Excerpts 07/09/2004

Serpent Kingdoms
By Ed Greenwood, Eric L. Boyd, and Darrin Drader

Throughout recorded history, the humans of Faerûn have feared the Scaled Ones -- those sentient snake and lizard races whose cultures, magic, weapons, cities, and visible accomplishments rival those of humanoids. Fireside terror tales tell of slithering death, unblinking eyes, and fangs in the night, and a few even hint a the serpentfolks' fell plans to enslave all other races. Serpent Kingdomsoffers a detailed examination of the Scaled Ones: lizardfolk, nagas, yuan-ti, and their sinister creator race, the sarrukh. Our sneak peek at this Forgotten Realms accessory explores deities and villains, monsters and feats.

Pleassse, sstep inssside. . .

Deities of the Yuan-ti

At the time the yuan-ti were created, the sarrukh empires were monotheistic societies that worshiped the World Serpent. All other gods were viewed as inferior blasphemies, and the sarrukh believed that those who worshiped them should be either turned to the veneration of the Great Scaled One or destroyed.

After the Mhairshaulk Empire fell, many yuan-ti sought different fragments of the World Serpent to lead them to the truth, hoping to leave behind the dark decadence of their former masters. Most of these gods were forgotten long ago, but the worship of Sseth took root and became the foundation of modern-day yuan-ti religion. Today, the majority of yuan-ti worship Sseth with a strength and fervor that astonishes other beings.

Some yuan-ti, however, still search for other gods to follow -- usually because their own self-importance demands that they become the most favored mortal devotees of their divine patrons, and doing so is easier when there are few other worshipers with whom to compete. In particular, the worship of the older gods Merrshaulk, Sss'thasine'ss, and Varae still thrives in certain areas. Varae is secretly worshiped by many pureblood yuan-ti who dwell in and under human cities and have come to prefer the bustle and color of such settings to their own realms. Merrshaulk is often venerated by outcast or wandering yuan-ti, particularly those who restlessly travel Faerûn's wild places and glory in hunting dangerous beasts. Some such yuan-ti believe that by worshiping Merrshaulk, they are shedding the decadence of their own culture and bypassing the "inevitable failure" of following the ways of Sseth.

Many yuan-ti cults form around anathemas. Some of these creatures claim to be awakened older gods; others proclaim themselves entirely new deities. At present, this latter category includes Beliss'ss'rae, Olome, Phelriss, Sssravvan, and T's'tranth, whose worshipers have clashed openly with other yuan-ti and occasionally raided human caravans. Other such pretenders to divinity doubtless exist but have thus far managed to remain hidden.

Sseth, the Slitherer Supreme

For most yuan-ti, there is Sseth and only Sseth. The other serpentine deities that some vrael olo have worshiped over the years have all been either masks worn by Sseth or false faces of the fell deities venerated by Scaleless Ones. These latter beings seek always to subvert yuan-ti from the truth of Sseth and lead them into decadent indolence, loss of power, and ultimate betrayal and destruction.

Sseth whispers in dreams, speaks directly through his priests, and on rare occasions even appears to his faithful. More often, however, the Slitherer Supreme leaves signs in the smoke of his temples after suitable sacrifices of life have been made on his altars.

Sseth guides in mysterious ways, leading his faithful toward ever-greater power and eventual supremacy over the world. The path to dominance that he reveals, however, is invariably a winding, veiled, and subtle one rather than the destructive and brutal route of conquest embraced by humanoids.

The Sacred Way of Sseth

Devout worshipers of Sseth may express the god's creed in different ways, and indeed many fall to arguing over its specifics. In general, however, they all believe in the following tenets.

Sseth guards secrets to make his believers strong, imparting hints and aid to faithful followers subtly and sparingly. Those who use the god's gifts to achieve power and success are pleasing to Sseth and worthy of rewards ranging from rebirth after death to augmentation with increased powers, such as serpentine limbs, stronger venom, or greater mastery of magic.

All secrets are known to Sseth. He yields them up sparingly in return for service he finds pleasing, such as achievements that benefit all vrael olo, sacrifices made in his name or upon his altars, and obedience to the priests of Sseth and orders from the god himself.

All yuan-ti must act in accordance with the Sacred Way of Sseth -- that is, subtly. Whenever possible, vrael olo should choose manipulation over open confrontation, the whisper over the fang, and subterfuge over battle spells. Those who follow the Sacred Way of Sseth know their foes, think ahead, plan forward, and slither well.

Sacrifices to Sseth

The Slitherer Supreme hears all prayers from his yuan-ti followers, but he is likely to dispense actual aid only when the sacrifice of life accompanies the request. Any sort of intelligent creature (that is, one with an Intelligence score of 3 or higher) is a suitable sacrifice, though some creatures are more pleasing to the god than others. Sacrifices rank in desirability according to the list below.

  • A scaled creature that submits willingly to death in Sseth's name.
  • Any sort of scaled creature.
  • A Scaleless One with arcane spellcasting ability or a natural spell-like power.
  • A Scaleless One with great personal power or achievements.
  • Any other sort of Scaleless One.

In any of these categories, a more formidable creature is always more pleasing to Sseth than a small and insignificant one. Thus, an ogre experienced in battle is far more worthy than a halfling infant.

Fervor of feeling while conducting a sacrifice is more important to the Slitherer Supreme than the total number or frequency of sacrifices offered. Sacrifices are expected whenever a worshiper needs to atone for straying from the Sacred Way, but they are entirely optional for worshipers who have been diligently following the wishes of Sseth, as communicated personally in dream-visions or by his priests. The manner in which the ritual is conducted and the attitude of the victim also have a bearing on the acceptability of the sacrifice.

An ideal sacrificial victim is one that submits willingly to death for the glory of Sseth. Few Scaleless Ones are truly happy about dying for Sseth, but yuan-ti and other Scaled Ones often see some benefit in giving themselves wholly to the god.

Next most prized are victims that participate willingly in preparing themselves for sacrifice. Potential sacrifices are usually offered all they desire of food, drink, treasure, company, and favors. Yuan-ti frequently offer aid in slaying a hated rival or righting a perceived wrong, then slyly drug their intended victims' food or drink so as to render them unable to resist.

In the third rank of acceptability are creatures slain in Sseth's name on an altar of Sseth by a worshiper employing either a melee weapon or her own fangs. Sacrificial victims slain by spells or bound so as to hamper resistance are less desirable.

A trussed, terrified, struggling victim is the least desirable sacrifice of all. Offering up such a victim requires little effort, almost no risk, and not much subtlety, so it is unlikely to impress the god.

The sacrifice is best performed by either biting away some of the victim's throat or face or biting off an extremity (usually a hand). Either way, death results from blood loss, not from poison or other means. The slayer should slither through the victim's blood while praying aloud to Sseth.

Specific rewards for sacrifices are given in Chapter 2 of the Book of Vile Darkness. Alternatively, the supplicant may receive cryptic replies to specific questions, either as hissed words in the mind or as visions. Other options for rewards include healing (whole or partial restoration of lost hit points) while in contact with the sacrificial altar, ready-to-cast spells (placed directly in the recipient's mind), or spontaneous, on-the-spot alterations of form (purebloods into halfbloods, or serpentine features akin to the grafts detailed in Chapter 10).

The Answered Prayers of Sseth

Almost all priests of Sseth are serpent-headed halfbloods, but the most powerful are often multiple-headed yuan-ti. Sseth accepts, ordains, and ranks his priests in dream-visions. No yuan-ti can declare himself a priest of Sseth or remain one without the agreement of the Slitherer Supreme. If any yuan-ti counterfeits priestly status in any place sacred to Sseth, the god is instantly aware of it and may inform any true priests on that consecrated ground via visions, telepathy, or other remote communication.

The clergy of Sseth tend and clean the god's sacred places and prevent defilements and intrusions of nonbelievers other than sacrifices. His priests also breed, rear, feed, and train the snakes that serve as temple messengers and errand runners, and they manage and dispense all temple caches of poisons, osssra oils, and monetary and magical treasures. Furthermore, they are charged with communicating the will of Sseth to all yuan-ti within their reach and with giving holy orders in times of tribal strife or war with Scaleless Ones. In addition, they continually monitor yuan-ti society for signs of disloyalty to Sseth and perils to all vrael olo.

The Deep Truth

For at least an age, Sseth has been growing more lethargic, often sleeping for centuries at a time but continuing to grant spells to his priests in his dreaming. In the Time of Troubles, Sseth appeared over the black Jungles as a giant, winged, magic-using snake and exhorted his priests to gather their strength. Shortly thereafter, while asleep in his lair, Sseth was magically bound into a deeper captivity by the deity Set, working through minions such as the Okothian sarrukh.

Set "became" Sseth, assuming his portfolio and all of the aspects he'd already subsumed, including Varae and Merrshaulk. He usurped Sseth's place as lord of the yuan-ti and the source of their divine magic. To mark his assumption of Sseth's portfolios, Set created the creatures known as wereserpents (see Chapter 6). All yuan-ti now receive divine spells from Set, even though they believe they're receiving them from Sseth or some other vrael olo deity.

The majority of yuan-ti still believe that Varae, Merrshaulk, Sss'thasine'ss, Set, and Sseth are all separate entities, and that Sseth reigns supreme. Most either know nothing about the strife of Set and Sseth (see the Racial History of the sarrukh in Chapter 5), or don't want to know anything about it. Those who dare to speak directly about the matter insist that Sseth is troubled by disloyalty among the vrael olo, and it must be rooted out. Beyond that, they leave divine matters to Sseth and concentrate on and obeying the priests of Sseth and living their lives in accordance with the Sacred Way. They fervently believe that if enough yuan-ti focused on those tasks, the troubles would end and all vrael olo would rise to their rightful triumph.

In truth, Sseth is slumbering fitfully, and portions of his nightmares have been visited upon his followers since the Time of Troubles. These disturbing and increasingly frequent dreams have convinced most yuan-ti and non-Okothian sarrukh that Sseth is angered or upset. Many of them have performed repeated divinations to discover what's happening. Through their efforts, they have learned that Sseth is distressed and desires them to do something, though what that might be is not clear. This knowledge has prompted a few yuan-ti to undertake quests of widely varying sorts, and vrael olo priests to order an even greater variety of strange practices.

A very few of Sseth's followers are aware that the god is in some way losing a battle with another deity, and that the Okothian sarrukh are somehow to blame. Those privy to this knowledge are keeping quiet about it for now in hopes of learning more about the threat and what they can do about it before they spread the word among the tribes. The Okothian sarrukh know exactly what Set did, but they have intentionally been misleading the yuan-ti and sowing discord among them to delay vrael olo investigations and prevent any agreement about what to do.

At present, the yuan-ti who pray to Sseth receive spells from Set, whose domains are Air, Darkness, Evil, Hatred, Law, Magic, and Scalykind. The real Sseth's domains are Air, Animal, Chaos, Evil, Knowledge, Magic, Planning, Scalykind, and Trickery. If Sseth is ever freed, his worshipers will have access to his domains but not those of Set.

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