Pariah Play Report #1

I’ve been excited about Pariah for months.

pariah play report 1
Art by Gabriel Hernandez

Gabriel gifted me a copy of the Psychedelic Proto-Neolithic Animist OSR RPG a while back. If you follow our podcast, you already know my opinion: I think it’s the most exciting indie RPG I’ve ever read. Every mechanic and random table crackles with brilliance. Yet, despite that, it took me months to get a game table together.


Well, it’s a bit of a hot mess.

Large sections are incomplete or outright missing from the core rule book. There are references to rules that don’t seem to exist (or are no longer available). The bundled bestiary is playtest material, with notes on the next draft’s direction. Contradictory systems are layered atop each other. Worst of all, it suffers from the curse of any truly original game: there’s not a lot of context for what these various tools, mechanics, procedures, and tables are supposed to add up to.

And so Pariah sat on my shelf, much beloved but unplayed.

Then Sofinho and Atelier Hwei released Atop the Wailing Dunes.

One part sandbox adventure and one part DMG, AtWD transforms Pariah. It’s one of the lowest prep modules I’ve ever run while simultaneously being the most complex. New procedures and 20-30 random tables/hex provide a lot of depth and spontaneity.

A more thorough review will have to wait until the campaign finishes. For now, I’d like to tell you a story. Two stories, in fact. Tales of outcasts flung into a strange land, surrounded by spirits and adventure. Gather round the campfire; I’ve got play reports!

Game #0: Lone Wanderer

Before we brought Pariah to our regular gaming table, my wife and I decided to play a duet game and kick Pariah’s proverbial tires. She rolled up Cunning-Oasis Hairy-Fox, a d8HD Strength and Con monster (her preferred character type), exiled to avoid the awkwardness of unrequited love. She began in the northern mountains, headed south towards rumours of a distant and populous tribe.

The game began with the discovery she had no food. There was both hunting (a small rabbit) and gathering (firewood, narcotics). Things went well as she followed a trail to a southern moor and ate a fine lunch, praising the spirits the whole way. Shortly after that, a distant volcano exploded. Then, a hurricane blew in.

Naturally, Cunning-Oasis concluded the spirits were upset about the rabbit. Using a large animal hide, she turned a bush of desert rue into a makeshift shrine and started a small votive fire. The fire attracted traders, who confirmed the tales of the distant ‘city’ and made camp around the shrine.

In the night, an insect spirit came and ate them all. Cunning-Oasis was spared only because she slept inside the shrine she made.

The Next Day

A morning of precautionary sacrifice and spirit worship ensued. Further exploration discovered a massive bloom of cactus buttons, which she harvested. Following that, the Genius Loci deigned to appear to her in its most awesome form – an anthropomorphic hill with a stone elephant’s head.

The spirit charged her to protect a herd of sheep for the rest of the day. She decided to do peyote about it, leading to a psychedelic fight against a predatory pterodactyl. Having protected the sheep, the spirit Leoae granted Cunning-Oasis the ability to talk to animals. When she questioned Leoae, it sent her south to the cave of Oopu, the omniscient spirit; once each day, it answers a single question with perfect knowledge and honesty.

She got down to the sacred cave, fighting past the bats and spirits that guarded Oopu. She asked the great spirit her question:

“So I can just ask you anything, and you have to tell me the answer?”

Indeed, the spirit confirmed that was precisely the case. Then – having answered its daily question – it teleported the querent to a distant desert – the eponymous Wailing Dunes.

And that was our session. The whole thing took about an hour and a half.

I skipped a fair bit of the stuff we got up to. All in all, one of the densest, most rewarding games I’ve run.

Game #1: Down and Out on Dead Dugong Coast

Every year, on the fortieth day of the dry season, seven nations gather to exile their pariahs together. It was on such an occasion that seven adults, three elders, a youth, and three cursed animals were sealed up inside a cedar trunk and cast into the sea.

For four days, they rode the waves, carried in the hands of the Ocean Lord. On the last day, they came to rest. Cautious and hungry, they broke their way free from the sea-logged cedar and found themselves on a strange shore, on the edge of some hilly jungles and a wide mangrove swamp.

The band broke into two groups. While the larger group made camp, a smaller band headed out into the wilderness to forage and hunt. They were:

Heartless Eagle – Tricked by his sorcerous mutant companion Hungry Hill into eating an eagle heart. Now bound to an eagle spell-spirit.

Toothless Antelope – Painted and spirit-touched, this stealthy huntress is followed everywhere by the death spirit Goab. She keeps the bones of her meals in her hair.

Fearful-Oasis Magnificent-Tyrant-of-the-Air – Exiled for attempted Animal Husbandry, this pariah commands Pumbah, a pig spirit.

Disgusting Crocodile – The group Wise One and Entheogen specialist.

First Morning

The group headed into the hills to look for food. Disgusting Crocodile took some cactus buttons to lighten the mood. Unfortunately, they got more than they bargained for, spending the morning running around in super-slow-mo and talking to insect professors from the far future.

Meanwhile, Heartless Eagle attempted to retrieve water from a sunken spring. Unfortunately, the waters hid a living corpse who tried to drown Heartless Eagle while admonishing the group for not respecting the local spirit: Ikau! Toothless sent Goab to banish the zombie, while Pumbah and Disgusting Crocodile pulled Heartless Eagle to safety. The spirit vanished, leaving a final warning and taking the spring with him.

Still short of food and water, the group pressed Northeast and found a circle of strange engraved obelisks. Heartless Eagle and Disgusting Crocodile recovered from their difficult mornings while perusing this strange henge. Toothless tracked some fruit bats to their cave while Fearful-Oasis ran into an undead dugong. This new spirit manifestation threatened further chaos; Fearful-Oasis offered half of their remaining food, and the spirit wriggled into the sea, temporarily appeased.

The group attempted to catch some fruit bats, but not before Toothless disturbed a lion. Pumbah, the pig spirit, distracted the beast while Toothless hid, narrowly avoiding near-certain death. Having dealt with the predator, the group caught a big group of bats, thanks to some fast hands, steady aim, and a cleverly used animal hide. They gathered some firewood and began to cook lunch.

Unfortunately, Ikau, the local spirit, wasn’t done. As Heartless Eagle removed a branch from the ground, he accidentally set off a rockslide. He attempted to dodge — unsuccessfully! The rocks pinned him to the ground.

The only way to save him was to amputate his arm.

Once the deed had been done and the bleeding stopped, Ikau appeared in his undead dugong form to claim the arm he had taken. The pariahs didn’t argue. Happy with his sacrifice, he gave them his blessing and left.

Six hours into the Wailing Dunes, and we’d already lost about 6% of a PC.

Lunch and the Afternoon

The group returned to camp, where Heartless Eagle was left in the elders’ care. Hungry-Hill, the clawed sorcerer, took his spot on the away team. The pariahs ate lunch and talked about the spirits with the elders. They recommended more offerings be made before another arm was eaten.

With food and firewood taken care of, the group began to discuss water. The group hatched a plan to cross the mangrove swamp to the west and seek out the river on the far side. Between the rain and the mangrove roots, the going was slow. Hungry Hill invoked a waterbug spirit to carry them across the water – Disgusting Crocodile intoned a poem as Toothless Antelope painted Hungry Hill’s face.

Pleased, the spirit ferried them to the river. They refilled the band’s waterskins and discovered some crocodile eggs. They made some offerings and headed home. The voyage was mostly uneventful, not counting the snake that snuck into Toothless Antelope’s sack.

Stories in the Evening

To commemorate the first day in this new land, the group told stories and sang songs.

Disgusting Crocodile told the story of the poor serpent who unknowingly crept into a sack looking for food, dashed upon the rocks for the crime of being hungry.

The group reflected. Aren’t we all, ultimately, snakes in search of snacks?

Heartless Eagle told the tale of how he lost his arm. Most of the group had been there when it happened but listened politely all the same. One of the perks of losing an arm, I suppose.

Toothless sang the Song of Goab, the death spirit, and its perpetual victory over the dead.

Fearful Oasis recounted their great hunting success at the fruit bat caves.

The elders spoke briefly of the people of this land: somewhere nearby, a city worships the Ocean Lord.

Night Watch

Having told their tales, the group turned in, and the night watch began. The pariahs stoked a big fire, using their fire-starting fungus to defy the rain. Yet as big as the fire was, it couldn’t keep the night at bay.

First, a psychic dusk spirit visited Disgusting Crocodile. This fractal, insectile creature asked ten questions in a single breath — all Disgusting Crocodile could make out was, ‘What are you building?’. When he answered, ‘A Boat?’, the creature became a mosquito-mouthed version of himself. The spirit’s proboscis bit into his forehead, injected visions of strange sailing ships, then told Disgusting Crocodile he had nine days to fulfil his vision.

On the third watch, Hungry Hill encountered an old wise woman. They spoke by the fire for a while, and she introduced herself as the Bride of Ikau. She recommended that the party leave Ikau’s house as soon as possible and winkingly suggested that Hungry-Hill steal some camphor from the jungle on the party’s way out.

That was day one. We ended the session with the sunrise and handed out ‘X’s for experience. Including a bit of character creation, session zero talk, and a ten-minute break, the session lasted about 2.5 hours. We only hit one detailed hex; almost everything that happened emerged from player interaction with the 24 tables provided for Hex D.

Final Thoughts

I can’t wait to play again! I’ve since realized that I should pick up Spirits of the Here and Now in order to get the full Wailing Dunes experience, but even missing the most recent ‘monster manual’ type book for this system, there’s about three campaigns worth of game here.

Evocative, original, and hyper-usable, Pariah and Wailing Dunes blew my mind.

Although I wouldn’t recommend it to a total novice GM, (maybe start with Troika?) it’s structurally close enough to DnD to feel familiar and comfortable, while still providing a novel and different play experience. Pariah challenges common assumptions about violence, materialism, and culture without decreasing the danger and difficulty or falling into the trap of trying to be anodyne.

Anyways, I suppose this is all just me saying, stay tuned. I think we’ll have some more play reports very soon.


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