

Now the Aleax: it's sent by your god/DM when you're not following your religion/alignment properly. It looks exactly like you only sparkly. It fights you and has your abilities (and a couple mechanical speedbumps, like it regenerates). If you are defeated by your shiny double you get knocked down to half xp and if you win you get whisked out of the campaign to serve your god for a year and a day. In either case, your campaign sucks.

Instead: let's steal from Thor and Wonder Woman comics and say the Aleax doesn't just show up and try to punch you but actually tries to replace you. It will compete with you in your next epic adventure: it will try to find the Crown of Barskorgenstein first or it will try to defeat the Dread Gorfingel before you do. If it succeeds, bad things happen, if it fails, good things happen.

Since Twilight has ruined "shiny" for at least a decade, we'll say it looks exactly like you except for a certain shiftiness in its eyes. Friends and acquaintances could easily confuse the Aleax for the genuine article. Its conversation is dull, however, and it will only speak and act like a tediously pious and platonic representation of your faith and/or alignment. It takes this "trying to replace you" business seriously and will attempt to supplant and stymie you at every turn.Next up is the Algoid which, just below the surface is a decent monster: a hyperinteligent algae collective that can use psionics (naturally) and control local flora like a treant. The only big problem with the Algoid is the picture, where the normally-pretty-good Russ Nicholson has depicted it as looking like a sort of generic Kirby Parademon, which makes no sense with the concept. Plus, if a self-aware collective of tiny stuff is going to assume Kirbyfied form then Annihilus has already got the algoid beat.

My first try (an abandoned draft of which turned into the Adherer) was too sci-fi for my D&D game, though I include it here in case anybody wants to use it on Planet Algol...

In my second draft I decided the whole vegetal-mastermind thing was creepier if it wasn't even remotely human. This weird gooey thing just sits on a Faulknerian branch somewhere and makes life miserable for you. I figure it controls trees by means of coating them in its own algae-slime which is a sort of continuous body sheath that places whatever it coats under the algoid's control.So far so good, I'm thinking. But that was all tiddlywinks compared to the next and truest test:

The Al-Mi'Raj. A bunny with a unicorn horn. I figure if I can pull this one off the whole rest of the Fiend Folio is cake. Garbug? No problem! Bunyip? Bring it on!

So I wasted a lot of time googling Watership Down and Svankmajer's Alice and Rats of NIMH and came up with this:Mandy insisted on the red eyes.

Is it not-dumb yet? At my table I figure I can pull it off--it needs a low raspy voice and it's full of hard-won animal-wisdom and twitchy bitter-little-prey-animal head movements. I think it will work. The black nightingales will speak of it in low whispers: "Consult the Al-Mi'Raj, human..."

Or maybe it's still just a bunny. Viv thinks it's adorable, but her taste is suspect. Test drive soon and I'll let you know.

Next up: Oh joy, another mechanical and lexicographic variation on a ghost--the Apparition. It attacks for no reason and you save twice or die. Surprise! Who thought that up? That's barely a game. And the worst part is the original Russ Nicholson illustration is great. As are all of his skeletal undead. (The apparition is the upper left there). So I've got nothing to work with, really.

Alright. I'd say, psychoetymologically, the apparition is distinguished from the garden-variety ghost by its laziness. The apparition's main thing is it appears. It's main disturbing thing is showing up. This is the intimations-of-psychosis-is-that-guy-really?-there ghost, not the rattling-chains-magic-weapon-to-hit ghost. This is like Hamlet's father. The apparition just shows up, does almost nothing, and makes spooky demands on the living.

Also, you won't know the ghost is a ghost, necessarily. It looks just like a creepy living person. Then a few hours later you go--wait, didn't that guy die already? Ok, honestly this is more a plot device or puzzle-initiator than a monster, but that's what ghosts usually are, so I'm cool with that.

Mandy says I should've drawn him wispier, but I drew wispy things for like 3 years in the Zeros and I'm over it.
And now: ASSASSIN BUG!!!! AAAAAH!!!!The original Bug isn't too bad, actually: "giant bug" is a fine concept and Russ did an alright picture, but the mechanics are kinda dull: male paralyzes you, female injects you with eggs, you die. Even that's not so bad on second thought: you have to defend your unmoving friend from the second attack.

Anyway I added this bit since I actually drew the picture here (with a guy's head in the bug's mouth if you look carefully) while GMing the following Call of Cthulhu scenario: the bug is a servant of followers of the Insect God En-Gorath. The device that brings the bug into our world can be any object. The object is typically disassembled or in fragments (a house, a sculpture, a painting, a lamp, etc.). When it's reassembled, the Assassin Bug will crawl out of the thing and slay whoever completed it. So the typical tactic is to use some object that the cult knows the recipient will want to assemble (they will feel a strange compulsion to assemble it, thought the pieces may be widely scattered).

Last and least in the A's is the unbearably dull Astral Searcher. This 2HD-attacks-the-nearest-creature-for-no-reason-and-if-it-kills-you-it-possesses-you bundle of stats is so dull it doesn't even have a picture. The only interesting detail is they're secretly formed by traumatic events or spells being cast on the astral plane.

So naturally what you'd wanna do is tell anybody going to the Astral Plane that mucking around too much up there could cause the formation of an astral searcher, then make a table for that with some percentages and modifiers that you roll on whenever they do anything and make your PCs all scared about it and be all "Holy fuck, if we do that, it might create an astral searcher!" in high-magic or high-drama situations and then be a clever improvisey DM and give each individual searcher powers ironically derived from the trauma that created the beast in the first place. Like: if it was caused by a Chain Lightning spell then the thing has the ability to deaden electrical signals (like nerve impulses, f'rinstance) in some sort of contagious chain-lightning-esque way.

As for the picture, hey, I can do whatever I want. There's an astral searcher:






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Please feel free to tell us what you did with these guys in your game in the comments. One of the best parts of the Alphabetical Monster Thing I did a while back was hearing the readers' take on all these guys.

39 comments:

  1. Zak, you've already got farther than I would've....

    One of the key complaints of the Fiend Folio at the time was the "Monster put together by random die roll" approach that left head scratchers like the Adherer, the Enveloper, or the Garbug. Sure we used them at the time, but looking back on it, they were a little too wahoo for most of the games I ran. Always nice to see a new take on a monster, though.

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  2. Aarakocra: My traditional deal with these (becuause, you know, you asked, no really, you totally asked) is that they, along with the lizardmen and thri-kreen, are those who ruled the world in extremely ancient times, before humans climbed out of the trees or whatnot. Mostly, they're paleolithic barbarians, but every now and then you run into a tribe that still retains a weapon or tool of their ancient days, when their empires spanned the globe...

    Achaierai: so clearly an escapee (or, perhaps, a rejected element) from a Bosch painting. Rendered all the more ludicrous because most nerds can't resist rushing right through Bosch and deep into Gilliam during his "Flying Circus" years. Xp

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  3. @trollsmyth

    aarakocra: I hate primitive club-wielding cultures. gimme sophisticated-but-low-tech any day.

    Achaierai: nicely put.

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  4. So what makes them 'bird-men' instead of, like, large birds that talk, or, uh have language, or use tools... or... uh... well, I mean, what makes them different from giant real-world crows?

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  5. Ahaha, all kinds of awesome. Especially the aleax. Way to take a bad DM crutch monster (Oh yeah paladin? Face my aleax!) and make it creepy and challenging.

    I did get a lot of talkback on that gorilla bear comment but I stand by every word.

    Your achaierai can do double duty as a rebooted diakka. For real, have you ever noticed that the MM2 has about 5 different stork/crane monsters in there.

    Do keep this going, even if you have to take it in smaller chunks.

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  6. Also, the Adherer...ent... makes me think of bog mummies. So maybe they're actually like Swamp Thing or whatever, the weak center spot of a giant zombie swamp which you get stuck into, or some sort of undead formed by people who get infected with spores from an Algoid.

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  7. they like football

    Maybe a bunch of aarakockrakakakka dakka dakka abduct humans and force them to reenact famous football plays from history.

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  8. I'm told the "Al-Mi'Raj" is from medieval Arabic poetry or folklore or something, which makes it rate in my book. Somehow I liked it less when I thought it was just something that someone made up to fill a space in the book.
    The advantage of the arakockwhatever bird-men is at least they can fly, unlike the dire corbies.
    The one thing I did like about the adherer was all of the stuff that would get glued to him. What if the adherer just keeps growing--- like a grain of sand in an oyster? It starts out tiny, and stuff sticks to it, so it keeps growing layers of goo over it and getting bigger and bigger?

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  9. @limpey

    adherer:
    i thought about that, then it would be like that japanese video game where you roll the ball around and it gets stuck to stuff until it's as big as the planet.

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  10. I've got two different al-mi'raj spinoffs in my notes - a waistcoated lapine merchant named Crazy Al Miraj, and the aquatic narwhal-mi'raj.

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  11. What if the Achaierai (sp?) had scales on it's legs that looked like bark and feathers that looked like leaves and they just stood in among trees and waited for some poor sap to come walking along, thinking that the legs of this giant bird are just trees and then WHAM!

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  12. @limpey

    ...and the head of a...

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  13. My longstanding take on the adherer is that is is severely mentally retarded and that interacting with the PCs freak it out, which only makes it get stickier and stickier as it sweats and weeps in panic. So it is thrashing around, wailing moronically, getting more and more upset, and the players have usually been freaked out by it. I think a live adherer only really stops adhering if it calms down and starts humming to itself and leaking happy juice, but humans flailing around and shouting at it and hitting each other by accident isn't going to help that matter one bit.

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  14. The first time I read the Fiend Folio I thought of creating a setting around those monsters, sorta an "implicit context" extrapolated from the book. I imagined it really dark and weird, you know, a lot of 80s british fantasy (Russ Nicholso's fault, I suppose). Of course, I reimagined the monters, a real challenge in most cases, but regarding: to this day I keep using some of them in my games.

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  15. So do people really knock you down and try to take your food?

    I live in the south, and that's just unheard of - for instance, my car is unlocked right now, as well as my front door.

    Also: just curious, about how long did you spend doing those drawings?

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  16. @-c

    they fail to knock me down and take my food. still--the attempt is rare.


    Drawings: 2 days, all day, for all of them, plus some rough drafts.

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  17. Drawings: 2 days, all day, for all of them, plus some rough drafts.

    They are good pieces - I really like the Algol version of the Algoid. It has a great three dimensionality and sense of texture with all the white.

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  18. aarakocra: I hate primitive club-wielding cultures. gimme sophisticated-but-low-tech any day.

    Keep in mind that the Inca built Machu Picchu with little more than neolithic tech.

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  19. @trollsmyth

    yeah, and Gustave Eiffel built the world's most lucrative tourist attraction using 7300 tons of pig-iron, it doesn't mean I wanna play D&D with him.

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  20. Aarakocra Maybe like swiftlets writ large, they build their cliffside dwellings and bridges and eiffel towers and so on entirely out of spittle. Weapons and armor too.

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  21. Zak,
    I play with Gustave Eiffel all the time and he's great fun! Wait, I play solo, he's not real, oh crap, never mind....

    DaveL

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  22. Aarakocra: Maybe it's cool that they suck- you can kinda milk that. The FF pic of them reminds me of Skeksis from the Dark Crystal. Perhaps the Aarakocra were the product of some massive magic mishap, a curse, a byproduct, whatever it is, it sucked.

    Vain, magically inclined tribes of bird-men who like shiny things. Treasure stashes of interesting tidbits, baubles, odd items and the occasional treasure. Bizarre business sense, aggressive traders. Difficult to read due to alien mannerisms. The flag obsession could be a thing for nostalgic heraldry and constant reminders of pecking order. They aren't awesome, but it sounds better to me than just beastman barbarian.

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  23. @dylearium

    problem with aarakocra as skeksis is they can -fly-. so it removes their creepy pathos.

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  24. I think I like the al-mi'raj the most of these, probably for the voice and dire portentousness, and then the slight bathos of discovering that it's an all-knowing but bloody terrifying rabbit with a horn. The sources help, too. Watership Down is trauma-fodder, laden with mythic resonance quite out of kilter with the subject matter. The NIMH reference makes me think 'a mad wizard did it', possibly even by accident. The point is that there's a terrible dissonance and sadness to the al-mi'raj; it is a Thing That Should Not Be, an eldritch horror, and yet it is tiny and insignificant and at the mercy of a vast and dangerous world, like a pocket-sized Yog-Sothoth.

    That's how I'd use it, anyway.

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  25. The Wikipedia entry on the al-mi'raj shows a lot of good stuff that the FF missed. Going by its mythical sources, it's none other than the Monty Python rabbit. Going by the rationalist, Scooby Doo explanation, it's a rabbit with a fur disease that some witch has used for a shakedown racket.

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  26. Real assassin bugs are scary enough, no need for all that paralyze-eggs grow in your body nonsense. They have a massive proboscis they stick in your head to suck you dry (if you're thinking Brain Bug, you're absolutely right), they are social so even if you escape one, you just run into the next one and they are fairly intelligent. My pet assassin bugs know very well that I bring food and I always feel that they stop short of attacking me just because roaches taste better. It's the way they turn around and stare at me.

    For the Aarakocra, I would suggest taking a look at Cassowaries, the most bad ass birds ever. They wouldn't need a morning star to bash your brain in, a kick would be enough. The text on this road sign should say: colliding with a cassowary will ruin your car while doing absolutely nothing to the bird, which will proceed to kick the crap out of you.

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  27. Re: the Aleax...I fondly recall playing in a very political military game where I was...Lawful Neutral, vaguely good? & all the other players we basically Chaotic Neutral, ranging from Good to Evil. Basically a bunch of anarchists...why did they decide to join the Spelljammer Navy? Who knows. Anyhow, I had planned a bunch of Batman-esque "how to defeat your buddies" tricks, & the Aleax were a lot of fun...because I got to use them. Dude who turns into a water elemental? Have some Dust of Dryness! Etc.

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  28. problem with aarakocra as skeksis is they can -fly-. so it removes their creepy pathos.

    Cool skeksis + fight with flying guys = ...undead skeksis, animated as a punishment, grafted to gelfling-skin flying harness, acting out their pathetic half-remembered rituals, eating feasts of stones and baubles, polishing gristle or nubs or bone to adorn themselves. And a giant fake dark crystal made of dried gruel and spittle they gaze at with their empty sockets.

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  29. The mythic al-mi'raj does pretty good itself on the creepy racket. Not only does it do the monty python thing and kill lions with its horn, it then stretches out its jaws and swallows them whole, despite being a fraction of their size. And it doesn't look any bigger afterwards...

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  30. @jedediah

    re: cassowary
    people sometimes confuse "dangerous" with "scary in a game". Hippos are dangerous, they aren't scary though. Deer are more dangerous than crows, but crows are scarier. Cassowaries are dangerous but not scary.

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  31. I tend to find big birds scary. It's probably the mad look in their eyes. But maybe that's just me.

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  32. Re: "Cassowary"

    Anything that sounds like a food isn't scary in a game.

    The Makaronikon and the Oatmeaghor might be seventeen-feet tall armour-plated living howitzers that shoot screaming razor-armed haemonculi, but...

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  33. I like the idea of the al-mi'raj being normal rabbits who hulk out. Like you have them running around the dungeon as trap-monsters. You run across one, you have to appease it using some secret technique. Give it a coin that has only reflected moonlight, prick your finger and give its fur a bloody stripe down its back, tear your highest level spell scroll in half. Each keyed to the dungeon, or room, in some way the PCs can discern if they gather intel about the place ahead of time.

    If they don't, this rabbit starts to wrack and crack and shriek, growing to about the size of a golden retriever and exhibiting freakish changes in anatomy...extra bone growth, that sort of thing.

    And if it was me, I'd also make them into mogwai. Liquid makes them multiply, their own blood included, so you need to incinerate or strangle the little fuckers.

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  34. What if the Achaierai was actually Baba Yaga's Castle? Enormously long legs - you'd get altitude sickness if it picked you up, and Castle Doom or some set of disturbingly organic dungeon chambers that are clearly bits of a bird's digestive tract at the top - a surprise horror Snit's Revenge interlude.

    The Aleax is your good twin, right? So you're the evil one, and all your companions will immediately identify you as such the minute it shows up. Just killing it in front of them would be the worst thing to do - you have to get rid of it when they're not looking, and convince your erstwhile mates that it was the evil one that got banished... I don't know if that would be fun or not, actually, it sounds like a Ron Edwards game.

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  35. I was so inspired by this post and by the comments, I wrote a blog piece on the Al-Mi'raj and how it will be incorporated in my campaign.

    http://moldyvale.blogspot.com/2011/04/al-miraj-in-dalelands.html

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  36. How about Aarakocra as Tengu, the war-like, sword master crow-people of Japanese myth?

    Or swap out that lacquered helmet for something silver and give them crystal swords and azoths.

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  37. Your illustration of adherer reminds me of certain ghost stories in old eastern finnish savolaxian folklore, pitch black ghosts of unwanted children, them being born or brought to world unwanted leading to circumstances that have left them as ghosts.

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