There are two basic groups of humans in the jungle: the Ancients, and the Natives. However, in reality, humanity is a bit more fractured than this and a few smaller sub-groups also exist (the Redeemed, Giants, Mountain Ghosts, and others). One such group deserves special note because they are as widespread as the Natives, and even older than the Ancients. These are the Pygmies. While the Ancients and the Natives both refer to themselves as “The People”, Pygmies refer to themselves as “The Cursed Tribes” or sometimes “The Cursed”. Ancients and Natives refer to them as Pygmies when being polite, and “filthy cannibal midgets” (among other ruder terms) most of the time.
Neither the Ancients nor the Natives know exactly what action resulted in the Pygmies being cursed. However, it is clear that they are indeed human. They are smaller (a mere 3-feet tall), and completely unable to wield magic. Divine, arcane, psionic, innate, learned, even via rituals, it makes no difference—the Cursed Tribes simply cannot do it. In addition, they are vicious, low-technology, cruel cannibals who prefer to eat human flesh in preference to any other form of food. It is unclear if these tendencies are a result of the curse, or perhaps what lead to it. It is even less clear whether or not the Cursed Tribes themselves know what lead to their curse.
One sub-group of Pygmies, back near the beginning of the Ancient’s Empire, did find a way to partially undo the changes. These are known as the Redeemed, and tend to be slightly taller (by 4 to 6 inches), and just as magically inclined as the Ancients themselves. The Cursed Tribes despise the Redeemed, and will go to extreme lengths to kill them. None of the Redeemed have ever claimed to know what caused the original curse. They will not speak to other humans about how they redeemed themselves, saying only that it was very personal, very private, and even after so many generations not something they are willing to discuss. Divination on both the curse and redemption has always failed. Torture has produced literally dozens of answers, all contradictory. Neither skilled nor magical lie detection has helped sort them out. What little is known is that the province of Nightmare’s End, and its capital city of the same name, are named that because they are the physical location where the act of redemption happened. The province has become a beacon for pygmies who travel from very far away to slaughter the Redeemed.
As stated, the Cursed Tribes stand only 3-foot tall and look very pale compared to the Natives and the Ancients. While not white-skinned by any means, they are closer to pink than red. Hair is still usually black, but sometimes dark brown. They have a rather high percentage of albinos. Their eyes are completely unique among any known creature. Color is red, amber, or green, with a horizontal slit pupil (like a goat, not vertical like a cat). This doesn’t alter their perception in any significant way, but is quite disturbing.
Hair is typically either cropped very short, or worn in dreadlocks. Warriors in particular will braid their hair into hundreds of strands, or grow dreadlocks, then tip each one with a bone, metal, shell, or carved stone bead. When a large group runs at once, the clatter is extremely unique and cannot be mistaken for anything else. It’s not loud enough to spoil their chance at a hunt, but it has a chilling effect on Natives and Ancients who know that a cannibal war party is coming to eat them. Non-combatants are more likely to have very close cropped hair, rarely even as long as the ears. A position unique to the Pygmy upper-class, the courtesan, is always denoted by a shaved head. To shave a warrior’s head means that the warrior has been claimed as someone’s sex toy. Interestingly, they are completely immune to balding as a mark of old-age.
The Pygmies are also very fond of bodily piercings, tattoos, and carved teeth. Piercings are common on the tongue, nipples, eyebrow, lips, chest genitals, and even the scalp. Piercings are usually bone, but custom-carved metal piercings are a mark of wealth and power. Tattoos are used for many things, but most often to mark social rank and personal accomplishments. So after a raid, all the participants would get a similar swirl added to their body to mark their victory. All the members of a tribe are marked with a symbol that represents the tribe, and another for their own place in society, their family, and their life’s role. When a Pygmy dies, they are often skinned, and their tattoos tanned and preserved as a permanent record of their life. These tattoos are always symbolic, and are simple swooshes, swirls and wedges. Never pictures or words. Still, they can be read by a skilled artist. Other tattoos, typically pictorial, represent major personal events, like a vision quest, or a singular enemy overcome, or a personal spirit guide (while the Pygmies cannot use magic, they are very fond of taking lots of drugs and getting possessed by spirits).
Names are a mix of words and sounds. When words are used they are almost always violent. But it is more common for them to take a word, and then slur it or twist it into a sound. So while a Native might be named Killmaim, a Pygmy would play with the sounds and create something like “Kee’lema”, “K’Lilma’m”, or “Kilmlaym”. Children are all given violent words as names at birth and go by those names until they experience the coming of age ceremony. During that ceremony they (more accurately the entities that possess them as part of the ritual) distort their own names and the resulting sound is what they go by as an adult.
Coming of age is identical for both men and women. It is a brutal, vicious ordeal that kills about one in 20 (by comparison, death in childbirth claims one in 15, so it is only slightly safer than being born a second time). The ritual comes about at a time determined by the tribe’s chief but always in the spring. All the children line up oldest to youngest and the chief walks down the line. At some point the chief stops and all the children older than the one so marked are taken off to be made into adults. The children are drugged using specially crafted chemicals that open them to demonic possession. They are then tortured, beaten, starved, and exposed to more drugs until the demon is driven out, or they die, whichever comes first. Those who force the demon out fastest are made warriors, those who do not have the strength of will to stand up for themselves either die, or become slaves. In general, anyone who is free of possession by the first dawn after being possessed is a warrior. Sometimes this is extended to the second dawn if the demon in question is shown to be particularly powerful. The rest become slaves.
The dividing of the slaves works rather like a lottery. All the powerful slave owning warriors, and each of the settlement’s shamans take turns picking. The chief goes first and each time around may pick two. The rest go in an order established by bullying, intimidation, and the occasional duel/murder. Shamans typically have the option to go after the chief, before anyone else, but they may only select one slave per year, and in practice only take one every few years, as potential apprentices are few and far between. Typically, the first few picks are those who will become courtesans, and they are picked for their appearance. After that, it’s hard labor for the rest. Those who are strong enough have typically worked themselves free within 5 years, and can become a warrior or try to convince a shaman to apprentice them.
Warriors are free right from the start, and are immediately taken to the tribe’s warrior lodge for indoctrination. The best of the best are taken by the chief to join the village’s champions (who act as the chief’s personal enforcers).
Children are raised communally. Most children have a warrior father and a slave or courtesan mother. Female warriors try to avoid pregnancy as their enemies are likely to take the opportunity to kill them, while their allies are likely to look down on then as being weakened. Pregnant slaves have to be taken away from their masters to the warrior lodge to protect them, as their weakened state provokes violence from those around them. Warriors who do get pregnant, either induce a miscarriage, or leave the settlement and live alone in the woods until after the child is born. Sometimes they abandon the child, but usually they bring it back to the lodge. On the whole, children have a place in society above that of slaves, but below the warriors. They are not thought of positively by warriors, who see them as weak, needy, annoying, and a drain on resources that could be better spent on themselves. However, warlords recognize them as potential warriors, which if not much is at least better than a slave.
After birth, they remain in the warrior lodge under the care of the alchemists, while their mother returns to her duties. They mostly live in burrows beneath the lodge and are cared for by slaves donated to the alchemists by warlords. One or more courtesans are always in charge of a settlement’s crèche. The shrine guards train them in basic combat and try to make them ready for the rigors of the adulthood ceremony. In larger settlements and cities, there may be several such crèches scattered about, but they are always affiliated with a shrine.
This tradition has no particularly religious or social symbolism. Speculation is that the Pygmies are so jealous and vicious that they have lost nearly all ability to nurture. Making child rearing an obligation of the most responsible members of society was simply a survival technique. It has been observed that among those who don’t take their children to the crèche, most mothers simply abandoned their children to die, and most warriors kill off large numbers of pregnant slaves for not being able to do their work properly.
It is theoretically possible for a child to determine who its parents are, but this sort of behavior is outside of their thought processes. They don’t look down on it, or anything like that, it’s simply like describing the color blue to someone colorblind. No frame of reference exists for the concept to have any significance. They wouldn’t even waste the effort to puzzle over the reason why someone would care.
With the advent of the demonic hybrids in Nightmare’s End, heritage has become slightly relevant to a small number of Pygmies. However, even there, the demons care about lineage vastly more than the Pygmies themselves. The Pygmies judge a warrior by that warrior’s merits, not by parentage. Since they do not care about their own society or its long term goals, and it is too late to change one’s own parentage, encouraging more powerful lineages seems illogical. Worse, if pointed out to a Pygmy, they are more likely to go about slaughtering healthy children than encouraging the breeding of more of them. This is to prevent the rise of rivals with more power than themselves.
The Cursed Tribes support themselves primarily by hunting and raiding. They are notably poor craftsmen, and any important tools must be made by captured Native slaves, or stolen. Due to their small size, capturing weapons and armor is not very easy as few Natives make gear in such sizes, so they tend to modify what they take. This mostly involves breaking it and remounting, or resizing.
They are extremely skilled hunters, very stealthy raiders, and typically have enough slaves to augment their meat with vegetables and alcohol. As a result, most villages have no real use for trade. Even among each other they prefer to raid. Unlike Native and Ancient battles, which are fought primarily for honor, these are vicious and dirty. Night fighting is relatively common, as are ambushes. Losers typically resort to any unseemly behavior to spoil the victory, such as slaughtering their own slaves so they can’t be taken, spoiling their own food, burning down the village, unleashing alchemical poisons and diseases, and so forth. After a particularly brutal defeat, it is not uncommon for survivors to attempt revenge in the most vile manner they can devise.
Cities, in contrast, are usually large enough that they need external support. As a result, they exact tribute from surrounding villages. The villages in turn raid those farther out, in order to gain the goods needed to pay the tribute. This pressure ensures that a city always has the most powerful warriors, and the villages closest to a city are always more powerful than those farther away (else they couldn’t raid and would be destroyed or enslaved by the city). The cities are typically far enough away from each other that no meaningful amount of trade exists, but each does typically specialize in some form of power, be it alliances with demons, great alchemists, famous warriors, or whatnot. This power is often shared among the city inhabitants and warriors and lords from various tribes and far away cities travel from place to place to learn the secrets and exploit this power back home where no one else can match it.
Pygmies do not mint coins or trade bars. They long ago adopted a standard based around dipping fangs from dangerous animals into valuable metals. The larger the fang, the rarer the metal, the more valuable the resulting “coin”. These are more often used in barter than as an accepted standard value. The cities usually have enough in circulation that something approaching a standard has evolved just by simplicity. When real coins and trade bars are acquired, they are typically traded to an alchemist who melts them down and uses them to create “money”.
In addition to the fangs, Pygmies are best known as headhunters. Indeed, their towns are covered in skull decorations and they wear skulls for hats. Additionally, while fangs work as coinage, they make decorated skulls as trade bars. These are often encrusted with gems, and have a removable cap, where more gems and fangs are stored. Human skulls are by far and away the most valuable. Native skulls are large enough to be problematic to transport in any number, so Pygmy skulls are actually spent more often, but Native skulls are the real markers of value.
Those northern tribes who interact with the lizardmen have become extremely fond of their bone runesticks. Due to the Cursed Tribes inability to create any but the most rudimentary (and thus low-value) runesticks due to their lack of magic, these are highly prized. Typically they go for 20% to 50% above what a lizardman would rate them. The southern tribes have not yet been introduced to this form of currency. The coastal tribes who have met with the Sea Devils have introduced their dipped-tooth currency to the aquatic dragon spawn. Sea Devils are particularly fond of the technique and are all but unable to reproduce it due to their lack of metallurgy. They have, however, a massive supply of aquatic fangs of particularly exotic nature. This has led to a system of trade where the Sea Devils trade raw fangs for dipped ones and both sides profit. Sea Devils have begun experimenting with decorated sea monster skulls as well, but while considered beautiful, these have lower trade value than human skulls.
The economy on a grand-level is best described as a barely functioning feudalism. Tribute and slavery are the main engines of wealth and power. To rule, one must have the strength to kill off rivals using any means (though one who cannot fight personally must somehow find loyal bodyguards, a very difficult task indeed), thus unlike other human civilizations the rulers are virtually always the most powerful combatants of the race. Slaves, especially courtesans and Natives, are a tremendous marker of wealth. Which is not to say they are treated with the protectiveness one would expect of an item of such value. Still, slaves are the most visual measure of the economic health of a settlement.
Alchemy and Magic are their second highest value treasures. Such items command prices double normal as they can rarely be created and must be stolen. Alchemists are nearly always enslaved by the lords and forced to toil endlessly to make new treasures. Since these creations are virtually all consumed upon use, there is a constant gnawing drive to create more and more.
The Cursed Tribes are extremely poor architects. They do enjoy conquering and enslaving whole Native villages, and moving into old ruins, but building on such a scale is typically beyond them. What they do build is made from a combination of wood and stone. Wood is more common simply because it is much more freely available. Bone and hides are very commonly incorporated making structures appear tent-like.
Villages always have fences or walls. The most powerful members of the settlement live toward the center, as those are the most protected areas. If any stone is used it is most likely in the houses of the leaders, then the other powerful members of the tribe, and only after that is it used to protect the village as a whole. Even though it would be much safer for the village to have a stone wall, the Cursed Tribes (especially the leaders) care much more about protecting themselves than protecting each other.
Because of their weak skills, they tend to work with nature rather than against it. Thus caves and similar naturally defensible positions are their favorites. Nearly all of their villages make extensive use of subterranean lairs. Many of their houses are larger below ground than above. Where they can use slaves to build for them, they will. In these cases they try to go as ostentatious as possible. Interestingly enough, they are extremely uneasy with their reduced size. As a result, their structures appear to be built for people who are 5-feet tall or more, but furnished for those only 3-feet tall. Leaders make extreme use of stairs and platforms to put themselves physically higher than their visitors.
When they occupy a ruin they leave the buildings sized for Natives, and just alter the furniture for themselves. Again, the leaders install steps and platforms to ensure they are always higher than anyone who meets with them. Most will force Natives to kneel in their presence, but a few actually raise their thrones so high, and/or sink the surrounding area so low, that they are taller than a standing Native.
The most impressive Pygmy villages are found in the northern mountains. Because of the presence of so many dangerous dragon spawn, they had to find suitable natural defenses. Thus they learned to build directly on the cliff sides. These structures are supported by huge logs driven deep into the stone. They are entirely wooden ovals, sometimes as much as 30-feet tall, looking like great sails against the walls. Rope and bamboo bridges connect the platforms to each other. There are almost always caves carved into the rock in addition. Slaves live in the exposed platforms while the Pygmies themselves live in the caves. Smaller structures on the ground support the settlement. Alchemical workshops, tanneries, forges, and other things that are too flammable to risk up in the air.
In all cases decorations are primarily bone and weapons. Slaves are impaled on spikes and left to rot. Then their skeletons are tied by thongs so they remain on the spike. Pillars of skulls, giant mounted hunting beasts, captured weapons too big to wield, and so forth. Some hides are taken and put into wooden frames and used as decoration as well. Typically these are from other Pygmies (due to the life story in the tattoos), drakes or dinosaurs. Rarer are those with markings placed on them after tanning, though alchemists and leaders both commission these. Statues are very rare, since stone is usually taken by the leaders and used to protect their homes, but totem poles are found in and around every settlement. Those slaves who can carve them are highly valued.
The Cursed Tribes typically wear leather despite the heat. Slaves wear loincloths and nothing more (both sexes). Courtesans and no one else, wear linen, typically in fashions resembling Greek Togas, Traditional (full, not just at the waist) Scottish Kilts, or Indian Saris. Warriors wear patchwork leather armor covered in spikes and studs that looks like it was made for a psychotic dominatrix, big decorated shields, and a small fanged mask. Alchemists are marked in public by very tall demonically marked wooden masks (think tiki masks from hell). Leaders wear leather armor, but typically with bone rather than blade decorations. Theirs is also typically more breathable than their warriors, often featuring a bare chest (again, both sexes).
Both men and women wear jewelry equally. This includes ear rings, necklaces, bracelets, armbands, rings, and hair decoration. Unlike other branches of humanity, the Cursed Tribes do not use jewelry to enhance beauty, but rather to denote wealth and enhance intimidation. As a result, jewelry is often a marker of class. Slaves and weak warriors typically have simple bone and dyed wood jewelry. Warriors wear shrunken heads, carved crystal skulls, miniature weapons used like beads, and so forth. Alchemically gold- and silver-plated body piercings or armor spikes are also popular. A few tribes have found ways to drill into the bone and implant silver spikes and blades directly into the body. These are especially popular on the arms and fists.
The only exception to this is the courtesan class who actually wear stolen Native jewelry in a manner that could be described as beautiful. A powerful Pygmy often bedecks his or her courtesans with a great deal of stolen jewelry. The courtesans are usually given free rein to dress themselves, so long as they please their owner. As a result, they don’t wear nearly as much as they own, but do wear a bit more than the average Native or Ancient.
Necklaces are usually simple but gaudy. Usually one ridiculously large object (a full-sized skull, or axe head) is surrounded by a number of beads or other smaller decorations. Other times a series of objects about 2/3 the size of the wearer’s palm are strung together. Raptor skulls, or carved beads held in eagle talons are very popular in this style.
Earrings are usually simple but large. They are nearly always skulls, fangs, or weapons. Courtesans wear earrings that may be beads, hoops, or chains. A very few, particularly wealthy courtesans might wear custom-made gold or silver weapons as earrings.
Head gear actually varies depending on the circumstances. Out in the wild, warriors either go bareheaded or wearing a tiki mask. Around town, they tend to wear caps made of a single skull with a very simple leather harness to hold it in place. These are carefully crafted to retain the fangs and teeth and all of the skull’s hard edges, but to not interfere with the wearer’s movement. Indeed, it often looks like the wearer’s hair is growing out of the base of the skull, and the best caps would, if crafted in a size for Natives, be extremely popular among non-Pygmy warriors. Much like the crafters of Totem Poles, those slaves who can make the most elegant and vicious caps are highly prized and can expect almost a normal lifespan.
Linens are nearly always stolen. The cities tend to have so many courtesans that a local slave master will employ Natives to make cloth, but in a village such a thing would be an absurd luxury. It does happen, but very rarely. Leather is the primary clothing material and comes in a great variety of weights and colors. The Cursed Tribes use any form of leather they can get their hands on, including human skin (their own as well as Native). Serpent and bird leather can be very thin and soft, while drake leathers are best suited to armor or boots. Decorations come from quills, bones, scales, teeth, and feathers, but as always are intended to intimidate.
The Cursed Tribes don’t really wage war as such. They are constantly violent, and unleash this on their neighbors pretty much whenever they can. The exception to this is the inexplicable, nearly suicidal rage and loathing they direct at the Redeemed. Nothing in the history of the world matches this.
The behavior of the attackers in a raid really varies based on the goals. Sometimes they just want to inflict pain on someone and really don’t care about profit or victory. Sometimes they are looking for food. Other times they are trying to conquer or eradicate a neighbor.
If they are looking for plunder, they will move fast. Typically the attacking force spreads out and hits the settlement from all sides. They use paralytic poisons on enemy warriors, start fires, turn livestock loose to run about in a panic, and as soon as any given warrior has as much loot or food or slaves as are easily portable, they pull out. This means that the raid tends to begin very violently, then slowly dwindles, as the defenders organize, and the attackers vanish. The most powerful warriors typically get the best loot the fastest, so the longer the raid goes on the less likely a defender will have to face skilled enemies.
A conquest or complete slaughter is typically handled in three stages. First, attacking scouts try to take out as many guards as possible without alerting the town, while the main attack force gets as close as it can. As soon as an alert is sounded, or when the attackers reach the village wall, the stealth part ends. At this stage, the attackers all rush straight to the heart of the settlement burning and killing everyone they see. The goal is to trap the leaders in their own homes while burning them down. If the defenders cause enough casualties, the attackers retreat, doing as much collateral damage as they can. If the attackers burn down the leaders’ homes, they then start trying to secure a perimeter and enslave or kill everyone else in town. Scouts will then track down anyone who fled over the next day or two.
Against Natives and Ancients, these raids are slightly altered because the council hall is less important than the warrior lodge. Additionally, the warrior lodges are typically so well defended that a direct assault is suicide. If they have sufficient numbers they will assault it anyway. But normally they have to resort to a half-assault half-siege. In such cases, they will split into two groups. Half or more try to use alchemical weapons on the lodge to taint the air supply, block off the windows, and suffocate everyone inside. They will try to force the defenders out one entrance where they will use smoke and poison to gain the upper hand. Meanwhile, the remainder will rampage through town indiscriminately looking for groups of Natives and crushing or dispersing them. Once the battle for the Warrior Lodge is won or lost, the whole group will then establish a perimeter and kill or enslave everyone inside, then track down the refugees as normal.
When raiding for the sake of pure violence, they tend to run in attacking and burning anything they see. As soon as a reasonable defense appears, they charge headlong into it. Win or lose, after this first fight they scatter and go home, typically looting if they think they can get away with it.
Warrior lodges as such don’t exist among the Cursed Tribes. Instead, different powerful warriors hoard combat techniques and training as a form of treasure. There is typically a single large building referred to as “the warrior lodge” in which all the tribe’s warriors gather. This is where the new warriors are taken after the adulthood ceremony. In order to keep the chief and rivals from slaughtering each other while in such close proximity, the center of this structure is always the settlement’s shrines. The chief and any other free warrior who wishes is given a room off of one of these shrines. The new warriors are divvied up here among those with rooms in a manner identical to the slaves, except that the shamans don’t participate this time around.
Weapons are quite primitive, but still above what one finds with the lizardmen. Nearly all adults are familiar with the use of the spear, hand axe, and blowgun and have at least a spear in easy reach of every entrance to their home. Again, most everyone not only knows how to use a shield, but has one conveniently located in their home. Warriors use a great variety of polearms which are really just normal Human-sized weapons with the blades broken off and remounted on a spear-shaft so the smaller Pygmy can wield it two-handed. Oversized knives and swords that resemble cleavers are very popular as well. All warriors are trained in the use of poison even if they don’t use it regularly. Bows are quite rare, crossbows much less so. Unlike the Natives, Pygmies still know how to make basic crossbows. These are typically light or hand crossbows, and nearly always fire alchemically-enhanced bolts. The most fearsome tribes, from Nightmare’s End, also ride on enormous jumping spiders, and these arboreal “knights” are a great threat even to groups of powerful warriors. The most popular dueling weapons are bladed gauntlets and other faux-natural weapons. Alchemical items that kill are not uncommon, though not as well developed as those found among the lizardmen and dragon spawn due to the lack of magic with which to enhance them. Alchemists are best known for their ability to create flasks that let them breathe fire. As this causes damage to the mouth and teeth, very few warriors care to use them, but nearly all alchemists go into battle with a gourd of firewater and a torch.
Armor is reminiscent of Greek and Roman gladiators interpreted by a S&M-addicted serial killer. If a bit of leather can have spikes or blades, it probably does. They wear leather, even in the heat as a way to show off their fighting prowess. Metal armor is exceedingly rare, though some have stolen the leaf armors made in Elwood and Haven. Shields and masks are the most prominent feature of Cursed Tribe’s armor. Warriors often wear small, fanged tiki masks instead of helms in battle, though most warriors and all chiefs do go bareheaded. The masks are typically alchemically treated to be sturdier and lighter than normal wood. They are particularly fierce looking and do affect the morale of most enemies. Shields are typically leather and wood and intended mostly to protect against enemy ranged weapons and to deflect, rather than block, melee strikes. They are always decorated and have totems or other good luck charms hanging from them. A given warrior tends to have four or more at home, and some will have slaves bring spares to a fight simply because they are easily broken.
The chieftain’s personal soldiers are often decked out in a unique design of armor and shield, almost like a uniform. These can incorporate piercings, colored tattoos, painted armor, special materials, and so forth. They are occasionally based thematically on some predatory animal. These warriors are always the most powerful in the village or city, and they have the best gear. They are also very prideful and vengeful, and jealously protect their place at the top. Their armor is a symbol of their chief’s power. In cities, due to the conflicting power centers, there tend to be several “gangs” that each control a different section of town, and the presence of these uniformed warriors marks territory.
Unlike other branches of humanity, the Cursed Tribes are almost entirely devoted to demons. They view gods as weak and judgmental. Many of their stories involve the divine forces acting foolish and “soft” and being crushed by infernal powers, or about a warrior misled into trusting a celestial being and suffering for it. They see demons are strong, cruel, and worthy of adulation. Warriors seek to become as close to them as possible. Interestingly enough, they don’t approve of possession as such, since that is a loss of the self. They crave the power for themselves, they don’t want a demon to steal their life from them.
Most settlements have two to five shrines dedicated to various infernal beings. The local alchemists double as shamans, and maintain these. During adulthood ceremonies it is important to determine whether the possessing spirit called is affiliated with one of the local shrines or an outsider. In the case of a local demon, that being tends to be adopted as the patron of the adult Pygmy, as it is seen that the new adult has earned the being’s respect by fighting it off. If the entity is an outsider, or not a demon (just an undead or other spirit for example), then no such bond is formed. Indeed, warriors tend to take such an entity as a chosen enemy to seek out and destroy.
These shrines are the center of many small rituals which are mostly bribes offered in return for the power to claim a desired object. Worship as such, and devotion, are completely foreign to the Cursed Tribes and marks of the weakness of the celestials. They do not believe that the unseen world can read thoughts or hear prayers except if a person is possessed. As a result, they tend to assume that celestial beings possess almost all Natives and Ancients, since they so often see them praying. Instead, they hold that the icons of a demon are a magical item by which the demon can interact with the world at large. Thus rituals performed near an icon (symbol, runes, statue, etc) are likely to be perceived by the demon, who may or may not decide to act. A good bribe or sacrifice is the best way to secure a boon. Asking to hurt someone else is always seen as more likely to bring results than asking for personal gain.
There are three demons who have shrines in all of the provinces, and all three are for certain found in all cities. These three are the Yelling Ghoul, Kill-Rot-Trick, and The-Risen-Doom. In the mountains of Nightmare’s End, live many Pygmy tribes who revere the foul dragon Jet as if she were a demon prince. These use bones and other death motifs, and her symbol among them is a draconic or drake skull with glowing black pools for eyes. Kill-Rot-Trick is a demon prince devoted to malicious pranks, theft, and the weak defeating the strong by guile and cunning, his symbol is a spider with a Pygmy’s head. Yelling-Ghoul is the most brutal and rapacious of the demons they revere, and is the patron of both warriors and alchemists alike. He is seen to transform any part of the world he touches into a weapon with which to kill. Alchemists duplicate this transformation and warriors the destruction. He is completely devoid of reason, a pure engine of destruction and violence. The-Risen-Doom is actually a deity, though the Pygmies think he is a demon lord. Revered primarily by abominations and deranged cults dedicated to the end of all creation, he is said to be imprisoned or lost in the depths of time. Stories of pending apocalyptic battles and destruction are his hallmarks.
The most defining characteristic of the Cursed Folk is that they cannot cast any spells at all. This means that they could, in theory, take levels in spell-casting classes, but would not gain any spell casting as a result. A very few do take levels in classes that give spell casting as a secondary ability, but this is rare. Even with a template or prestige class they cannot use any Supernatural or Spell-Like abilities, rendering most significantly weaker than usual.
Warriors rarely have NPC class levels simply because the ones with PC levels will kill them off. The most common multi-class options include anything that gives stealth, but almost no stealthy or skilled class is taken as primary, again because the warriors will kill them off. The few who do exist operate primarily in the big cities as assassins attached to the feuding chiefs. The Shamans of Jet in Nightmare’s End also have some pure stealth-types they train in the draconic arts.
Slaves tend to have NPC classes, though a few do pick up a level here or there in a fighting class just to survive. The exceedingly rare few who make it to prominence tend to multiclass in such a way as to improve their craft work, and to take advantage of their influence with the other slaves.
Courtesans are almost all of classes that give diplomatic skills and abilities. They are safe enough that a few will take levels in a class with secondary magical abilities, and the lost power from the missing magic isn’t as fatal as if a slave or warrior were to do the same. Unlike other societies where such a caste would be able to barter its sexuality for social power, the courtesans are completely without influence among the Cursed Folk. They do have the authority to command slaves, and are protected from attacks by warriors other than their owner, but they cannot influence their owners. Thus many of the diplomatic skills their civilized counterparts might possess go to waste.
Chiefs and warlords come in many varieties, but all require fighting power. Skilled warriors outnumber raging berserkers for the simple reason that a raging berserker is more likely to make a mistake and die, than a warlord who has self-control. That said, other classes almost always get mixed in with whatever provides the core fighting prowess. As well, warlords are the masters of their respective fighting techniques and virtually all have many levels in prestige classes.
Alchemists are typically of skill-heavy classes, though like all their kind a level of something violent ensures they don’t get killed out of hand. Prestige classes are also very common among the alchemist caste, and they are very likely to take a class that wastes spell ability if it grants a class ability they might benefit from. Those alchemists who maintain the village shrines are known as shaman, and they are slightly more protected as to attack them is to offend their demon patron. It is always seen as bad luck to kill an alchemist of any kind, so they are much more likely to be beaten and left for dead, than killed outright.
Bonding is the closest thing the Cursed Ones have to an oath that actually matters to them. They will break a bond, but doing so is a taboo of significant importance and other warriors will take note of that fact. Bonds are, in fact, expected to be broken eventually, but doing so too soon, or for a very flimsy reward, is a marker of weakness, in the sense that the bond breaker is easily manipulated and thus seen as of low confidence or cowardly. Being bonded is as simple as appearing before a shaman, saying a few words to the effect of “I agree to be bound beneath this here warrior” and having the shaman apply a tattoo to both parties marking the bond. When a bond is broken, the tattoo is altered to show the end of the relationship. The bond tattoo is always on the left side of the body, typically the arm or leg. A bonded warrior can have other warriors bound to them and so on and so on. Those typically have no true loyalty to their master’s master, but in practice as long as their master is loyal, so are they. A village chief might have 3 or 4 steps of bondsmen, while a city chief might extend this to 12. It is not acceptable to be bound to two masters at once. Slaves and courtesans may not be bound nor have warriors bound to them, it is a tradition for warriors only. It is rare, but occasionally a warrior will be bound to a shaman. Typically this is so the warrior can be trained in combat by the demon whose shrine the shaman tends. These few warriors (only 2 to 8 per village, and up to 15 or 30 for a city) guard the warrior lodge and the shrines.
The bond is important, because warlords will only teach their secret combat techniques (read prestige classes) to those who are bound to them. Each is likely to have a weapons-master, who may in fact be a slave rather than a warrior. This weapons master will teach the basics of any prestige class to the warlord’s bonded warriors. Once a warrior exceeds the skill of the weapons master, the warlord has a choice: continue to train a potential rival, or break the bond and create a new warlord. This is one of the very few ways that a bond can be broken without hard feelings on either side.
Politics are to a significant degree irrelevant among the Cursed Tribes. They do not negotiate, they take. Instead of speech, diplomacy is handled via behavior and intimidation. A strong warrior has a choice of enemies from which to take food. The weakest, or most interesting is the one who will usually be chosen. The one who will put up the best fight is rarely chosen as that may weaken the warrior to a point that a rival may step in. On the other hand, a warrior has a reputation to protect, and only picking on the weak is not a good way to become feared. Thus there is a line to walk.
The Pygmies are always sizing each other up. The strong are deciding whether the gain is worth the risk. The weak are trying to look strong to those who don’t want a fight, and weak to those who want a reputation. There is a constant balancing act being played out. The moves are primarily made via dress, posture, companions, and other physical modes of communication.
At the larger scale, whole settlements and tribes do the same thing. A big village will have to choose which smaller one to raid. The same balancing act is played out. Here, the strong have to be careful because villages are more likely to band together to destroy a dominant enemy than individual warriors are to overthrow a chief.
Councils as such, don’t exist. However, each of the settlement’s most powerful warriors is given a room (typically called a “hall” even though the biggest can seat only a dozen or so) off of a shrine in the warrior lodge. In order to qualify for this privilege, a warrior must be no one’s slave or bonded warrior, and must have at bound at least 5 other warriors. Each of these is referred to in society as a warlord. The chief typically has alliances of a temporary kind with only one or two other warlords. Nevertheless, this is enough that no other warlord feels comfortable challenging the chief without allies as well. And since no one in such a vicious society can be certain of loyalty for very long, chiefs can actually be quite secure in their dominion.
This dance is at its most subtle in the big cities. Here there are many avenues of power and many groups with strength. Balancing alliances, promises, bribes, backstabs and so on, finally appear in a way that is familiar to Native and Ancient diplomats. It is certainly more violent and physical, but it is at least diplomacy. In any given city, there is not a single ruler with the title of chief, but rather collections of warlords. A few of them, in particular in Nightmare’s End, actually do have warlords powerful enough to control the whole thing and claim the coveted title, but most have divisions that are each ruled by a local warlord. It is very uncommon for any form of consolidation so a city of 3,000 might have 6 or 7 significant groups vying for control. In fact, it is easier for a new warlord to appear, than for existing ones to wipe someone out. The new warlords do typically suffer the highest attrition rates. That said, in any given city there tend to be 1 to 3 who really control the majority of the valuable real estate and skilled slaves. These are the ones who dominate what little trade exists, and who set policy. Policy is not in the form of laws, but rather how these few relate to the each other sets the precedent that the others must follow, or be considered too weak or too aggressive, and provoke the appropriate response from their rivals. See “Crime and Punishment” below for more details.
When dealing with other races, diplomacy is similarly simple. The Cursed Tribes take. If the Natives or lizardmen manage to force them to stop killing and talk, the Cursed Tribes expect either a bribe to go away (this will typically result in other tribes coming by hoping for the same treatment, and the original one returning for more, so in the long term is a really bad idea), or a demand for a bribe to let them live. If the other group tries to establish some kind of trade, they are basically setting themselves up for an ambush. If they try to negotiate a treaty, they are basically setting themselves up for an ambush. If they try to negotiate a one-time exchange of services, they are basically setting themselves up for a backstab.
However, it has happened that Pygmies and Natives have had a common foe, and managed to fight together against it. In all cases, if the Natives were the stronger force at the end of the fight, they chased off the Pygmies, and if the Pygmies were the stronger force, they killed and ate the Natives. It has happened that a Native has managed to buy a relative out of slavery and both of them return to civilization. This is very rare, but amazingly enough it does have higher odds of success than a rescue attempt. Just be sure to being more Native friends than the Pygmies will bring warriors to the exchange. And be prepared to save the slave’s life because if a fight starts and they think they’ll lose, the Cursed Folk would rather kill your friend than survive the encounter.
Crime and Punishment
The concept really only applies in a vague sense. The chief (or the most powerful warlords in the case of a city) set the tone for a settlement. Anyone who behaves differently, is treated accordingly. So in a town with a particularly violent chief who has his personal guard beating everyone regularly and starting fights every few days, all the other warriors will spread the violence as well. A warrior who tries to stop a fight, or who refuses to beat a slave is seen as weak, and will suffer for this. Meanwhile, in a settlement where the local chief rules via intimidation and threat, the warrior who starts too many fights is going to have trouble.
What is acceptable behavior is really a giant game of chicken. To a certain extent anything goes. At the same time, there eventually will come a line, that to cross it will result in death, possibly at the hands of previous allies. For example, it is considered a mark of weakness, most of the time, to kill a courtesan. Beat them? No problem, especially if they were acting uppity. But to kill one, is a sign that the courtesan was considered a threat to the warrior’s authority. That such a weak being could threaten a warrior, is obviously not good for the warrior’s reputation. At the same time, a rival’s courtesan might be considered a target of violence and rape, as a way to show that the rival cannot protect the courtesan (and is therefore weaker). If a rival is killed, one might claim their courtesans for oneself, give them as a prize to allies, or kill them as well as undesirables. In that case, killing them is fine (unless the allies feel they missed out on a reward).
There is also a major taboo against killing shamans. An alchemist who serves a demon shrine is largely immune to murder. They might be beaten and dragged to the mouth of a monster’s lair, but they would be alive. This taboo extends to all alchemists, and a warrior who kills one is considered first of all, very unlucky, secondly, stupid for provoking the ire of demons, and third, seriously badass for having the cohones to get away with it. It’s the getting away with it part that is hard. Typically because anyone present—even slaves and bodyguards—are really very likely to come to the alchemist’s aid, and that usually means killing their leader. Typically, they will restrain the killing blow if possible. If not, they might very well kill the murderer and hope that this act convinces the demon to leave them alone. To actually kill a shaman, a warrior must have extreme authority over all the witnesses.
Outside of these specific areas, there are typically a series of escalations. As stated, it is a game of chicken, whoever crosses the line and brings it to the level of “lethal” first is very likely to get killed. So the game is to see how much of a beating pride can take before death is acceptable as an alternative. A push, a harder push, a punch, a tackle and stomping, then a weapon gets drawn. Lots of things happen at this point. First of all, the one pulling out the weapon has just admitted being unable to defeat his enemy in unarmed combat. Secondly, he’s just raised the combat to the level of lethal. So, if it hadn’t been before, suddenly it’s ok to kill the warrior who pulled out the weapon. If the one who drew the first weapon kills an unarmed opponent, there might be a perception of weakness. This could become fatal over time if it recurs. Then again, if the unarmed enemy was clearly beaten and just wouldn’t give up, they had it coming. And getting beaten by the enemy might be worse than being perceived as requiring a weapon to beat them. Especially since they’re dead now and obviously aren’t a rival anymore. Hopefully, they didn’t have a bigger ally. So, is it better to take a beating, and have to deal with rivals in a weakened state, or to draw the weapon and maybe die, maybe be seen as a weakling who needed a weapon to kill an unarmed opponent? Who calls chicken first?
Random murder is not a good idea. Beatings and violence are fine, but someone needs to do a certain amount of provocation before random killing is acceptable. Drawing a weapon is a guaranteed way to give your enemy permission to kill you. A powerful warlord might send some thugs to kill a person who spoke out of turn. That’s considered provoked, not random. Then again, even random murder is only likely to be a problem for a short time. No one cares if you killed a random slave a week ago. If you kill slaves for no good reason every few weeks for months at a time, yes, you are going to die for that unless your chief is particularly brutal. Fortunately, only enemies and rivals care. Allies tend to find murder funny.
There is also a concept that if the victor can get away with it, then it was legitimate. Getting away with it, does include convincing the victim’s allies not to kill the guilty party either by wiping them out, or by having more allies, or whatever other means are used. Running away is an admission of wrongdoing and weakness and asking for even allies to turn into enemies. Unless it is running away from a hopeless fight. Then, having survived and gotten away from right under their noses is a great show of prowess.
The upshot is, that Pygmies are always trying to convince the other guy to cross the line, so they can kill him with impunity. Because they pretty much want to kill everyone, and they hate everyone else for stopping them from doing it.
Theft, interestingly enough, is considered more serious than killing. When a person is dead, the Cursed Tribes have the opinion that people should just get over it, it’s not like they were important anyway. Theft, however, is a constant gnawing annoyance that leads to waves of violence. Essentially, the Cursed Tribes are all sociopaths who are incapable of seeing value in other living beings. Everything is valued only in terms of relationship to benefit for the self. Other people are valuable as a source of wealth, amusement and so on but not as people. Objects tend to be considered more valuable than other people as they are more reliable, less likely to stab one in the back, able to be completely controlled and so forth. They also have the glamour of being “mine”, and there is the offense to pride and looking weak with the inability to protect one’s possessions. So the loss of an object brings up the desire to get it back, and that leads to violence, and the thief might try to get the recovered item back again, and so on and so forth. This leads to major problems for multiple warlords if left unchecked. Which means that they consider theft pretty serious business. Serious enough that they will kill their own bonded warriors over it. At the same time, they also realize the value of making a rival appear weak by being able to steal from them and get away with it. As with all things, it is a game of chicken where each is trying to convince the other to back down or cross the line first.