Snake People: A Game of Anticipatory Grief Now Kickstarting

Snake People: A Game of Anticipatory Grief

After years of writing RPG scenarios and monster material for others and making kudzupunk gaming zines, I've finally written my own small story game. Snake People: A Game of Anticipatory Grief is now Kickstarting as part of ZineQuest 2 through February 26th.

The cover image of snake people telling stories around a fire. A gorgeous purple sunset lights a decaying city filled with beautiful trees and plants.

I developed the game in response to a collision of world and life events last spring. In March 2019, my father died. I experienced my own personal apocalypse of losing my second parent and the realities of being an orphan (albeit in my 30s, not my childhood). Police in the town where I lived killed a young autistic black man whose parents had been concerned about his safety. We marked the one-year anniversary of “March for Our Lives.” The students in our local high schools and around the world walked out in the first of many climate strikes.

Later that spring, I spent a weekend in Kentucky with two dear friends, where we found ourselves talking about climate change and apocalypse.1 In recording a podcast episode that will likely never be heard, we reflected on how many dominating cultural ideas of apocalypse ignore the many ways in which colonized and dominated communities have lived through and continue to live through their own apocalypses. There are slow apocalypses. There is the day after the apocalypse. There is resistance to apocalypse.

We can see this right now in the Wet'suwet'en resistance to the threat of apocalypse in the form of a pipeline which violates their sovereignty and endangers land, animals, water, and people. It can be seen in the lead-poisoned waters of Flint; in the ways in which ICE actions force our neighbors to change how they live; in the irremediable damage suffered by children who experience lead-poisoning, over-policing, family separation, and fear of climate change.

Loss, Grief, and Apocalypse in Gaming

How to transition from these life-changing and life-ending realities into something like gaming? I wrote from my very real experiences of fear and grief as I considered moments which have shaped my own life, from things like the loss of my parents to Columbine, 9/11, the bombing of Baghdad… the Great Recession, the hope of nuclear disarmament and Gitmo closing only to see an increased drone war under Obama…

I experienced my own body aging as I thought about my parents’ bodies decaying in their grave. I experienced living each day after they were gone with the knowledge I'd never see them again and yet I still lived. The day after the funeral, I still had a future, even if it was a different one. As I saw the next generation take up fights of my youth, I truly began to realize that my own generation are now part of the adults, responsible for what comes next.

My parents’ deaths made me wonder how I would be remembered, how I wanted to live my own life. What I could do to stand up for black lives, against gun culture, for a world in which the life of the planet and community is more important than rampant profit… while knowing it is not possible or required for me to save the world.

But Really, Talking About Gaming

My goal in writing Snake People was to provide a way to tangle with and reflect on hard stuff. By putting the scales of Snake People2, players engage with cataclysm, memory, and mortality in a different way. This is what story does.

This is why N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy shatters its readers. Not because we live in that world, but because the thoughts, feelings, and relationships she writes speak to our experiences of our own world.3

What happens on the day after the apocalypse? When all your plans go up in smoke, what do you want for your future? How do you make sense of your past? Create and dream a world together. Imagine your legacy and what comes for the generations that follow. Snake People is one way you can explore these questions.

To quote one of my playtesters, Rachel M. Fleming:

If you enjoy making things up and talking about heavy shit in a fun way with your friends, THIS HERE is for you. It's amazing because the game isn't just about “what are you gonna do,” it's also fundamentally about “what are you like” and how that influences what you're gonna do.

Some things that this game is really good at:

  1. get to know your game play group better.
  2. deal with tough issues together.
  3. build a world collaboratively - you could go adventure there in other games?!

Keep writing. Keep telling stories.

a portrait of the author as a snake person, really an old Gustav Dore illustration

  1. Throughout this post, I use apocalypse not in its literal translation as “unveiling” (although there are some ties to that too) but in its commonly-used sense of a world-shattering event which forever changes how we experience the future. ↩︎

  2. The choice to use snake people came both from the fact that they're frequently present in SFF, so players could pick one of many species to be, and the tie to Millennials. There's a long-running joke that boomers wrote about Millennials as though they were a different species, snake people. A Chrome plugin played on this and eventually lead to one of the funniest corrections I've ever seen… Because of an editing error involving a satirical text-swapping web browser extension, an earlier version of this article misquoted a passage from an article by the Times reporter Jim Tankersley. The sentence referred to America's narrowing trade deficit during “the Great Recession,” not during “the Time of Shedding and Cold Rocks.” - The New York Times, March 2018. You don't have to be a Millenial to play, of course, we all have our generational griefs. However, it was written from that (my) perspective ↩︎

  3. I am no N.K. Jemisin. ↩︎

Dueling Lords of Decay (Pt. 2)

This post is in the Eldritch Icons project which will weave a narrative to supplant the 13 Icons of the Dragon Empire with more sinister icons born of Weird Fiction. See Part 1 for an introduction to Mordiggian, the Great Ghoul. Also, if you want to read a more thorough take on the Great Ghoul, I was invited to contribute a Fallen Icon to the 13th Age Bestiary 2.

Plot Hooks

All that Remains: A party member's hometown (pick someone who hasn't had a focus in a few sessions, or a hometown shared by multiple party members) is the latest to be visited by Mordiggian's Jackal Priests. They're digging up the graveyard where families of the town have been buried for generations. Will the target's friends and loved ones disappear into the gullet of the ghoul?

Bearding the Lich King: For Champion or Epic players with an axe to grind against the Lich King, this is your time to shine. Take the fight to the Necropolis. Whether you temporarily ally with Mordiggian and his forces (unlikely players ever speak to the Great Ghoul, negotiate through a senior priest, Atrax) or simply take advantage of the confusion to mount your own attack (in which case you're probably dealing with occasional fights with Mordiggian's forces unless you at least reach a truce), you wend your way into the heart of the Necropolis and stab at the heartphylactery of the Lich King himself.

Nota Bene, Lich King's phylactery unlikely to be found inside actual Lich King. It might be hidden deep within the Necropolis — the only place he knows he can keep it safe — or somewhere else. But one reason the Lich King has been so hard to kill is that he and the phylactery must be destroyed in the same instant. That takes coordination when fighting off waves of skeletons, vampires, and skeleton vamp…I'm getting ahead of myself.

Rebuilding the Wards: Every sentient mortal from farmers to Icons has lived in the shadow of the Lich King for Ages. All fought death in their own ways, but some fought the death that lies beyond death. Some found the secret to keep the Lich King's bony fingers off a particular graveyard. Something about the Priestess protected Santa Cora. Some everyday cemeteries remain untouched due to wards crafted ages ago, wards which never seemed to work elsewhere, or whose magical secrets were lost. A party focused on magic or secret knowledge may wish to uncover a magic ritual to stop Mordiggian. What kept him out of the world until now? Can it be found in the Priestess's or Archmage's library? Is there a secret among the dwarves, masters of runes?

Or see the Priestess's posts for Something Rotten Under Santa Cora. Santa Cora's necropolis rivals that of the Lich King and had offered protection for those buried therein. With her protection removed, it's an enormous source of power. Whichever faction seizes it first will have a tremendous advantage in this struggle.

Mordiggian vs. the Necromancers

Just as their relationship with the Lich King greatly affects those playing Necromancers (13 True Ways, p.79), so does this shift in power and priorities. Mordiggian considers the dead his provender. Sure, he's not munching on old bones, but it's the principle of the thing when you're raising up skeleton mooks or calling his ghouls to your bidding. Perhaps he overlooks this if you have a negative relationship with the Lich King or your conflicted relationship has turned sour. He's got bigger problems than a few necromancers.

For the GM, a Necromancer provides an avenue for introducing Mordiggian. After a fight, your summoned ghoul spits at you about his real master. Or a couple silver-masked priests meet you in the road and ask you kindly but firmly to mind your place. What's in it for you? Mordiggian asks you to join him in the battle against the Lich King, promising favor or particular rewards the player's been craving. Adventurers create a lot of corpses, after all. Or you could kill the priests and see what happens next.

Jackal-Headed Priests and Other Servitors

The stats for Jackal Priests are a bit of an experiment, although based on existing rules and stat blocks, so I'd love to hear your play experience of them.

Jackal Priests of Mordiggian

…heads and faces that were half anthropomorphic, half canine, and wholly diabolic. Also, they had taken off the fingerless gloves… Their curving talons gleamed in the bloody light like the hooks of darkly tarnished metal; their spiky teeth, longer than coffin nails, protruded from snarling lips. They closed like a ring of jackals… …screams of men were mingled with a growling as of jackals, a laughter as of hyenas…

Masked, robed, and gloved, Jackal Priests petrify townsfolk as they silently pass. But when the masks lift, the gloves come off, and the laughter begins, the blood of all but the most stalwart adventurers runs cold in their veins. And possibly on the ground. A 5th level Jackal Priest [Troop] has +8 Initiative. HP 90, AC 22, MD 19, PD 19.

Raking Claws +12 vs. AC — 15 damage.

Natural 16+: If this is the priest's first attack during their turn, they may make a death vision attack against the same target as a free action.

Death Vision +10 vs. MD (one nearby enemy) — Target takes 20 psychic damage each time it makes a nonbasic attack (save ends). Mordiggian absorbs the life essences of those he consumes. Death leaves a strong psychic impression. His priests draw on the deaths of loved ones, former companions, or those the target failed to protect, forcing the target to witness their last moments. If the target doesn't have anyone like this in her past, other death impressions will do as well.

Natural 16+: If this is the priest's first attack during their turn and they are within melee range, they may make a raking claws attack against the same target as a free action.

Blood-Chilling Laughter +11 vs. MD — Target chooses to be stunned for one round or take 5 psychic damage per round (save ends)

Limited use: Once per battle.

Ghoulies and Ghosties and Long-Leggedy Beasties

Rather than calculate the number of Jackal Priests per character, use only one or two and fill the rest with ghoul-types from Bestiary, 96-98. A licklash, pusbuster (unless you're like me and can't psychologically handle that kind of thing) and a heaping handful of gravemeats make an excellent complement. If using ghasts, don't include Hungry Howl unless you want a fight full of psychic attacks and unnerving sounds, in which case, go to!


Bestiary, p.82. Hunters after corpses haunt deep, moist places. Some Fungaloids feel a kinship with Mordiggian. Both feed on death and transform it into something else. None of this keeping the dead around like the Lich King does, solid disposal. But this great ghoul had better not claim more than humanoids or they'll have nothing to eat.

Haunted Skulls

Bestiary, p.108. The haunted skull represents a ghost bound to their world, either forcefully or through an inability to fade away. Mordiggian offers these pathetic creatures a bargain: when he defeats the Lich King, he will consume them and release them from their misery. All they must do in the meantime is fight for him. One might wonder why, if he takes such pity on them, he doesn't release them right away. One might.


Actually no. Skeletons are too far gone. He's not into that. Nor Liches. They have too much free will for a respectable corpse. He'd rather destroy them. Especially one of them. Vampires? Darling, vampires wouldn't be caught dead anywhere near a ghoul.


13 True Ways, p.207. Mordiggian's psychic lure pulls humanoid zombies to congregate wherever he is. When not engaged in battle, he readily devours them. They crave release but will fight to protect their only chance of escape. They may also prove useful in finding or following him.

Is Mordiggian the Lesser Evil?

I'd rather live in a world where a giant ghoul would safely devour me and keep my body free from the possible thrall of the Lich King. But is that what your players want? Mordiggian derives power from consuming corpses…do they want to be little more than batteries in the grand scheme? Perhaps they want their bodies to lie in consecrated Axis necropolises or to be consumed by flame on sacred altars in Horizon. Perhaps they long for the peace the Priestess offers or their religion preaches resurrection but only of whatever corpse remains. Maybe being eaten is just gross. Your players may recoil to find themselves fighting alongside armies of the Lich King, but perhaps it's the only way to save their souls.

Dueling Lords of Decay (Pt. 1)

This post is in the Eldritch Icons project which will weave a narrative to supplant the 13 Icons of the Dragon Empire with more sinister icons born of Weird Fiction. If you want to read a more thorough take on the Great Ghoul, I was invited to contribute a Fallen Icon to the 13th Age Bestiary 2.

As the chill graveyard air touched their skin, the travelers quickened their stride. This graveyard, far from the well-minded heart of the Empire, had been left to decay and to him—the Lich King. When the first bereaved lover saw the silver-masked figures carrying off the body of his sweetheart, everyone called him deranged by grief. But reports spread of these stooped, robed, and gloved men—could they be called men if they could not be seen?— removing fresh corpses in the dead of night.

At first, stout family members resisted. Bleeding and slashed, they crawled back to town babbling of men with lupine faces and curved talons. It eventually became apparent that these strangers never killed the living (although some succumbed to their injuries), they only took the dead. For many, this was an acceptable bargain—would they not else have lost their loved one to the Lich King? And so, towns forewent burial and rituals developed to welcome these ministers of the dead, although with fear. But some resisted.

While the living concern themselves more with the forces taking over the Queen's Wood to the North-East and the Wild Wood to the South-East or of the strange stories emanating from Santa Cora, two great forces battle for the bodies (and souls?) of the dead. The Lich King retreats into the heart of the Necropolis with his skeleton troops, basilisk guards, and vampiric servitors.

But Mordiggian? The moment the ghouls of the Dragon Empire heard his psychic call, they no longer belonged to the Lich King. They flocked, or loped, to find their new master. He gave them something beyond mindlessness and they repaid him by silently swarming over the dominions of their former lord. They ripped apart skeletons and devoured vampires. But, acting on his orders, neither Mordiggian's reborn ghouls nor his jackal-headed ghoul-priests harm the living, unlike the Elk Queen's frenzied Blood Druids, as long as they surrender their dead for the god's feast.

With many of his outer strongholds fallen, the Lich King has barricaded himself in the Necropolis. Will the lich who has lasted so many ages hold his (under)ground? Or will ghouls at last suck the marrow of this icon's bones?

Mordiggian, the Great Ghoul

Not until Zothique, Clark Ashton Smith's Dying Earth, do we encounter “The Charnel God,” Mordiggian. The town of Zul-Bha-Sair lives in truce with their god. They allow his priests to bring their dead to his yawning temple. Families do not visit its black stone interior to participate in burial rites or funerary practices. And in return, what? Mordiggian saves them in the afterlife. He does not offer an abode for their souls but rather an eternal peace. For in a land rife with necromancers and malign forces, how else can the dead be safe than through total consumption, whether through cleansing fire or Mordiggian's maw?

Through him, we are saved from corruption and the worm. Even as the people of other places devote their dead to the consuming flame, so we of Zul-Bha-Sair deliver ours to the god. Awful is the fane, a place of terror and obscure shadow untrod by the sun, into which the dead are borne by his priests and are laid on a vast table of stone to await his coming from the nether vault in which he dwells. No living men, other than the priests, have ever beheld him; and the faces of the priests are hidden behind masks of silver, and even their hands are shrouded, that men may not gaze on them that have seen Mordiggian.

As Great Old Ones go, Mordiggian is one you might not mind seeing move into your local charnel house. He won't raise your loved ones to fight in his skeleton army or send a plague of ghouls to uproot your town. He's patient, he'll wait for you to come to him. But do not try to cheat him (are you listening, Necromancers?) or to withhold that which he's claimed.

Go, for Mordiggian is a just god, who claims only the dead, and has no concern with the living. And we, the priests of Mordiggian, deal in our own fashion with those who would violate his law by removing the dead from the temple.

While some may welcome this change from the Lich King, those who have put great effort into mummificiation and other steps to protect the bodies of their kin won't take kindly to this death-consuming force. Pockets of resistance will band against his encroachment. Magic-users will experiment with protection rites. Fighters will keep his priests at bay. But can you fight darkness made manifest?

As if compelled by another will than his own, the youth turned and saw the thing that had halted Narghai's blow. Arctela and Abnon-Tha, pausing before the open door, were outlined against a colossal shadow that was not wrought by anything in the room. It filled the portals from side to side, it towered above the lintel — and then, swiftly, it became more than a shadow: it was a bulk of darkness, black and opaque, that somehow blinded the eyes with a strange dazzlement. It seemed to suck the flame from the red urns and fill the chamber with a chill of utter death and voidness. Its form was that of a worm-shapen column, huge as a dragon, its further coils still issuing from the gloom of the corridor; but it changed from moment to moment, swirling and spinning as if alive with the vortical energies of dark eons. Briefly it took the semblance of some demoniac giant with eyeless head and limbless body; and then, leaping and spreading like smoky fire, it swept forward into the chamber.

In pt. 2, I'll give some plot hooks, more about Mordiggian's priests, and ask whether there is a lesser of two evils here.

As an aside, there's a reason these are taking a while—what some consider too long—between installments. It's a combo of paid writing work which obviously takes precedence over my writing-for-fun, work for my professional life (I'm a journal editor and co-chair a professional committee and wrote a journal article this fall, plus other stuff I can't bring up here), a solid two weeks sick, and some real crap going down in my family this year which has been so emotionally stressful that whatever free time I get I've mostly spent trying to do therapeutic things. Sometimes writing is good therapy, sometimes it's not and I'm afraid it hasn't been lately. I am going to do my best to keep on with the project as I can…I wish it were a straight line, but life hasn't been a straight line at all.