Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Belliserum’s Mind Palace (1/2)

by Bruce Pennington

 All credit to my wonderful girlfriend, who inspired and basically co-authored this entire dungeon.

EDIT: Part 2 is up

Our tale begins, as all tales in fantasy roleplaying games must, with a wizard. Belliserum of the Vaste was a master of the arcane arts, yet she was a human wizard with human limitations, and the mortal mind only has so much space for arcane formulae and esoteric knowledge. Worse still, in her advanced age, Belliserum found herself plagued by pathological forgetfulness (her contemporaries had no name for this phenomenon at the time). In typical wizardly fashion, Belliserum devised a solution bordering on madness: a physical castle within which her memories could be safely kept.

The Mind Palace was designed as a direct extension of its master’s brain. Information was encoded in every book, brick, and tapestry, which were carefully copied and restored by a retinue of curators. Belliserum could then access this knowledge from anywhere on the material plane via a phenomenally clever bidirectional scrying spell, the nature of which has been lost to history.

Of course, she’s dead now—has been for many centuries—but the palace remains. It was originally sealed in an underground cavern below the Vaste, until a sudden sinkhole and subsequent excavation revealed its ivory-white spires to the world. Nowadays, scholars and thieves alike delve into the Mind Palace to translate its arcane secrets... or sell them to the highest bidder. These mercantile agents don’t take kindly to competition, but perhaps they are preferable to the palace’s original inhabitants: curators of the upper cortex, and nightmares born wholesale from the dead wizard’s malfunctioning brain-castle.

Perhaps your party is on the payroll of some ambitious merchant-lord, or perhaps they seek forgotten truths for their own sake. Roll a d12 to see which potentially game-ending information they’re hunting for.

Dead Wizard Secrets
The true name of a real bastard of a devil
The favorite foods of each member of the faerie judiciary (as with most elements of faerie culture, the judiciary’s membership has not changed in centuries, trapped in whimsical torpor)
Where the giants went
Blueprint: anachronistic technology (gunpowder/telegraph/tandem bicycles/really anything your players want)
The location of an unguarded hellhole not even Satan knows about
Blueprint: The original Bag of Holding
Ritual of the Covenant of Accursed Mortality (allows gods to be killed permanently)
Recipe: Immortality elixir, but with a catch
How to raise/train/befriend/debate your own dragons
Lyrics to the Song of Twilight’s Revival (restores elven fertility)
“Unbody me tomorrow” (memetic cure-all vaccine)
Spell: Belliserum’s Bolster Intellect (allows information exchange between the caster and the Mind Palace, forever)


Giulio Camillo Delminio's "theatre of memory"

There are four dangers inherent to the Mind Palace. I’ll discuss two of them here and follow up later this week.

The Palace

The Mind Palace is an architectural abomination, a mass of bone-white turrets and bartizans at odd angles, as if a thousand castles were swept into a pile and mortared together where they lay. The inside is a labyrinth of stairwells leading to gardens leading to master bedrooms leading to wine cellars, connected by a confounding array of vertical corridors and twisting crawlspaces.

Every square inch of the palace is crawling with information—books full to bursting with loose pages, paintings and carvings so intricate they make your head swim—and if you watch closely you’ll see it all changing in waves. Tiny ripples in the masonry pass from room to room, leaving the engravings ever so slightly different from what they were. These ripples accumulate in size, and if a big enough ripple forms, entire rooms will move.

Whenever the party rests in the palace, there is movement. Roll twice for extended rests. These apply to previously explored rooms unless otherwise stated.

Palace Movements
The room the players are resting in drops one level down.
An explored room disappears. The players may rediscover it later, repopulated.
A connection between two explored rooms disappears.
4 - 7
The movement occurs somewhere else in the palace (no effect on the known map).
8 - 9
A connection to a new room appears.
A connection to a new room on a different level appears.
A new room appears between two explored rooms.
The room the players are resting in raises one level up.

Whenever the party enters an unexplored room, roll a d6. On a 1-3, it’s a scriptorium, an etched stone chamber full of bookcases and tables for copying manuscripts. Roll on the encounter table to see what’s up in there. Otherwise, the room is one of the following you haven't explored yet:

Rooms in the Mind Palace
The Pit: A 40’x40’x100’ hole where a room should be. There are 2-4 doors visible on the walls and ceiling, all leading to different rooms/dungeon levels. The walls are slick with shadow, and a low moaning echoes from the horribly dark pit floor. There is no monster; it is an aspect of the decay, calling hungrily for more knowledge. If you feed it, you’ll gain its favor. If you fall in, you’ll be in the deep palace, and that’s probably punishment enough.
The Market: An open plaza dominated by a circular meeting table. Doors in all 4 cardinal directions. 2d6 curators are here, split evenly between two factions (roll 1d4 for each side’s identity). They’re trading heavy parchment strips and book binding materials for gear clearly looted from another adventuring party. If the players play their cards right, they can barter for anything on the table. The parchment strips are more valuable than they appear: they’re components for creating a new curator.
The Elevator: A 10’x10’x50’ vertical stone shaft with unusually high ripple activity. The door to the next room is at the top of the shaft, overlooking a sheer drop. An enormous book is affixed to the central lectern which, when opened, poses a series of nonsense riddles. The palace accepts any answer, raising or lowering the floor by 20’ per answer depending on its plausibility. Two plausible/implausible answers in a row should be enough to go up/down a floor. With repeated suggestions via this Q&A process, the chamber can be coaxed to produce a single mundane item per day.
The Garden: A dimly lit room full of tattered, translucent fabric growing in sheets from the ceiling. 1d4+1 curators are here, two of whom are harvesting the fabric while the rest transcribe memories. They complain about the absolute state of the place and how myelin once grew thick and healthy. If you do them a favor or offer enough stuff, they might let you take a few napkins’ worth. Wearing myelin around one’s head grants a +1 vs. fear/charm/mental enchantments in general.
The Cradle: An unsettlingly organic room, where the stone and brick flows like flesh into twisted spires. Tendrils of stoneflesh descend from the ceiling to converge into a throne in the center of the room, within which rests the remains of a human in fine silks. In his hand rests a locket, which contains two feathers of different colors. If you lie in the cradle and recount one of your memories, the memory will disappear from your mind.
The Gate: A tall, dark room with a tall, dark gate. There’s a normal exit to the side that you really should take instead. Ignore the tall gate. There is nothing behind it worth seeing. There is nothing behind it you want to see. There’s seven great stone locks, and all the keys have been hidden and broken and destroyed. (Behind the door is tiny pamphlet of memetic curses wrapped in rose petals the size of wagon wheels. Reading it grants visions of the future (advantage on all rolls) and sets your health to 0 for as long as you know the secret. If you tell someone else the secret, you no longer know the secret. Alternatively, it causes instantaneous brain death, depending on your DM style.)

Whenever the party searches a room for the first time in the Mind Palace, they find a stone key. They can also find stone keys in the bellies of monsters, or in unique rooms.

The Monsters

The upper levels of the Mind Palace are, for the most part, as they were during Belliserum’s life: immaculate, structured, and full to bursting with concrete information. The deep palace, however, is dirty, disorganized, and overrun with concepts and emotions given form. This is what happens to information in the Mind Palace when it decays: between an illegible jumble and nothingness, the idea begins to revolt against its slow demise and leaps from a symbolic existence to a literal one.

Down in the deep palace, where the decay is most prevalent, there are very few salvageable memories. What remains of the place is overrun with instincts, primal urges, and reflexes made manifest. That doesn’t mean its entirely devoid of interest—it’s a curator-free shortcut between most locations, and loose memories tend to fall down there when no one is paying attention—but you’ll want to steer clear unless you have a really good reason to wander into monster territory.

Luckily for the DM, monsters have none of the same qualms about wandering into your territory.

Deep Palace Monsters
Phantom Limb: In the corner of this room is an incomplete suit of armor kneeling on the ground next to a handful of phalanges. The first character to approach it looks down and watches their arm come right off their body, no save. The disembodied limb will hover near its owner, stealing from/attacking them and generally being a nuisance. Damage dealt to the limb is also dealt to the original owner… because its still attached. The monster is a tangle of invisible tentacles spilling out of the armor. It tricks your brain into thinking of your own limbs as a hostile entity in the hopes that you’ll cut it off and leave it behind.
Amygdala: A large, spindly, eight-limbed humanoid with a head like a sopping wet sponge. It waits in the corner of the room, hunched over and shivering with what appears to be excitement, staring at the party with unblinking intensity. It’s deathly afraid of you, and fights like a cornered rat. Behind it is the door to the next room. If you start attacking from outside of its range, it’ll fly into a frenzy and leap at you (HD 8, or whatever seems appropriately unreasonable). Getting its blood on you (its constantly dripping out of its sponge-face) provokes pure fear; save vs. charm or be piss-your-pants terrified of it and anything that reminds you of it, forever.
Earworm: A flying, pink ribbon worm humming at a strange frequency. It hunts by vomiting its branching proboscis in a cone and drinking blood through it. It’s slow, soft, and collapses into brackish sludge when slain. Any living being who hears its song must save vs. charm or become a host for the Earworm. When the host goes to sleep, the earworm rematerializes from their dreams and begins to feed on them as they sleep. The only way to get rid of it for good is to remove it from your memory.
Isnt: You aren’t alone, but nothing is in the room with you. One of Belliserum’s mostly-intentional creations, designed to guard the palace from intruders. It’s an anti-mimetic, a self-censoring idea you can’t think about for more than a few seconds at a time. Stats as whatever you want it to not be. It can only be described in terms of what it is not: It isn’t blue. It isn’t small. It isn’t next to our fighter. It isn’t dead yet. It won’t attack unless you’ve wronged the palace in some way, but you can’t loot this room while it isn’t in a different room. (Pinning down its location is the first challenge, but once your players figure out a strategy, you can assume they know where it is.)
Homunculi: Diminutive humanoids with oversized hands, feet, lips, and genitals. They typically travel in packs of 2d6 and move like toddlers in clown shoes. Whatever they feel, the rest of the world must feel as well: hurting them will make everyone in a 40’ radius hurt, and caressing them will make everyone in a 40’ radius uncomfortable. Constructs are immune to this effect. They’re attracted to light, warmth, music, and smiling. 50% chance to be encountered as 1d4 Homunculi accompanied by a patrol of curators, who find them repulsive and use them as meat shields/anti-human grenades.
Oblitus: An old hag with milky, vacant owls eyes, cackling to no one in particular. Those who meet her gaze are stunned (save vs. charm), standing dazed as their party members appear to be fighting an empty room for no reason (on a successful save, they are slowed instead. make another check each turn they meet the hag's gaze). If all party members are stunned at once, go ahead and fast forward to the moment where the party collectively snaps out of their daze and realizes their pinky fingers have been bitten off. The Oblitus can see into the minds of those she locks eyes with, gaining access to their spells. If you’re harboring a memetic disease/parasite, she’ll take it from you (often to her detriment). The curators can’t see her.

by Brendan McCarthy

 History of the Palace (DM stuff)

The Mind Palace was more than a simple vault. It was capable of learning, constantly sprouting new towers and hallways to accommodate the wizard’s intellectual appetite. Eventually, Belliserum learned to sublet sections of the palace to perform complex calculations for her, allowing the architecture to think without direct supervision. Sometimes, it would even surprise her.

Right before Belliserum’s death, the palace was doing most of her thinking for her. At the time, she likely attributed her sense of self more to the palace than to the decrepit old woman it was attached to, whose gradually encroaching senility she so feared. Those who visited and cared for the physical Belliserum in her final years observed that she spoke of herself in the third person, and of the palace in the first.

It is unclear when exactly the switch occurred, but at some point the Mind Palace disconnected itself from its master. The old woman died peacefully in her sleep.

Some curators attest that Belliserum lives on in the circuitry of her creation, keeping herself busy with logical puzzles and theoretical doomsday devices. It would certainly explain all the new artifacts appearing in the palace; she’s prototyping.

After the death of her body, Belliserum lost her primary means of perceiving the outside world. She’s definitely gone a bit insane after a few centuries of near sensory deprivation. Whether or not she is aware of the adventurers wandering around in her brain is unclear, but the riddles she poses to the palace’s inhabitants seem to suggest that she’s probing them, either for knowledge or entertainment. 

Next Post (hopefully): Curators, Outsiders, Treasures, and The End


  1. THIS IS INCREDIBLE! It is surreal and fascinating and gives the impression of Crumbling greatness that must always have been doomed to this fate.
    I am going to use this as a historical one shot, on this Friday... assuming the second part posts by then. Phalanges crossed!

    1. Thanks so much for your feedback. Part 2's up now. Let me know how it goes if you do end up running it :)