Setting Design Report, Part 25: Getting Specific, Part 8: Player Posts 2: The Hellblades

As always, you can find a link to the entire series here.

Note: this material is a bit more “adult” than most of the other posts in this series. Krissi is exploring some heavy, messy, difficult stuff with her character, and while it makes for really interesting and worthwhile material, a certain level of maturity is advised for some of the themes in this particular post. Specifically: drugs, sexuality, psychological trauma, and what spending a lifetime of fighting does to a person will get touched on here – nothing is going to be especially graphic, and it’s in no way gratuitous, but just be aware of what will come up. -Peter

A Life Redeemed

Kallista is definitely the most wounded of the PCs in my party. A former soldier from Alchova, she was left for dead after a mission gone bad and recovered by some “missionaries” who specialize in rescuing people from the Grim Cities about a year ago. From there, she went through a recovery process, some paladin training (where she excelled) and then out into the world as a freelance paladin; one of many knights errant in service to The Church.

What her life was like leading up to that point, though, was horrific.

No Place to Grow Up

Alchova doesn’t really acknowledge childhood. Parents don’t get any time off at all to care for children or even to have them, and falling behind on productivity numbers can be deadly. Nevertheless, children do happen in Alchova. In addition, there is no one specific origin of tieflings – they can arise from genetics (the usual, implied means from the PHB), infernal bargains, moral corruption, simple proximity to evil magic, and so on. As one might imagine, none of these permutations are particularly uncommon in Alchova. Child abandonment is high due to to desperation and parents going off to work one morning and never coming home is also common. This means that a lot of the time, children who do “make it” are raised by resistance cells, grow up on the streets, or both.

And once they’re grown, not a lot of options exist for them.

While Krissi and I haven’t discussed Kallista’s early years yet, what we have discussed is that at age 16, she enlisted in the Alchovan military.

A Grim Business

Alchova’s military provides some things that being a civilian does not: higher rates of pay, guaranteed shelter, and meals provided (and better quality than the usual insect protein and hardtack). All it requires in return is that you turn into a drug-addicted thug that’s willing to bully civilians, commit atrocities, and who will probably die in a suicide mission when a member or members of your squad does something that annoys one of the powers that be.

That does not, however, mean that everyone who winds up in service to Alchova is a vicious, sadistic monster, and as they say, birds of a feather flock together.

Kallista wound up in an all-tiefling unit called The Hellblades, and they became the closest thing she had to a family for a long time.

However, to truly appreciate how that worked, I have to lay some groundwork first. The Hellblades are an elite military unit and also an illustration of what military life is like in Alchova. Alchova’s military is essentially used for three purposes: putting down internal resistance, raiding neighboring territories for slaves and supplies, and fighting with competing powers, both inside the city and out. Because Alchova borders the Yuthi desert, skirmishes with the forces of the Dragon Tyrants  of Klaridia, the Dry Tusks, and the Tomb Guradians of Klaridia are a regular occurrence. They tend to leave the smaller towns like Lostant, Penfield, and Elsrin alone, because they’re well aware that an actual war of conquest would create an alliance they’re not prepared to fight, but that hands-off approach only extends to about a mile outside the city limits of the towns themselves. Convoys and lone travelers are occasionally picked off and hauled back to the city to serve as slaves or are slain outright for the cargo they carry (or occasionally because a patrol is angry or bored).

Worse are the internal operations. Units will be sent to take down rival powerful figures in Alchova by whomever is commanding them, and oftentimes these missions are horrific meat grinders involving savage room-to-room fighting in skyscrapers or building-to-building fighting across industrial districts. Given the savagery of fighting involved and also the wide range of ways of inflicting damage available in the setting, these fights can get nasty indeed.

This leaves the military of Alchova with some problems. Regardless of how little they may value their soldiers as people, training them is costly, and therefore throwing them away completely isn’t something they can afford to do. At the same time, battlefield medicine isn’t an area Alchova has any sort of edge in. Places like Laraloch-Thistivuel, Highflats, and even some of the larger independent towns can count on having field hospitals filled with clerics from groups like the orders of St. Lessara, St. Argan, and St. Gertiana (and Gertianan triage specialists on top of that) to care for the wounded and keep casualty numbers down. But that level of restorative magic and skill is the exclusive purview of The Church. Clerics of The Adversary exist, but they’re nowhere near as good at healing people as Clerics of God, and they’re also often fewer in number and tend to be leaders, not followers. Bards can pick up some of the slack, but they’re seldom trained as dedicated healers, at least not in Alchova. You’ll sometimes see dedicated healer bards in groups like the Pellicane Scribes, but even there, they’re few and far between. So what does Alchova use instead?

Drugs.

Lots and lots of nasty, addictive combat drugs.

In game mechanical terms, Alchovan military units will have a Medic (from Ultramodern5 by Dias Ex Machina Games) instead of a cleric as their combat medic. In addition to stitching people up and setting bones, they also dispense all of the various combat drugs the Alchovan military makes use of. The primary “cocktail” is a mix of Adenopur (a steroid-like drug that enhances physical strength and endurance), Feltane (a powerful stimulant that increases reaction time and wakefulness), and Daraxacin (an analgesic that lowers inhibitions and pain response). All three are somewhere between “mildly habit-forming” and “horribly addictive” and all three have nasty side effects and withdrawal symptoms, which means that the entire Alchovan military is basically a huge force of drug addicts (which makes motivating and punishing them very easy for their fiendish overlords). Spellcasters also get a powerful mental enhancer called Kinophine that enhances the senses (sometimes painfully – ear plugs and dark glasses are common) so they can better target enemies with their magic. In addition, a lot of the units that are less-enthusiastic about the nasty nature of their work tend to use other drugs to forget when they’re off-duty, which the medics also tend to be in charge of (you don’t want your marksman to OD, and die between fights, after all). Common choices there include multiple forms of alcohol, a hallucinogen called Twist, and a strong narcotic called Roots.

Specific side effects of the drugs provided by the military include increased libido, increased aggression, sterility, deadened nervous system (particularly the senses of taste and smell), tinnitus, paranoia, and severe anxiety. This leads to a “friends with benefits” arrangement among squadmates a lot of the time and incentivizes the use of the other drugs to both forget the horrible things that have been seen and participated in and to deaden the side effects of the combat cocktail. It also means that if a soldier is off his or her “combat cocktail” they’re a miserable, neurotic mess unless they manage it with something else.

And unfortunately for the soldiers, it means that they spend their entire lives, from the time they enlist to the time the violence finally decides it’s their turn for a trip to the afterlife under the influence of something and often stoned halfway out of their minds.

(Quick plug: I got the names of all of the fictional drugs above from a fictional medicine name generator you can find here and a drug name generator you can find here. Both are part of this site, which has over 1200 name generators all told. It’s an amazing resource.)

The soldiers have some advantages the civilians don’t have, however – namely each other. Like the soldiers in real-world armies serving tyrannical regimes, not everyone who puts on an Alchovan uniform is universally evil-aligned and cruel (to cite my sources: go give a listen to the Ghost of the Ostfront series from Hardcore History). And like-minded individuals tend to find each other, no matter the context.

Family of Choice and Circumstance

The Hellblades, despite their fearsome name, are probably more noteworthy for world-weariness and signs that they aren’t evil than anything else. I could try to summarize, but I don’t have to. Below you will find the actual text of the NPC document Krissi gave me. A quick note: Mathim Eligos is another escaped tiefling soldier from Alchova that has also trained as a paladin. He is something of a mentor figure to Kallista.

Andras Seir – Squad Leader. Andras looks out for his squad as much as possible, but will follow orders that promise to go badly for them because he knows from brutal experience that disobeying orders will be worse. He seems somewhat resistant to the narcotic effects of the combat drugs, and his off-duty drug use is more casual/social than a result of addiction. He tends to keep the rest of the squad from dangerous excesses with help from his second in command.

Glasya Labolas – Second in command; sniper. A master of compartmentalizing, when on duty Glasya is a stone cold killer. She executes her tasks with efficiency and precision, taking pride in a job well done or a shot well-placed, and shows no remorse for any action she takes while under orders. Off-duty, she warms up somewhat with her squad, and even considers them friends. She seems to have an inability to empathise with others, which works in her favor given her line of work but makes it difficult for her to understand her squadmates’ escapist behaviors. She thinks their debauchery is a waste of time and money, but Seir allows it, so she considers “designated sober person” an unofficial part of her job.

Damaia Gremory – backup Mechanic, Kallista’s best friend in the squad. Damaia is a career soldier with a quiet demeanor that masks an iron core. Most who have never seen her in combat would not believe what she is capable of when pressed. She is a fierce combatant and cunning enemy, but would defend the handful of people she truly cares about to the death. Kallista and Damaia enlisted at roughly the same time and have been together since basic training.

Rieta Marchosias – Medic. Rieta is the squad medic, and as such she administers all combat drugs during shifts (and generally provides and administers the non-combat ones as well). She has an instinctive gift for healing, but as a combat medic her bedside manner is nonexistent. Her techniques prioritize speed over finesse, but Rieta will calmly point out that an ugly scar beats being dead as she roughly stitches you back together. She’s more likely to curse you for your epic stupidity while patching you up enough to get back and fight than show any compassion or concern, but is often the first one to get high and the last one to sober up when off-duty.

Nemia Orias – Scout. Along with her twin brother, Nemia is in charge of recon for missions outside the city.  Inside the walls, their job is to keep an eye on the ebb and flow of local politics, looking for any information that might give their squad an advantage in the constant shifting of allegiances in upper management or warn them of potential backstabbing. They are also in charge of acquiring anything the squad needs or wants that isn’t regulation issue or available at the commissary. They share the uncanny bond that can show up in close twins, and have learned to use it to their advantage in combat.

Ekemon Orias – Scout (see above). Ekemon works with Nemia to acquire information that can be used to the squad’s benefit, but he is not above selling what he digs up for personal gain. He has expensive tastes and habits that a military salary just doesn’t fully fund. His sister looks the other way most of the time, but usually steps in if she thinks he’s going to get the squad in some kind of trouble. Still, there is no doubt that he has leaked some things he probably shouldn’t have and ruffled some feathers. If they figure out he is the source, he could be in some trouble.

Mordai Eligos – Younger brother of Mathim, Mordai is a brutal fighter known for his outbursts of temper and lack of restraint on the battlefield. He is highly sensitive to the combat drugs, and often goes into an almost berserk state when in danger. When off-duty he is more controlled, but his anger issues are innate, so the squad tends to handle him carefully and steer him towards sedatives instead of stimulants.

Amnon Havres – The stereotypical “big dumb guy” of the squad, what Amnon lacks in critical thinking he makes up for in brute strength. Although one of the most destructive members of the squad, he is not evil per se; Amnon will follow any order without question because it would never occur to him to do otherwise. He can use firearms, but is happiest when he can be up close and personal smashing things. If nothing more interesting has presented itself (he is quite fond of the ladies) he can usually be found in the gym trying to show up whoever else might be working out at the moment.

Aleister Raum – The firearms expert on the squad, Aleister is Kallista’s other close friend (and frequently “friend with benefits”). He has the skills to be a sniper, but prefers to be closer to the action. Also, Glasya would probably shoot him if he touched her gun. Aleister, like Kallista, has some impulses towards good buried deep down inside, but one has to know him very well to see past the mask of indifferent violence he has cultivated most of his life. He probably recognized Kallista as a kindred spirit bothered on some level by their work, since he was the one who introduced her to the mind-altering substances she came to rely on as much as he does.

Damakos Agares – The intellectual of the group, Damakos is a philosopher at heart.  He is also a self-declared “student of life” and is often found obsessively hyper-focusing on whatever has caught his attention this week. His enthusiasm for most topics never lasts long, and in a week or so some new shiny will catch his attention, but he finds uses for a surprising amount of his knowledge, and is always happy to share with anyone who will listen so that he can show off his brains. The week he was intrigued by bomb-making was an especially tense time for the squad, and more than one of them carries a scar from what he claimed was “an honest mistake.”

Leusis Allocer – Unlike most of the others, Leusis loves his job. His family carries some clout that he leveraged to get in and stay in, and he couldn’t be happier. He revels in the power and violence, and if he were a less petty, self-centered, unambitious person he would make a good candidate for rising through the ranks. Unfortunately for him, his tendency towards self-aggrandizement and a stunning inability to work with a team has rubbed most of the higher-ups the wrong way and he is frequently re-assigned because his squad leader eventually gets sick of his shit. The HellBlades is his latest stop, but it is a poorer fit than usual and the rest of them are looking forward to the day a spot opens up in a team where his arrogance and wanton cruelty will be more at home.

Conclusion

It shouldn’t come as much of a shock that I have some narrative plans for this group of soldiers. And this is one of those times where I REALLY WISH I COULD TALK ABOUT THEM, but I can’t, because my players read this blog.

Suffice it to say, though, that I was impressed by the honesty and maturity with which these people were described to me, and I really hope I can do them justice. I wrestled with putting this post up for a while because I was a little worried about how some of the subject material would be received. However, I think this is a perfect example of how acknowledging something and endorsing it are two different things. One of the things that I really appreciated about the original document was how you could see just by looking at a few lines of text how most of those characters could be really different and perhaps even heroic people if something had been different.

That “if something had been different” is key. This is not a glamorous, desirable situation to be in. It is multiple, interlocking layers of misery and unhealthy means of coping with it when no healthy means are made available. As I mentioned back in the Moral Universe posts (parts one, two, three, and four) at the beginning of the series, evil is something that can worm its way into people, but it’s also something that people can be rescued from – and reading over the original document Krissi gave me really got me thinking about the ways these people would be aching for a better life and a better way of looking at the world. The PCs may or may not save some number of these characters.

But I’m definitely going to give them the opportunity to try.

Playlist

Beast and the Harlot by Avenged Sevenfold. This video carries some of the same content warnings as the rest of the post – some risque costuming and themes are in there, right from the opening frames, in fact. However, it’s an absolutely perfect illustration of the way that evil entices and then destroys people – even its own messengers. Watch with discretion, but it’s extremely effective at conveying that message.

 

Photo by frankie cordoba on Unsplash

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