2017/12/19

OSR: The Olm, Part 1

The Olm are a race from Patrick Stuart's Veins of the Earth setting/rules/black brick of why caves hate you. Since my PCs are probably going to run into them soon, I figured I'd write up some notes.


Olm, Scrap Princess
Major Features
-blind pink-white cave salamander people
-weird-sexy (the relevant sentence was expunged from the print version, presumably because it was too weird or not weird enough)
-slow metabolism, can chill out in cold water for centuries, waiting
-food and consumption as status symbols/cultural values. If they like you they'll eat you when you die.
-smart, but shaped by blindness, texture, and starvation

Since my PCs are all sorts of creatures, just making salamander-lings isn't enough. I'll need to play up the cultural and sensory strangeness. These guys got stuck in the Monster section instead of the Race section which seems like a shame, because there's not much directly gameable content provided. Peter Webb added a bit. Let's add some more.


Encountering the Olm

Walk through an underground stream.

Somewhere downstream, probably closer than you'd expect, there's an Olm. In a pocket of water no air-breathing caver would ever dare explore, it waits, metabolism ticking over slowly, red gills concealed behind a carved stone face shield. You could step on it and not see it. But it smells everything.

Think about adventurer's boots. What have they stepped in? What greases, oils, powders, dirts, mucks, and oozes will be washed downstream when they walk through a thin stream of water?

The Olm smells them. It wakes up in a few minutes, changing biological gears so fast it gets all jittery and have to swim in circles a few times before vanishing. It wakes up another Olm in a village-pocket, or sends a signal to them (by killing or crushing a pungent cave-crab, stone, etc.). It then scouts the PCs.

Surface creatures are enormously calorie-rich. They also die quickly in the caves. The newly-awakened Olm might not know what the PCs are, but it knows they are worth following, possibly dangerous, and probably sighted. It will follow them from a great distance by sound and smell. Unless the PCs have a light source that can illuminate >30' or some other supernatural senses, they probably won't know they are being followed.

When it figures out the PCs are intelligent and capable of conversation it will want to talk from a safe distance. Ideally, it will speak to them in an echoing cave, relying on acoustics and darkness to hide its true position.



Olm-Speak

The Olm know several languages. One of the main benefits of talking to people is that they can lead you to more food. Rapid language acquisition is heavily selected for. They all speak Elf (because not being able to speak Elf when an Elf shows up is very dangerous). For convenience, 1-in-6 of them speak the local language, and 4-in-6 speak a language a literate and educated PC might know (like Latin). They usually speak in archaic forms.

Maybe the the Olm sound like poets. "As cold water warms / spring rains fill the stone / and fish awake from their slumber. Why are you here?"

Maybe they speak in mangled but comprehensible grammar. Sentences end in nouns; the possessive is indicated by pronouns "What brings here these ones?". "How lost did the Elf his sword?"

They are polite and will try and draw out conversations if they can. They are curious about you. It costs them next to nothing to sit and talk.


Olm-Names

Long, complicated, difficult to translate. They invent shorter names for outsiders. The names don't mean anything. Spend a few years down here and you'll start to "get" them.
1. Cut-Three-Times
2. Wound-Ache-Leg
3. Dancer-Liar-Memory
4. Bent-Big-Stick
5. Rust-Cold-Egg
6. Bitter-Red-Lung


So A Weird Salamander-Thing Is Talking To You...

First things first. It wants to know how many of you there are. What are your names. It will tell you its name. It wants you to talk among yourselves; it can hear everything you say.

It can smell the blood on your hands and the stains on your pants. It might know what you've killed and eaten. It will try to determine if you are a threat.

Chances are pretty good the PCs will be above its pay grade. They'll use words it doesn't understand, offer things it can't authorize. It will need to report back. If it can, it will ask the PCs to wait in an area for a few hours (on any excuse), while it run/swims back to the Olm-village.


So A Bunch of Weird Salamander-Things Just Walked Out Of The Darkness...

It's an Olm war-party. They carry bone swords designed to pierce, not slash. A smooth under-arm stab designed to punch up and into the ribcage or up through the jaw and into the skull. How good is your helmet's chin-strap?

Way back, in another direction, sniffing the air, they've got a wizard and his guard.

They are here to talk and trade. Their leader is high status. It wears something the PCs recognize as important or status-designating. If there's time to change, the item will be something specific to the PCs. If they smell like they've fought an alkalion, it will have an alkalion tooth on a necklace. The leader-Olm might be a little startled or amused if the PCs recognize it from a distance without touching it, like you'd be startled if someone with X-ray vision commented on your underwear.

The PCs aren't trusted. Not even close. But they are curious and interesting and possibly useful. Chances are good they are naive. The Olm village has a problem. Maybe some sighted surface-dwellers can help. See Veins of the Earth for ideas.


So A Weird Salamander-Thing Ancestor-King Wants To Talk...

If the PCs prove useful, they will interact with several mid-level Olm from time to time. If they prove useful, loyal, and possible chivalric/romantic/selfless (running back to save an infant Olm from a ravenous swarm of scissorfish, telling a particularly interesting story, etc.) they might get to meet an Olm noble.

Political systems, seen from the outside, are often... quaint. The PCs probably have no concern for the intricacies of Olm politics. From their point of view, it fits the political structure they are most used to. If they're raving anarchists, it's a merit-based commune. If they were born into feudalism, it's feudalism. Etc. They can promise to be loyal to an Olm noble, but they will always be outsiders. They are a liability. They leave oily trails, eat too much, talk too much, and carry too much baggage.

The Olm can point towards several potential paths to the surface. They will never, ever tell the PCs unless there's a very good reason to. It's not worth the risk.

Personalities

Nervous/Angry Olm
1. Flexing and unflexing fingers
2. Bright red gills, drawing in extra air.
3. Tail held off the ground, moving very slowly from side to side.
4. Holding breath, analyzing your smell, to make sure it has your measure.

Happy Olm
1. Wiggles in a side-to-side sine wave.
2. Big yawn, showing off all the teeth, popping the jaw muscles.
3. Little chuffing breaths to show it isn't holding in or analyzing your smell.
4. Tail curled around one of its legs.

Comfortable/Curious Olm
1. Little pink tongue cleaning its needle teeth.
2. Touching you or your belongings very carefully, like someone playing a lullaby on a piano.
3. Curling its tail around one of your legs.
4. Retracted gills (it doesn't anticipate a threat), or slowly flaring them (is it warm in here or is it just me?)



Olm Wizards

They put their spells in gems, veins of quartz, the skulls of dead Olm wizards, or the teeth of very magical creatures. They don't write spells down, but whisper them too and from their homes. Their spells are allies. Some are primordial. Olm make poor wizards. Their biology can't handle consistent magic use. It makes them sterile, grey, and slow. It's a path an Olm chooses out of necessity or tradition.

Most of their spells are elemental: water and stone are potent allies underground. Many Olm wizards sit in rivers and listen to the stories the water tells. They learn languages and secrets. Water is fond of them. Other spells let them move through stone as if it were water, freeze water into ice, or track a soul over great distances.


Typical Olm Wizard Spell List

1. Control Water
2. Control Stone

3. Bone Dart
R: 100' T: creature D: 0
Target creature with bones that the Olm can smell takes [dice] damage and must Save or be knocked prone. A bone dart made from a sliver of the creature's own bone bursts from their flesh. This may make the creature easier to track.


Esoteric Olm Spells

4. Water Knife
R: touch T: underwater creature D: [sum] rounds
Water forms into a deadly edge along the target's hands, tail, and weapons. The target gains +1 attack per round and deals an additional [dice] damage on a hit.

5. Catastrophe Orb
R: 50' T: point D: [dice]x2 rounds
A fat jelly-like orb flies from the caster's mouth and bursts at a point they choose or fairly close to it. The orb releases a series of horrible smells, loud noises, and distressing winds. Conversation, smell-sensing, etc. is impossible within a 30' radius of the origin. Olm are effectively blind and must make a Morale check each round or flee.

6. Tactile Illusion
R: 50' T: point D: [dice] hours
An illusion appears. It is made of transparent green-grey glass and flickers slightly. It has a convincing smell, taste, and texture, but it cannot move or make sounds. It can survive [sum] points of damage. The maximum size of the object depends on how many dice are invested in the spell: 1 [dice]: human-sized, 2 [dice]: ogre- or wagon-sized, 3 [dice]: dragon- or tavern-sized, [dice]: ship- or bridge-sized. The Olm will use this to try and illustrate surface concepts, creatures, or events the PCs describe.


Olm Plot Seeds

1. These Olm are protected by a Yellow Dragon. The Olm keep the dragon informed of any underground events that might threaten its bank-lair. In return, the dragon keeps several Olm elders banked in ice-cold water, along with other valuables of their race. Something has gone awry. A thief escaped into the veins, and the Olm need assistance tracking it.

2. An ambitious Olm wants to find a better source of food. They want the PCs to set up a surface colony and ship protein underground. The Olm proposing the scheme doesn't really understand the surface world or the long-term consequences of their plan. They also don't know what the PCs value; most of the plot will be them trying to find out what they really value on the surface. Gold is too easy an answer; it can't be right.

3. These Olm have heard of spells that can call up dead spirits into true life, not the half-existence of a skull saint (VotE p.312) or a stone head. They can barely conceptualize the idea of coming back to life, but there's a secret so important that it can't rest with someone who died accidentally and can't be raised by any means known to the Olm. Raised Olm are ravenously hungry.

4. Something poisonous fell into the Olm-sump. The Olm are evacuating as quickly as they can. They can't go near the thing (smell-tasting it is the same as dying because of it). Can the PCs help? The item is a nega-meteroid from the Undersun. Probably bad news.


Olm Stats As PCs

Reroll: Wis
Bonus: Can breathe water and and air. Can smell/hear as well as someone can see (50' default). AC as plate in water.
Weakness: Blind. Cannot wear most armour. Dry out in air (GM's discretion as to duration).

Olm have their black sheep and wanderers like any other race. Would one risk a horrible death on the surface just to feel the warmth of the sun or the sound of rain? And if one returned, would it not be a glorious triumph, a vast expansion of the knowledge of the colony?



Olm Caves

Their cities, and their creepy floating no-face alien sumps, are underwater. They aren't easy to find. But there are some things you can't do underwater. You've been lead to or stumbled across:

1. An Olm-sump with an ever-living plant.

2. The Cave of Faces
Every wall and fold is carved into a face. Olm-faces, smooth and featureless, with stylized gill-ruffs. Human faces, strange and distorted. Animal faces. Strange, asymetric faces. The floor is carved with channels to draw water away from the precious carvings.The Cave of Faces stores many secrets. They are guarded by olm-goyles.

If you carve stone carefully, it can take on the personality of the things it represents. A statue of a horse might forget it was stone and start thinking it is a horse. Depending on how much the sculptor knew of horses, and how much of their own soul they invested in the carving, the statue could behave exactly like a horse... or like some sort of weird bendy hoofed jellyfish thing.

The Olm are expert sculptors. If memorializing someone by storing their skull in a place of honour isn't enough, there is a final tier of honour. They will only do this if you are dying, willing, and full of useful secrets and advice. The sculptor paralyzes you with the venom of a cave scorpion and eats you from the outside in. This takes several days. As they eat, they chisel your face into the wall of the cave. If everything works, by the time they've eaten most of your brain, your soul has started to migrate into the carved face. You'll rest there, sleeping, not quite stone but not quite alive, until you are called.

3. Diving Pool
A tall cave with a deep steep-sided pool. Young Olm climb up the stairs and dive. Falling through the air is exhilarating. They twist and wheel and flail their limbs before vanishing into the water. It's a waste of time and calories, but everyone was young once. The PCs might be asked to describe what a falling Olm looks like or to watch for threats. Or they could blunder in, have a weird blind salamander-thing fall into the water next to them, and start a proper panic.

4. Ambush Gallery
A long series of low, broad caves. Stone walls carved into sine-wave curves, scraped white. Like crawling through car park wallpapered in giant ramen noodle packets. The waves conceal the Olm; they can hunt sighted creatures here even if the creatures have light and anticipate an attack. What's rock and what is Olm? Who can say?

How Do The Olm See You?

To an Olm, a human is 
-short
-old (small head, sagging skin)
-covered in grease and foulness
-and hair. Eww. It's on me! Oooh, it tickles! Aaah, it's in my gills! Ack ack ack.
-teeth like broad plates
-a bendy face-lumps (they are very curious about noses and ears)
-moist face-dents for seeing
-lumps all over (breasts, kneecaps, elbows)

A human, as an Olm would "see" it.
Humans breath like someone in pain, even if they are trying to be quiet. They have a silly walk. If an Olm wants to walk like a human, it will splay its legs out like a cowboy and bounce up and down, wheeling its arms around. Swimming is even worse - humans don't use their bodies at all!

Fingers are weird too (five? why so many?). Clothes are weird but comprehensible (Olm use armour, display items, and belts when they need to.) Sexual dimorphism is exciting and convenient (Olm can tell via smell, but part of courtship is checking just in case.)

Sex is confusing. They will want to listen, possibly to touch. Their way involves a lot more dancing and a little lump of material on a jelly stem. Humans can manage the dancing part fairly well; some adventurous Olm might have ideas of what to use as jelly stem. But they'd have to be a very adventurous Olm; humans see them as smooth-skinned, graceful, elegant, and dangerous. They see humans as a kind of goblin. Might be exciting and transgressive (you can smell your partner on you after you're done! What a scandal!). Might just be too weird to consider. Olm form partnerships, fall in love, and made stupid drunk decisions like everyone else.

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