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Tabletop Game / Ptolus

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"In Ptolus, the supernatural is expected and treachery lies around every corner—or is it that the supernatural lies around every corner and treachery is expected?"

“Some place needs to be the worst place in the world. Why not here?”'
Brusselt Airmol, well-known rogue adventurer

Ptolus: Monte Cook's City by the Spire is, according to Monte Cook (a co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition), the most deluxe campaign setting ever. Almost seven hundred pages long, not including the many other materials that came with it as PDFs on a CD inside the cover, it's a massive, detailed view of a world, and in particular one city, that runs on the Dungeons & Dragons rules. This was one of the last major products before Fourth Edition.

Ptolus was originally published by Malhavoc Press for D&D 3rd Edition in 2006, soon before the release of 4th Edition. In 2021, updated versions were released for Fifth Edition and Cypher System following a successful Kickstarter campaign. The new versions are, again, almost 700 pages long, and come with a thick folder of maps, tables, forms, handbills, and signs in the back.


This book/setting provides examples of:

  • Absolute Xenophobe: The shaadom are the personification of individuality taken to an extreme and see each other as well as mortals and all other Galchutt only as rivals and enemies.
  • Adventure-Friendly World: Played with. The world at large is noted to be not particularly friendly to adventurers, who are viewed as oddballs at best and wandering psychopaths at worst. But the main setting, the city of Ptolus itself, is having a kind of adventurer gold rush. Not everyone loves the adventurers, but everyone is used to them, and the economy has accommodated the influx.
  • Antagonistic Offspring: When the children of Praemus saw how their father created the mortals of Praemal only to trap them unknowing in a prison with the Galchutt, they rebelled against him on behalf of his creation and warred with him for many years in the early days of creation.
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  • Artificial Human: Kadmus resembles a tall human with thick grey hair, bright blue eyes, and a sincere but modest smile, but is in truth a creature made entirely of magical force—an extension of Castle Shard. As long as the castle and the shard remain intact, he cannot be slain.
  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Mixed. Some aristocrats are nearly monsters (House Vladaam). Some are evil but manage to play well with others (House Sadar). Others are fairly benevolent (House Dallimothan), and Commissar Igor Urnst, the ruler of the city itself is, if not good, then decent and highly competent.
  • Beneath the Earth: There are many different, intersecting sets of natural and artificial caverns under Ptolus, from the sewers to Ghul's Labyrinth to, if you go deep enough, the cities of dark elves.
  • Big Bad: Over thousands of years of history, there have been many... and they've tended to end up in Ptolus. The Dread One, Eslathagos Malkith, built his fortress atop the spire. Later, the so-called Half God Ghul built his fortress halfway up. And deep below the city the Galchutt wait for their chance to destroy everything.
  • Body Horror: This is one of the things chaositechnicians specialize in. Kinion Luth, the Surgeon in the Shadows, is the prime example
  • Card-Carrying Villain: House Vladaam.
  • Cat Folk: The litorians are humanoids with a clearly leonine head.
  • Chaos Is Evil: According to the cults of Chaos, chaos means more than just individuality or personal freedom; it is based on hate, destruction, death and dissolution. There's nothing good about Chaos worship, and most cultists are as evil as they are chaotic.
  • City of Adventure: The city is built around Sealed Evil in a Can and on top of multiple layers of Sealed Evil in a Can, and (mostly unrelatedly) is home to several men who are, or can at least get away with claiming to be, emperor. The evil is leaking, the cans have become something of a tourist industry, and the political tensions are on the rise. Yes, there are some explanations. The book itself gives the rest of the world only in the sketchiest details, and suggests that GM can agree with players that the focus is just never going to leave. But with all that's going on, why would you?
  • Cool Sword: Plenty to go around. The six hungerswords, most of which are missing, and the Sword of Lies are noteworthy.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: Lothian was born a simple man who became a preacher and wanderer who worked miracles, was executed by crucifixion, and later returned to the world as a martyred god. His new clerics took Lothian's crucified form as their symbol, and his church later proclaimed that Lothian was the one true deity and outlawed all others, whom they regarded as false divinities. Sounds familiar?
  • Dark Is Not Evil: Well, usually it is. But not always!
  • Dark World: The Shadow of Ptolus, a small plane that is Exactly What It Says on the Tin
  • Declining Promotion: Nivae Tamelli, the greatest bard in all of Ptolus, has turned down numerous offers to lead her order, the Knights of the Chord.
  • Deity of Human Origin: Except for Praemus, the Elder Gods and the Galchutt, the gods of Praemal were all mortals who completed a spiritual journey lain down by Praemus and ascended to divinity after talking with him.
  • Demonic Possession: The soul riders are born with the ability to leave their own body and ride the souls of others. They control the actions, thoughts and emotions of the creatures whose souls they ride, making the hosts utter puppets.
  • Doorstopper: Gigantic, 700 page hardcover, plus bonus materials. When it was released, there was a contest to win a copy by holding it out at arm's length the longest.
  • Dramatis Personae: There's an index of characters.
  • Dumb Muscle: A tall, dark haired, broad-shouldered lumbering oaf, Godfred Vladaam is a master of the greatsword and wields the only hungersword his father Iristul has yet found. Even though he is his favourite child, Iristul Vladaam knows that Godfred is too slow-witted and rash to be in charge.
  • Dungeon Punk: Somewhat.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Monte Cook, a fan of H. P. Lovecraft and the author of Call of Cthulhu D20 and the Shandler Chronicles, a Mythos serial, is also the creator of the Galchutt: they are outsiders, but have no native plane and are alien no matter where they go; they are not gods and gain no benefit from worship; they seek the utter destruction of all reality and work their plans over millions of years or so; mortals seem to mistake that they're asleep, but their plans are too vast and incomprehensible for mortals.
  • Elective Mute: The Sisters of Silence never speak and use a form of unspoken communication that conveys feelings and sometimes images rather than words.
  • Entropy and Chaos Magic: The Dread One's Entropy Sphere. Ghul tapped it and created Pits of Insanity. And, of course, chaositech and chaos mages.
  • Evil Tower of Ominousness: Ptolus lies in the shadow of the impossibly tall Spire. Though not many people in the city realize it, the entire spire is hollow and holds a vault of evil artifacts, and on top of that is the castle so tainted by its former Big Bad occupant that the gods themselves still keep it locked tight thousands of years after his death. Halfway up the Spire is the fortress of a slightly smaller bad, Ghul. He plunged most of a continent into winter for years as a weapon of mass destruction, created monstrous laboratories in which to create monstrous armies, and generally was bad news for everyone and everything. And he measures up to the halfway point of the original big bad.
  • Evil Weapon: The hungerswords, probably.
  • Fallen Hero: The Dread One Eslathagos Malkith was once Danar Rotansin, a good cleric who seeked to safely store all the evil artifacts and banes of the world. The proximity with the Galchutt and influence of the banes ultimately drove him to become the Evil Overlord that nearly destroyed the world before he was stopped.
  • Fantastic Metals: Ithildin (a decorative silver that glows at night but is dull and almost invisible during the day), ithilnaur (a thin, strong material with the same properties as ithildin) and moonsilver (a liquid metal which can coat a solid surface, to which it then adheres, protecting the surface as if it were made of iron).
  • Fantastic Racism: It is illegal, on penalty of death, to be a dark elf within the city limits.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Prustans are an industrious people with an extensive societal infrastructure who built a militaristic empire with advanced technology, and speak a language based on German. Yep, they are fantasy Prussians.
  • Fantasy Kitchen Sink: By design. Monte Cook thought many settings failed to take into account the effects that magic and high level characters would have on a world. Ptolus is a place where the city guard invisibly monitors for mind control in markets, you can buy resurrection insurance, get Magitek implants, and look at both ancient and new steampunk devices.
  • Ghost City: Dwarvenhearth, the ancestral home of the Stonemight dwarves, was abandoned when Ghul drove them from the city. When Ghul fell and Dwarvenhearth was liberated, influential dwarven leaders would not allow the city to be repopulated: by deserting their home, they lost the rights to it. Instead, the city was sealed.
  • God Needs Prayer Badly: Without worshippers, gods will eventually fade and die.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The major Galchutt are the biggest villainous presence in the setting and are the reason why the world exists at the first place, but they are so detached from the current affairs of the world that only two of them actually get fleshed out (in the Chaositech companion PDF), and cleansing the world of their evil is a job too big for your characters (even Praemus could only seal them away).
  • Honor Among Thieves: The Longfingers Guild teaches the old-fashioned philosophy of honour among thieves, and their leader Hayman Knapp looks back fondly on days when thief gangs did not feud or work for evil individuals.
  • Hordes from the East: One such barbarian horde came from the east to attack Tarsis a few years before the events of the game.
  • Illegal Religion: Early in the history of the Empire of Tarsis, all religions were outlawed except for the church of Lothian, a ban which only got lifted 80 years ago (although some evil cults remain banned for obvious reasons).
  • Irony: House Khatru is a bunch of arrogant fighters who disdain rogues and spellcasters, but ironically their 89-year-old leader Dorant owes his youth and vigour to a spell cast by his former paramour, an elf wizard who wanted him to live for as long as she does. The romance didn't last, but the magic did.
  • Knighting: The city has plenty of knightly orders. Players can join, and many are prestige classes.
  • Knight in Shining Armor: The Knights of the Golden Cross support goodness for its own sake and oppose evil in all its forms with a selfless altruism that causes some cynic citizens of Ptolus to distrust them, thinking that no one can really be as selfless as these knights.
  • Last of His Kind: While they do not know it, the Doril sisters imprisoned in a mirror in the heart of Jabel Shammar are actually the two last dwarves of the Earthsinger clan that are still alive.
  • Left-Justified Fantasy Map: Not really. The map has land running off the west and east sides, with sea below. It looks something like a distorted map of Western Europe, with the Prustan Peninsula as Italy, Ren Tehoth as Germany/France, and Palastan, Cherubar, and the Sea Kingdoms as the Iberian Peninsula. Qurac across the Southern Sea is like Morocco.
  • Legend Fades to Myth: Most of the aberration races created by Eslathagos Malkith's experiments have forgotten that they owe their existence to him and many have developed creation myths and gods of their own.
  • Living Legend: Plenty of them wandering around in Ptolus.
  • Lizard Folk: The assarai are a race of reptilian humanoids that stand a little taller than a human.
  • The Mafia: Probably the most powerful crime family in Ptolus, the Balacazar clan is certainly the oldest, having literally run the business of crime for more than two centuries. Today, the family funds a number of criminal enterprises, gaining profit from theft, extortion, smuggling, illegal gambling, assassination, and trade in slaves, poisons and drugs.
  • Maker of Monsters: When the Dread One lived in Jabel Shammar, he spent a great deal of time in the Misbegotten Tower creating new horrors to unleash upon the world. Even today, his legacy endures in such aberrations as destrachans, chokers, chuuls, and more.
  • Mind Rape: There are many ways to get mind raped. Chaositech will do it. Reading the Book of Inverted Darkness will do it. Spending time in Jabel Shammar will do it. The Galchutt will do it gleefully.
  • Mystical Plague: Causing one is very, very illegal and will bring the combined might of the Church and the Empire down on you. There are still some around.
    • Faceless Rage. Rotting Fester, which is immune to magical cures, was locked away in the Banewarrens. Scarlet Death is spread by chaos cultists.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: The Dread One.
  • Necromantic: The lichloved, a cabal that even the rest of the Forsaken find icky.
  • No Biological Sex: Rhodintor do not procreate, and only increase in numbers by being created by the Galchutt.
  • No One Sees the Boss: To reach Menon Balacazar, one must peel the onion of the criminal underworld to its very core. No one goes to see Menon—people find themselves summoned before him, or, rarely, he goes to see them. Layers and layers of bureaucracy lie between the average thug and the grand master of the family. Most people in the organisation have never laid eyes on Menon Balacazar and have no clue where he is at any given time.
  • O.C. Stand-in: Other than Shallamoth Kindred and Bhor Kei, the other unique Galchutt individuals only get a name, title and little else, ostensibly to allow enterprising DMs to use them in whichever way they want.
  • Older Than They Look: Dorant Khatru, current Lord of House Khatru, is 89 years old but looks 40. He attributes this to his good breeding stock, without being aware of the spell that extended his lifespan to be that of an elf.
  • The Old Gods: The Elder Gods, a group of deities that are the children of Praemus, predated the dominant religion of Lothian by more than nine millennia and are no longer widely worshipped.
  • Omnicidal Maniac: The Galchutt's ultimate goal is the total destruction of all reality.
  • Our Angels Are Different: Because Praemal is a prison plane, extraplanar beings can enter but then they can never leave. Some angels still come if they believe they must, to do some good. They tend to congregate in the Ivory Tower in Ptolus and are collectively called the Malkuth. For the same reason, the inhabitants of Praemal have a very vague understanding of the Outer Planes and call all celestial beings 'angels' (regardless of how they're called in other Dungeons & Dragons settings).
  • Our Centaurs Are Different: Called 'aram' ('centaur' is their Dwarvish name), these half-horse, half-human people are boisterous, arrogant and boorish.
  • Our Demons Are Different: The demons who arrive and become trapped in Ptolus for various reasons, including those who first came with the Galchutt, hang out in the Necropolis as the Fallen, and their non-evil fallen angel leader considers whether or not to free the Galchutt just to get out. Unlike in other Dungeons & Dragons settings, the distinction between the Lawful Evil devils and Chaotic Evil demons in Praemal is practically meaningless and both are simply collectively called 'demons': no matter where they came from, they have been stuck in this world and work together with an acceptable amount of backstabbing to seek escape, and since the inhabitants of Praemal cannot leave, their understanding of other planes is greatly limited and simplistic: all evil planes are called 'Hell'. There are also the rhodintor (earthbound demons), which are not actual demons or even outsiders at all, but rather natives of Praemal created by the Galchutt, and they're so similar to actual demons that the distinction is only academic.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Our dragons rule a noble house and pretend not to be dragons.
  • Our Elves Are Different: Shoal elves, harrowed elves, and winged cherubim elves. The Urthon Aedar, too. Halflings and gnomes are also technically distant elven relations, and were once considered elven subraces.
  • Our Minotaurs Are Different: Minotaurs, who would be considered monsters anywhere else in the Empire, make their homes right here in Ptolus, but still face daily prejudice, discrimination and hostility from other residents. Although most are quite bestial, some minotaurs are intelligent and civilised, if bloodthirsty.
  • Our Orcs Are Different: Like the Tolkien version, most were created by Ghul as modifications of another race. Except he modified the Ornu-Nom orks to create the more vicious and evil Toruk-Rul and Sorn-Ulth. The originals are less monstrous... but still enemies of most other races.
  • Our Trolls Are Different: The city watch is willing to pay very well for people willing to be polymorphed into trolls. They don't get many takers.
  • Phantasy Spelling: A source of energy described as non-magical artificially-produced lightning is called 'aelectricity'.
  • Phlebotinum Overload: If a character tries to absorb more spell levels than a piece of aethel (a mineral which can absorb magical energy) can hold, the stone bursts.
  • Plant Person: The Viridian Lords bond themselves physically to the natural world in a lengthy ritual that literally infuses living plants into their flesh.
  • Polluted Wasteland: Kem is a land blighted by magical conflicts called the Wars of Fire millennia ago. Only the toughest, coarsest of plants grow in Kem, and few natural animals make it their home.
  • Pragmatic Villainy: The Balacazars are very smart. They know that as long as they don't do anything terribly overt—burn down a noble estate, kill dozens in broad daylight, murder many City Watch guards, or commit a major crime easily traceable to the family itself—the Commissar will allow them to continue. Taking them on would be too difficult, and in the end fighting them would amount to a war in the city. So the Balacazars keep their businesses going subtly and quietly, earning hundreds of thousands in gold every year.
  • Predecessor Villain: Ghul, an Evil Overlord who led armies comprised of demons, undead and horrible monsters in a war against the rest of the world a thousand years ago. And seven thousand years before him, there was Eslathagos Malkith, who commanded servants of the Galchutt and many other evil beasts and demons in a bid to conquer the world.
  • Religion of Evil: Chaos Cultists. Worship of Destor, banned by law. The Forsaken.
  • Revive Kills Zombie: Although a zaug can normally instantly regenerate all damage taken, healing spells can hurt them as well and the zaug cannot heal itself from damage inflicted by such spells.
  • Saintly Church: The Church of Lothian is political and has made its mistakes and enemies, but it's a lawful good church and its members genuinely try to do good. Other churches to more minor good deities as well.
  • Science Is Bad: Subverted. Chaositech looks pretty much like science fiction and is The Corruption...except it isn't science, and it isn't magic, it's taking advantage of flexible reality produced by The Corruption to make things. In reality, true science, as represented by the Shuul, is morally neutral, and part of the recommended adaptation of chaositech to one's own setting is to contrast it's corruptive, primordial nature with the real progress of actual technology.
  • Sealed Evil in a Can: The entire world of Praemal was created as a prison to keep the Galchutt from destroying all worlds everywhere. Its prison status means everyone else is sealed in the can with them, but at least they've got several more cans around them.
    • Danar Rotansin decided to gather up all the evil artifacts he could and seal them in the Banewarrens so nobody could use them. This had some side effects, but even when he himself had a Face–Heel Turn most of the contents remained sealed away and undisturbed for millennia.
  • Secret Identity: Navanna Vladaam maintains a number of false identities, including one as Nicalon Regelis, a member of the Knights of the Chord. Nicalon, a tall, thin, dark-skinned human man, is entirely a creation of Navanna, aided by her brother Aliaster to fake her way through the order's initiation rites. In this guise, she speaks out strongly against House Vladaam in order to learn what her enemies have to say. Nicalon keeps to himself most of the time, so few of the other knights know anything about him. He seems to be a devout worshipper of Jode but very poor at calling upon the magical power of music.
  • Smug Snake: Shilukar. In a campaign setting with immensely powerful, monstrous foes, this dark elf tends to get the most intense hatred from players. And he often gets away with his schemes anyway.
  • Staying Alive: There are a lot of things in the Banewarrens, Goth Gulgamel, and Jabel Shammar that aren't alive, exactly, but aren't quite fully dead either.
  • Supervillain Lair: Goth Gulgamel and Jabel Shammar, the lairs of the two previous Big Bads of the setting Ghul and Eslathagos Malkith, are places of great evil and great power, of interest to high-level characters as sites to explore.
  • The Symbiote: Organic chaositech devices are creatures unto themselves. When an organic chaositech device becomes a part of a host, it leeches its nutrition and energy off the host.
  • Tailor-Made Prison: The world of Praemal was created with no exit specifically to serve as the prison of the Galchutt. Creatures, objects and energies from other planes could come to the world, but they could never leave. No special magic or loopholes exist; if there was such a thing, the Galchutt would have taken advantage of it to escape already.
  • Time Abyss: The cthorn in Goth Gulgamel. They're undead, but they're the last of a species that has been forgotten for a very long time. The point is for players to fight them and then wonder what the hell they are and then consider just how long they've been lurking.
  • Token Good Teammate: To a degree. The demons are Always Chaotic Evil (or Always Lawful Evil), but their leader is the True Neutral-aligned angel Raguel.invoked
  • Tome of Eldritch Lore: The Book of Inverted Darkness is a major one, but wizards sell minor tomes by the hundreds.
  • The Undead: They abound. The Necropolis is full of them, and the Wintersouled, the first undead from when the veil between life and death was torn ages ago, still lurk quietly.
  • Vestigial Empire: The Empire of Tarsis has certainly seen better days and now teeters on the brink of disintegration.
  • Walking Tank: Chaositech items include the spidery walker (a 8-legged walker) and the warstrider (a 100-feet-long, centipede-like steel vehicle).
  • Weird Trade Union: The Inverted Pyramid, a kind of mage's guild, runs the Dreaming Apothecary. Want to purchase a magic item? Get a token, go to sleep, and they'll arrange it all in your dreams. They'll also arrange to blow up your house if you try to become competition.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Helmut Ittlestein, leader of the republican movement. Actually fairly reasonable politically, but willing to have his lover murdered because he believes she is pregnant with a child prophesied to bring doom to the world. He's a villain many players have mixed feelings about.
  • Where It All Began: The city itself.
  • White Sheep: While her ties to her family are strong, Fesamere Balacazar does not share their dark hearts, being the only Balacazar with a non-evil alignment. She's not altruistic, nor does she work against her family, but she would blanch at committing outright murder herself.