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No Strings Attached: A Noir Horror Adventure Setting with a Twist

The Great War revealed many truths the “modern” nations had pretended not to believe anymore. Perhaps if the Empire had not joined the fight, or if the Central Powers had failed to maintain and strengthen their Triple Alliance, things might have gone differently. But as it was by the time the British were introducing landships, the Central Powers had access to darker powers.

The most extreme battlefield reports are still attributed to shell shock and the panic of troops encountering chthonic horrors for the first time. Soldiers who fought in the field tend to be more credulous of even outlandish claims by those who fought in the war. Given what we now must all accept as real, who is to say that even werewolves and vampires might not have fought skirmishes in the War? They’d be too rare to make any difference now, but maybe they existed once.

But Marions are everywhere.

In many ways, they have a stronger and more obvious presence in mythology than anything that had previously captured the public’s eye in the west. The rituals of Caloian. Bocio. Daruma. Dogū. Haniwa. Hina. Kachina. Kokeshi. Nkisi. Pippies. Around the world, for thousands of years, they appear in legends and spellcraft. We told ourselves they were just toys. Made of cornhusk, clay, potatoes, apples, wood, and stone, we looked at what the Egyptians buried and the Romans gave children, and convinced ourselves they were no more than trifles and effigies.

We should have known better.

The first Marions were definitely from the Empire, cruel-looking creatures of wood and clay, with knife-hands and poison. They were used as assassins more than anything else and the capture of one, still moving and cursing, shook the Allied powers to their roots. Living puppets, powered by magic, that could think, and talk, and plan. That seemed to live until they were smashed to pieces.

It took months to find experts in the right rituals and prayers for Western powers to create their own. Anyone who had ever written about the unknown, traveled to the far east, or claimed to be able to read palms was suddenly a national asset. It was a chaotic time, as charlatans, scholars, madmen, and true practitioners were all rounded up and put to the test. It didn’t help that the four categories turned out not to be mutually exclusive. And as magic was taken seriously, researched, and codified, the Allies discovered that Marions were just the beginning. The bogeyman was real, and came in dozens of forms.

There were mistakes made in building a magician corps, from minor miscalculations to deadly disasters, even traitors. But in time, the Allies came to have their own practitioners, including the masterminders who could create Marions-to-order. Military technology soon took over. Marions are too small and weak to armor, so the idea of making them of iron or steel was quickly abandoned. Some success was found with wood and bakelite to make Marions that were light but still fairly strong, and thousands of those models were produced, but they were all too fragile to be soldiers. As assassins they served fairly well, but wood and plastic crack and shatter as easily as bone.

The Allies wanted to replace soldiers, especially in units tasked with facing “Bogeys,” the military versions of children’s bogeyman tales. No Marion could carry enough reinforcement to ignore a landmine, or even a good crack with the butt of a rifle. So rigid structure was abandoned. Marions don’t need bones any more than they need strings, and it was a seamstress from the Bronx who made the real breakthrough. Ragdoll Marions, made from lair after lair of knotted cloth, were terrifically resilient. Shooting one put a hole through it, but simply didn’t do enough damage to slow it down. Punching and kicking were useless. Knives were better, but good coiled rag has to be sawed through, and can’t be casually slashed apart. Since they didn’t bleed, and kept going until massively mangled, ragdoll Marions became the preferred design for Allied masterminders.

They were, of course, vulnerable to fire. A few elite units were formed from (or more commonly wrapped in) asbestos, but for some reason those Marions nearly always turned murderous or went rogue within a few missions.

Marion units were attempted, but since a Marion seemed to be limited to a yard or so in height, and some went rogue after seeing too much bloodshed and “rending” (as they took to calling their own injuries), most Allied units instead added a Marion or two in the same kind of capacity as radiomen and explosives experts. Bogey-Hunter squads often had significantly more, along with a scholar (which were spread so thin that everything from yellow journalism reporters to underage students to women were pressed into front-line service), at least one practitioner, one priest (often of no Abrahamic faith), one sensitive (since theosophy seemed to work differently from magic), and one skeptic (who was often second-in-command).

Tens of thousands of Marions were produced by both sides. Many had to be modified in the field, repaired with knapsacks, flags, military socks, and even confiscated stuffed animals. Rending might not kill a Marion, but it could slow one down and weaken it until stuffing was replaced and seams repaired. The resulting “patchworks” were less predictable, as each new material they incorporated changed their personalities and abilities and, occasionally, even their loyalties. But they were also veterans, and most soldiers who survived the war have at least one story that ends with a Patchwork Marion flinging itself on a grenade, or sitting up to keep watch all night every night, or stabbing a tommyknocker to death in a trench. Patchworks earned their comrades’ respect. And when the War finally ended, and a few thousand Patchworks came home, that respect lead to the “No Strings” act, giving Constructed Americans a path to earn rights and even citizenship.

It can be tough for a Patchwork to adjust to civilian life. Some take roles as children’s bodyguards for the rich, or private detectives. Others find fulfilling jobs as chimneysweeps, cobblers, shoeshines, and farm hands. A sad number turn to crime. And, of course, some still hunt Bogeys…

So, I’m actually getting close to being done with “Stage One” of Anachronistic Adventurers, as a concept. Soon I’ll have my original base classes and sixteen or so archetypes done, all ready for some pulp-style Pathfinder gaming goodness. And there is more to that direction, burbling secretly in the back burner.
But there are other things I’d like to do, too. Game settings I’ve kept in mind as I worked on these modern pathfinder classes. Wild, Wild, East. Pierced Veils. Sailpunk. Star Wardens. Plan Z.
I know what each of these needs to be a playable campaign. But that would have to be on top of the base classes. I’m not sure if I want to compile the Anachronistic Adventurer base rules into a campaignless book and then do setting-books for it, or product a single setting with core rules and then alternate setting-books, or release each one as its own complete setting with the base AA rules repeated in each…
Those decisions are a ways off yet. But it’s fun that it looks like I’ll actually get to a point where I’ll need to consider them.