The deserts of the world are arid and inhospitable. Water, the all-soothing foundation of life, is a scarcity, and most living things will do whatever they can to secure it for themselves. Some animals store it in fatty deposits in their bodies, while other plants draw it drop by drop from deep below the sands. And sometimes the sands themselves will play a hand in this high-stakes game of drink or die, coming alive to claim the desert’s most valuable commodity as its own. Known as Oases, these sandy souls spring up around isolated bodies of water, drawing and interweaving this life-giving essence into their bodies, becoming strong enough to stand upright and resist the harsh desert winds. Some theorize an Oasis is an evolved form of sandsprite, while others believe it’s the desert itself racing flora and fauna alike to a new source of water, but whatever their origin the coming of an Oasis can spell boon or bust for all who encounter one.
Oases are a rare occurrence, developing once in a blue moon to monopolize a given source of water- if they appeared more often, other lifeforms would simply dry up and die. They don’t demonstrate any sort of culture, speak any language or serve any but their singular purpose- to grow in size and volume of water collected. The passing of an Oasis can spell disaster for any parched patrons of the desert, as the watering hole that could have saved them from dehydration at a critical moment would be gone before they got there. Conversely, if a group is ready and able to face the lashing sands and piercing water bolts of an Oasis they can strike it dead, the creature immediately collapsing into a fresh and untainted pool of cool water- a reward more valuable than gold or enchanted tools in the right circumstances. An Oasis is rare, and in the heart of the desert they can easily end your life, or save it.
They say a great old evil lurks just beyond the light of the moon, trapped between the sun and stars. A militant force from ages ago set on a campaign of global conquest was forever lost to the world of light; be it from curse or course mischarted. No one can say for certain what force or misfortune sealed them away as they are- as is often the case with legends, living or otherwise- but what’s known to all who walk beyond the sight of the sun is to mind the moonless night, because once a month when the sky is darkest, the men of the No-Moon Army ride again. Clad in clankering articulated armor, their faces masked by hinged grated plates, the No-Moon Army appear from the moonless mists in full-supply, their horses scratching and their siege-engine squealing for fresh oil. A mobile and well-supplied force, the No-Moon Army is a force to be reckoned with, and while they have the practical tactical wisdom of centuries behind them, their greatest asset is the element of surprise.
When they walked freely under the light from above the No-Moon Army traveled far and wide, leaving their mark on every corner of the globe. Since their banishment the army only returns on nights when the moon is absent, and while this is predictable no one can guess where on earth they’ll appear next. Some months they appear in the unsettled wilderness, far from any civilization, but other nights they’ll storm full-force from the mists into the main street of a great city or into the front line of an exhausted battle, their great barbed tower shields deflecting opposition, swords and spears striking down those who stand in the path of their conquest. They fight tirelessly, and when one of their own is felled he will fade back into the mists, leaving no trace but the blood they shed in their wake. The No-Moon Army is an iron-plated force of nature, a storm of blood and steel that can appear anywhere, and those who’ve survived their encounter with this ghastly garrison never forget the night, their pitched battle relived with the coming of each new moon.
No matter how great or powerful a person thinks they are, there will always be a beast even greater and more powerful staking its claim to some unclaimable corner of the earth; a natural hierarchy of humility keeping a sea of egos checked and balanced. Some swim the depths, shattering to splinters and sailing ship who dares challenge their rule, others roam the dark caverns beneath the earth itself, causing tremors that crumble the mighty cities built above. These creatures possess power without peer, but their giant size and indominable constitution doesn’t mean they’re violent or malicious towards other living things. One example of the mighty but humble can be found in the giant Cliffback Tortoises of the chilly western mountains. Standing as tall as many whole buildings, Cliffbacks are docile hardshelled creatures known for their ability to weather harsh weather and navigate rough, uneven terrain that would spell the end of most load-bearing creatures. Possessed of four thick legs spread wide apart, Cliffbacks command solid stability when traversing the mountains, wide enough that they’re unlikely to tip over. These traits along with their passive attitudes have made them one of the few living forces of nature sentient races can harness and utilize for their own benefit.
There’s three ways to cross a mountainrange. You could burn time and go around it, you could pay out the nose and fly over it, or you can hire a Cliffback Rider and go through it. Having harnessed the natural feeding habits of these gargantuan quadrupeds, Cliffback Riders built huge howdahs on their docile shells and direct them across the mountains, offering a ride to any passenger who pays their modest fee. How did they do it? A little observation and ingenuity was all it took to master the Cliffback. There’s two things a Cliffback needs to survive: the rich green vegetation that grows midway up a mountain and the water that flows near its bases. By digging reservoirs of water at key stations on either side of a mountain route the Cliffback Rider can hitch a ride on the naturally-grazing Cliffback and point it where they want to go by positioning the sources of water they’ll inevitably come to in the most convenient places for passenger loading and unloading. They can’t command a beast so big it doesn’t have to listen, so they instead persuade it to climb across the mountains for them. The fare is fair compared to the alternatives, and those who’ve ridden in a Cliffback howdah say the ride is smooth and the view spectacular, citing it as a voyage you’ll want to take at least once in your lifetime.
They say war and conflict are natural elements of life, something encoded within the makeup of all thinking beings. Some would point out that there are plenty of passive, peaceful races among the sentient circles, but such claims to the contrary are often met with argument and rebuttal. A common point in the case against aggression as inevitability, however, is mention of the docile and pleasant Jellybees. A race of friendly floating folks, Jellybees drift along the cross-continental breezes that carry across the great inland lakes with hardly a care in the world. The top half of a Jellybee is roughly the height of a young person, but their long tangle of tendrils can stretch far beneath their slippery skirts. Semi-translucent sentients that they are, Jellybees take on a gentle glow when they soak in the light of a sunbeam, their internal colors mingling in a pleasant potpourri of pinks and purples. Jellybees aren’t aggressive but they’re not idle either, building their homes in the woodland regions surrounding large bodies of freshwater. Always friendly and courteous, Jellybees speak the common tongues and trade freely with their neighbors, specializing in the sale and handling of extremely poisonous reagents. Being extremely poisonous themselves, Jellybees are immune to the stings and effects of a wide range of lethal venom- from fish to snakes to insects and more- and have become expert toxicogists and masters in farming, extracting, bottling and selling these deadly components.
Some would describe their social structure as matriarchal, but Jellybees don’t actually have separate sexes, they simply bear similarity to other races’ familiar female aesthetics. They don’t choose their leaders by sex or gender either, as Jellybee society is small and democratic, each village electing its own mayor in biannual elections. Their architecture is angular and ornate, often utilizing stained glass, wood and smooth stone in their construction. Since Jellybees like to float on the air their buildings often have high ceilings and tall doorways, giving these structures a striking yet functional appearance. Outsiders have commissioned Jellybee architects to design buildings for them, but they often need to remind the architect of their need for stairs, a feature commonly absent in their native civilization. No Jellybee society maintains a standing army, a testament to their non-aggressive lifestyle, but some argue the Jellybees don’t wage war because they don’t need to, not because they don’t want to. Free-floating and full of poisonous barbed tendrils, it is a fool’s errand for a bipedal assailant to approach the Jellybee on her own terms, as their debilitating poison can inflict burning sensations and paralysis within moments of contact. And some still argue that while the Jellybees don’t directly engage in warfare they provide the means for many to kill their fellows through their stock in trade of poisons and natural venom, but Jellybees never market themselves in this way. Venom is a crucial component in antivenom and poisons paradoxically have healing applications- the Jellybees don’t question why a buyer is buying, they’re just happy to be of assistance.
It’s thought by some that all life came from the sea. From our humble roots as tiny fish, they say, every diverging branch of living beings on the planet blossomed. Some fish grew legs and walked out of the sea to become masters of land, while others stayed home and turned into clouds of tiny little cells so they can have strength in impossible numbers. This is the Origin of All Things, as its known to some scholars. And while some creatures became great in size, others great in numbers and more still become great in deed and achievement, some creatures never stood very tall nor ventured far from home, living simple lives within their comfort zones. One such creature is the humble sandsnail, a line of gentle gastropod that make their home along the sandy shores of temperate beaches where it’s neither too hot nor too cold and they’re never far from the sea.
Born in clutches of eggs buried in the gentle arms of the rolling tide, sandsnails lead a lackadaisical lifestyle inching along the edge of life’s cradle. Subsisting on a diet of kelp, dried leaves and fish carrion, sandsnails serve a useful ecological role as cleaners of debris that washes up from the sea or blows over from inland trees. Since they mostly live in the granular environment of the beach, sandsnails secrete a thick mucous from their singular foot to protect their soft bodies from drying out. While their lives are lazy, sandsnails don’t live outside the shadow of danger; being as delicious as they are plentiful, sandsnails are a common snack for large birds and shellfish. And while they can pull themselves inside their large spiral shell, sandsnails’ primary defense is to wriggle their bodies and hide in the sands, their eye stalks peeking out to watch for the passing of predators. And while this works well against simpler creatures, local sentients are not so easily fooled. In addition to being a ready source of protein, sandsnail mucous is an important component in many local waterbreathing potions, and those can fetch a higher price than even a dish of sauteed sandsnail, sausage and peppers served on a plate of pasta- a local favorite along some sunny shorelines.
If you’re travelling the old roads of the wooded eastern hills be mindful where you step, they say. These tired trade routes are well-worn, having been beaten by hoof, wheel, foot and slither, and they see a lot of traffic by traders great and small every day. You won’t have any trouble hearing the Seeker’s wagon squeal down the road from you, or catching the scent of the Goldclaw’s wares as he approaches from behind, no. It’s the little ones- the wee folk- you need to be mindful of when you run the old routes, and that goes double for the tiniest of tiny traders, the Sporefolk. Growing no taller than your typical mushroom, Sporefolk are bright and friendly fellows who are quite fond of trade and travel. Dressed in dusty rags, the diminutive daywalkers maintain small villages in the mossy wet soil along common trade routes. Their huts are build from leaf and stick, meant to be temporary but not built so ramshackle as to collapse under harsh weather- a Sporefolk village is a village on the move, but when it’s set up it’s built to stay. Sporefolk love baked dirtcake wrapped in grass and will prepare some for the long journeys they live to take, keeping them in the little backpacks and satchels they often wear.
Above all other things, Sporefolk live to trade. They brave the old roads and thundering footfall of creatures many times their own size to deal in their favorite stock, the spreading of seeds. Some travel far and wide in search of rare breeds of flora, collecting pollen and other reproduceables to barter with more experienced herbalists and botanists. One of the only races to work with the industrious Seedhoppers, Sporefolk act as hunters and gatherers to feed the Seedhoppers’ industrious agricultural innovation. Sporefolk have helped find, develop and spread many strains of flavorful foodplant and rare, sweet-smelling flowers in their dealings with Goldclaw florists, who themselves have been known to simply eat the tiny traders after a deal is done. This is a hazard of the job the Sporefolk are well-equipped for, however. As many folks will unwittingly squash a Sporefolk under the rattling carriage of their cart, mistakenly step on them or simply pluck them up to cook and eat themselves, Sporefolk traders suffer a high mortality rate. But as a Sporefolk walks to and fro, they litter their surroundings with their own tiny spores, totally unbeknownst to themselves or anyone else. So whether one ends up a dirtpath pancake or a seasoning on a steak, a dozen more may pop up in their wake to continue their long and treacherous tradition of trading seeds and spores for other, different seeds and spores. So as hazardous as their job may be, they’ll always be enough of them to continue onward.
In the rolling green tide of a pleasant, grassy meadow- kissed by the sun on a breezy spring day- it’s not uncommon to see a mist of white pollen drift lazily across the sky. And if you’re in the right field at the right time, it won’t be uncommon to see a clutch of delightful Dandylions leaping and pawing at the drifting dander either. Springing up like adorable weeds, Dandylions blossom when the winter ice thaws and the seasons breathe new life into the countryside. These palm-sized plants grow from the soft soil by their little tails and when they’re fully grown they’ll uproot and wave their roots around like a tuft of fur, pushing them back into the soil at night to soak up moisture and nutrients. Dandylions are photogenic creatures, drawing nourishment from the sun, and while they don’t actually possess a digestive tract they’re quite fond of chasing and snapping up small flies and other bothersome bugs. Botanists believe the Dandylion doesn’t chase insects for food, it does this for the simple sake of frolicking fun.
Dandylions are short-lived but adaptable critters, their lifespan stretching from the coming of spring to the sunset of summer when plants begin to wilt and prepare for the cold winter months to come. A young Dandylion sprouts with a skinny little body and a bright bulb around its head, which blossoms when the tiny creature reaches maturity and is ready to uproot. It has a simple life ahead of it, its days filled with fun and frolicking in the fair fields it finds itself awakening in. Being the weeds that they are few animals find the Dandylion terribly tasty, but an absence in predators doesn’t permit these floral felines from exploding into overpopulation. When summer ends and fall approaches, the Dandylion’s bright golden mane fades to a white fuzz, the fat cats’ everyday energy giving way to a more lackadaisical lifestyle. As the leaves turn and begin to fall, the Dandylion will enjoy the cooler months watching the sunset from the crest of a hill. And as the wind carries its collar of pollen to disperse and settle into the soil, ready to weather the winter weather to come, the tired old Dandylion closes its little eyes and quietly drifts to sleep, content in the comfortable life it lived.
The air around them squirms in disgust; the earth weeps under their feet. They hail from the bubbling glowing wastelands no other creature dares set foot, breathing noxious fumes and dripping a sickly spattered green. They’re called the Sludge Raiders in the common tongues, and they’re always given wide berth. Beings of bad posture and worse manners, Sludge Raiders are born and bred to be rude and crude, raised in the ramshackle city of Rust Harbor, on an island long-abandoned and even longer-avoided by sentient shipping routes. They’ve got good reason to avoid Rust Harbor and its deranged denizens too, as it’s said the Sludge Raiders put the “vile” back in “violent”. Armed with great rusting iron boats and irradiated greensteel cutlasses, the Sludge Raiders have been known to lash out and attack any vessels they manage to broadside; not for treasure or for plunder, but mostly just for the thrill of the fight. Next to fighting, the Sludge Raiders love little more than a good and proper party, their unique brand of electric rhythms pulsing and blaring around their ships and slipshod settlements courtesy of rare, powered instruments left by ancestors long-passed.
The south seas weren’t always terrorized by these toxic troublemakers. In fact, their civilization started with noble intentions, as their race- rich with resources as they were- built a great city of steel powered by their discovered means of harnessing the crackling force of lightning that rains down from the sky. They developed different ways to generate and store electricity, incorporating them into their cities and their sailing vessels. But somewhere along the line, something happened. No one can say for certain where it all fell apart, as the south sea civilization lived in relative isolation, but their technology decayed and leaked and poisoned the land, wilting crops, killing wildlife and turning the seas around Rust Harbor a thick and sickly green. Many lives were lost, but those who survived were changed by the poison that scarred the earth, their minds bent and warped until they knew only the primal thrill of adrenaline. And so the Sludge Raiders were born, heirs to rusting ancient technology powered by interminable toxic means, these makeshift marauders live to party and fight well into the night. Most other nations would do well to leave them to their isotopic isolation, but in recent years the Sludge Raiders have grown more ambitious in their piracy, and it’s feared they’ve developed an eye for expansion, spreading their polluted population onto the mainland continents; and there’s not a creature alive who wants to see those ambitions bear their rotten, glowing fruit.
If you want something done right you’ve got to do it yourself. If you need something done right, on time and under budget, however, you’ve got to call in professional help. And if you need something built, dug, designed or constructed there’s no better folks to hire than the Hardscale Labor Union. Distant cousins of the Barleymages, Hardscales are a race of diminutive bipedal lizardfolk with four-fingered hands, stubby little tails and impeccable work ethic. Unlike their secretive beer-brewing relatives, Hardscales are very public about their trade, soliciting work in every city or frontier they’ve established a local union. These laborious lizards have efficient metabolisms, so a little food gives them a lot of energy to work off. They come with their own tents and set up space-efficient barracks of bunks to sleep in; on a typical project Hardscales will work in three shifts around the clock, each section of workers coming pre-adjusted to their assigned sleep cycle so they always work safe and refreshed. The catch to hiring the Hardscale Labor Union is when you hire one you hire them all, but you couldn’t buy more bang for your buck if you tried.
So what sort of jobs do you hire the Hardscales to work on? In a few words, big jobs. Hardscales have had a hand in the raising of barns and brick buildings, they’ve paved roadways in wealthy urban centers, dug underground irrigation systems, constructed subterranean military outposts and restored ancient castles to their former glory. Some cities boast elaborate hand-carved stonework gates to greet all comers, and many of these have the Hardscales to thank for the task. They’re tiny so they can fit into tight places well, but heavier projects may require some of the larger races to enlist their services. A perk of hiring the Hardscale Labor Union, though, is they’ll handle all subcontracting hassles themselves, assuring you they deliver the job on-time and safe as possible- and if there’s one thing the Hardscales emphasize it’s safety. All Hardscales wear bright yellow bands on their uniforms and carry candles not so much to see in the dark as to alert all other workers to their presence whether they’re hauling rock or knocking down walls. Hardscales will refuse work if it’s too dangerous for their strict system of safety precautions, either for environmental hazards (like poisonous mineshaft excavation) or occupational ones (like reverse-engineering highly-secretive foreign technology). They’re not much for fighting and they don’t deal in magic, but if you need a job done clean and proper, always remember: Do It Right, Work All Night- Hire a Hardscale Labor Union Today.
For large, predatory creatures patrolling the rolling plains near the feet of great mountains, a colorful constant may be a common sight amidst the sunbeams and greens, standing out in sharp contrast from its surroundings, begging to be felled and eaten. It looks delicious, and defenseless too- it almost seems too good to be true. A bright, bleating sight for sore eyes, the Yap doesn’t seem like an animal long for this world. Lacking in horns, claws, size or numbers, these banded beasts are socially solitary, rarely seen in numbers greater than two or three. They’re slow to move and often seen grazing on mouthfuls of grass, never looking to be in a hurry to run anywhere. Yaps owe their name to the sharp, pitiable pleats and bleats they cry out with suspicious frequency and echo with the precise inflection of the lost and helpless. Nothing about these creatures appears threatening, and for all intents and purposes the Yap should have gone extinct generations ago. But things aren’t always as they appear, and appearances only run skin deep…
No predator walking the plains is so callous and efficient a killer as the Yap, they’re simply not equipped to compete with such a dangerous animal. Every aspect of the Yap’s physiology is designed for peak predation- their unmistakable bleating cries can be heard for miles; their vibrant markings, slow gait and solitary numbers tickle just the right brainfruits to appear an ideal meal. If this wasn’t enticing enough, the hairs of their pink manes and tails swish and spread pheromones all around them, making the hungry feel hungrier. For many it’s simply too much to resist, and they’ll leap and bite and go for the kill, only to sink their teeth into an incredibly-thick layer of dense skin bristling with venomous little hairs. Yap venom is extremely potent- favored among sentient assassins, in fact- and moments after realizing their mistake a would-be predator collapses at the foot of this unlikely killer. Yaps have omnivorous tooth patterns; while their back teeth are excellent for chewing grass- kindling to set their digestive fluids alight- their front teeth are designed to cut and tear meat, and fortunately for them a good warm entree is never far away. So long as hunters hunt and predators prey, the Yap will endure and thrive as the fat, sheep-skinned wolf among wolves that they are.