The Watcher Beyond the Veil

Back after a long hiatus! But Cosmic Cutthroats has never been far from my thoughts, and I’ve run quite a bit of it since my last post.
Today, I have an interesting in-universe mystery that adds to the setting’s weirdness, while adding a plot device that may prove useful from time to time.

The Watcher Beyond the Veil

Scientific materialists that live in Uru Ulan have an interesting time of it.

Uru Ulan is a city of almost infinite strangeness and seemingly endless possibilities. And yet, most of what goes on there seems to fit, if uncomfortably at times, into existing universal theories and plausible hypotheses. And yet, not every widely-reported phenomenon of the city does.

Like the Watcher.

Death is believed to be the end of the journey for all. Oh sure, in Uru Ulan, there are ways to “cheat” death — pay the cult of Osiris to create a clone backup, have a friend locate a duplicate from a near-identical dimension, restore a pattern from a teleportation device — but it can be argued that each of these isn’t the original.

Uru Ulan is a city rife with adventure, intrigue, dangerous exploits and narrow escapes, and the city’s many mercenaries and rogues often have very close brushes with death. And sometimes, they report that the brush was a lot closer than it looked.

Some adventurers report that they did, in fact, die, when it only seems like they did! At the very last moment, they encountered … something.

They appear in a misty non-space, in front of a misty, vaguely human-shaped figure. Sometimes they seem to imagine the classical features of a skeleton or one of their death-gods, but just as often, there’s nothing there but a nebulous form, an upright suggestion of head, arms, limbs, and torso and lower extremities.

In their minds, at that moment, they sense they have a choice. They can pass on to whatever awaits them … nothingness, transcendance, heaven, hell, or the waiting room at the local DMV … or, they can make a sacrifice and return.

The sacrifice is never something physical. It may be changing one Quality for another. It may be shifting a Level from any one Attribute to a mental Attribute, something they were lacking — they become more social, gaining Charm, for example, or they gain a newfound interest and curiosity in the world around them, gaining some Brains. A weak-willed and wishy-washy adventurer may find themselves with more Guts than previously, having faced death and come back for more.

An additional sacrifice is always required; the adventurer also loses something of their inner power and potency, losing 1 Level of EDG when presented with this choice. And in general, the adventurer only ever encounters the Dweller Beyond the Veil once. There is no compensation for this loss of EDG, beyond, well, not dying.

These sacrifices often seem to represent, in some way, a further step in personal development. Sometimes it represents redemption for a fallen hero, or a rededication to the cause of virtue in a champion of what is good and true. Sometimes though, it may represent a further fall into evil for a villain. Which makes one ask, what does the Dweller actually want? It doesn’t necessarily want goodness, as we think of it, as some come back worse than before. Maybe the Dweller records the history of the interdimensional city, and hates for a story arc to end before it’s completed. Maybe it’s a cosmic entity that likes to maintain the complex alchemical mixing-pot of the great metropolis. Or maybe it’s just a deific trickster that wants to see the punch line delivered. If anyone has a serious theory, they’re not saying.

Regardless of what’s changed and the reasons for the change, the adventurer is saved from certain death, just in the nick of time. There’s no indication that they ever went anywhere; their vision of the Dweller, even if it lasts for hours in the adventurer’s mind, takes only a nanosecond of real time. And afterward … something implausible happens. The gun jams, that would’ve splattered their brains across the bulkhead, or misfires and hits a shoulder or a piece of equipment instead. The arm swinging the sword to behead the adventurer, spasms and drops the lethal blade. The adventurer inexplicably rallies and somehow survives a deadly disease. The Dweller seems to manipulate time and probability to undo, or mitigate, whatever would have ended the adventurer’s life prematurely. If death is certain and there’s no escape, the Dweller doesn’t seem to interfere; it always intercedes in the simplest, most likely, and most easily explainable way.

So who does know about the Dweller? The Damocletian Order admits that it’s one of the subjects, beyond the Genesis Seeds, that the Order actively investigates. The Cult of Osiris gather info also, believing the figure to be Osiris himself, taking on what forms he will. The Holy Church of Vorsh will loudly imply that the figure is their cosmic figurehead, while admitting with unusual honesty behind closed doors that they have no idea, and the existence of the Dweller concerns them, somewhat.

One last point bears mentioning. Among the few that know of the Dweller and its appearances, it hasn’t escaped attention that the Dweller’s actions, saving those otherwise doomed to die, is much the same as how the city’s Servitors save unfortunate subjects of disaster from across space and time. Victims of floods, fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other elemental calamities find themselves rescued at the last minute by the city’s automata. Is there some link between the Dweller’s activities, and how the city has populated itself over time? Probably only the city’s founder, immortal sorcerer Ensi Abgal knows, and good luck getting an audience with, let alone a straight answer from, that one.

The concept of the Watcher came to me as I thought about the impermanence of death in comic books. Uru Ulan is in many ways a comic book setting (hence the main body font!). And I thought about how in some cases — like the recent X-Men run — the writers have actually tried to make a systematic explanation for that common trope, the hero that returns from the dead. Of course, it’s not only heroes that can come back in this way, but villains, too. This plot device also provides a convenient way for a character, betrayed by the dice, or played by a new and still reckless player, to cheat fate in the strangest ways … but only once, and not without consequence.

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