Vesenia the Setting
Rune Giants Background
Magically crafted and crossbred from taiga and fire giant slaves by ancient wizards, rune giants are anathema to their own kind. Given power to command and magically control other giants, the rune giants themselves served their even more powerful masters, and in so doing granted ancient empires armies of giants to command. In the eons since these ancient empires collapsed, rune giants have persisted as a race of their own, little more than bogeymen, horrors whispered of late at night by superstitious giants.
Rune giants’ charcoal flesh is decorated by dozens of runes—manifestations of their eldritch powers. Rune giants are 40 feet tall and weigh 25,000 pounds.
Source: Pathfinder Campaign Setting: Giants Revisited
Among the largest of all giantkind, rune giants epitomize domination by force, and subject lesser beings to their foul rule via mind-twisting magic and sheer strength. As tyrannically cruel as they are massive, these terrors sport the tusked visage of a demonic mask, skin as black as volcanic glass, and crimson hair that invokes thoughts of both fire and blood. Their ebon skin is covered in dozens of ancient runes, which range in size from inches to feet. These characters of legend are neither tattoos nor scarifications, a rune giant’s markings appear at birth, and serve as the unfiltered manifestations of their unknowable powers over the mind and body.
Rare in the extreme, rune giants remain little more than shadowy boogeymen to most other giants, and smaller humanoids scarcely realize they exist at all. Despite what rune giants see as an imperative to exert their dominion over lesser giants and other humanoids, they are seldom seen by others, because of both their relatively small population and their ability to work from behind the scenes to manipulate those around them. Even hunters, rangers, and other wanderers who have journeyed across the frozen peaks of the world swear that nothing so horrible as the fabled rune giants could possibly exist, even though such explorers may have come within mere miles of a rune giant clan’s high and hidden lair.
All other giants fear and loathe rune giants, for it is well known among giantkind that they were created to enslave others of their mammoth race, and many giant tribes still bear the scars inflicted upon their peoples during their subjugation by rune giants thousands of years ago. Some giants of lesser intellect, such as ogres and trolls, revere rune giants like dark gods, knowing that under these colossi’s reign they can accomplish great acts of destruction and evil. Others, however, know that to worship such beings is equivalent to slavery, because once a rune giant has made a creature her minion, rare is the day she will grant that pawn any manner of freedom. When rune giants move into an area or are discovered to be nearby, most other giant clans make no attempt at peace, truce, or alliance—they simply leave their own homes and lairs behind and move on. “Easier to reason with an avalanche than make peace with a rune giant,” goes the ancient frost giant saying.
Rune giants are the progeny of the forced, magical crossbreeding of fire giants and taiga giants at the hands of evil arcanists millennia ago. Though the precise details are difficult to glean, scholars agree that these monstrous brutes were created for but a single purpose: to enslave all other giant races. Facing the whips and shackles of these fierce overlords, giants from all walks of life were forced to submit to their demands, and under their rule, the bound giants constructed monolithic monuments and cities for their ancient civilization. When that civilization collapsed, rune giants were lost to lack of purpose, and—having taken a liking to their dominant role in giant society—continued to subjugate and command lesser races for generations following their masters’ fall.
While many giants possess innate magical powers or have an affinity for arcane or divine spells, few of these colossal beings are as resistant to magic as rune giants. Fire, ice, and lightning bounce off of a rune giant’s skin like errant drops of rain, their innate resilience inexorably linked to the body-blanketing runes that cover their stony skin. This latticework of sigils seems to pulse and glow rhythmically with a rune giant’s heartbeat, and emits powerful bursts of blinding energy when the creature uses its supernatural powers of domination or destruction. So potent is a rune giant’s net of sigils that any use of his magical abilities—even those as non-aggressive as the ability to tread through the winds or see that which cannot normally be seen—causes his runes to flash with the intensity of some inner fire or a bolt of lightning across the night sky. Though the runes depict symbols and characters of a language long lost to time, it is thought that such archaic letters possess some semblance of power in and of themselves, though contemporary scholars have little idea how to tap into such ancient arcana.
Though they are often thought by other giants to be unnatural hybrid monstrosities, rune giants are able to breed true with one another. At birth, rune giant babes are taller than most full-grown humans and weigh nearly as much as an adult ogre. They are born with all the rune markings they will ever possess, which initially crowd their relatively small bodies and spread out as they grow. Rune giants’ trademark tusks grow in at about the same time they reach adolescence at the age of 50, at which time the initial ash-gray color of their runes also shifts to brilliant hues of gold and red. Rune giants are as long-lived as they are massive, and many reach the ancient age of 800 before perishing of natural causes.
All rune giants have red hair, a marker of their taiga giant ancestry, but tones can vary from the metallic sheen of burnished copper to the bright red of a rose in bloom. Many males wear their hair in long topknots, shaving the rest of their heads to emphasize the stark contrast between their hair and skin color, though just as many prefer to grow out crimson manes. Short or cut hair is rare among female rune giants, who take pride in their ruby locks and often go to great lengths to adorn it with impressive and intimidating headdresses and ornamental clasps. Both females and males who havedishonored their clans are punished by having their heads shorn as a sign to others of their transgressions, though particularly shameful or treacherous acts are just as often met by exile or execution.
Habitat & Society
Rune giants live in high and secluded mountain ranges, lairing at the tops of isolated peaks or in desolate valleys cut off from the rest of the world. These secluded realms are typically the resting places of forgotten structures from lost civilizations, which rune giants unearth by utilizing their own massive thews and the broken backs of those they enslave. The largest and hardiest of these recovered ancient structures serve as the temples and lodges of rune giant clans, who typically construct their living quarters around a singular grand hall. Slaves are housed in ramshackle buildings made with whatever timber can be found in the craggy peaks of the mountains, and any intrusion of thralls into rune giant-designated structures is strictly forbidden and punished by immediate death.
Despite their tyrannical and seemingly brutish nature, rune giants prize items that show particularly skillful craftsmanship, artistic merit, or scholastic integrity. Such pursuits are always highly disciplined and never without a pragmatic purpose, however. For example, though the ornate bridges they construct are often made of the finest marbled stonework and vaulting, crimson-lacquered timber available, such aesthetically pleasing architecture is only implemented because these sturdy overpasses can also bear the weight of numerous armored rune giants and their troops again and again. Detailed and nuanced histories of various giant societies and physiological studies of dragonkind are likewise undertaken only because they are useful to rune giants, as they aid in tactical domination of dragons and understanding their enemies’ physical and magical weaknesses.
Honor and pedigree are cornerstones of the rigid, clan-based society of rune giants. Clans consist of as few as three to as many as a dozen families and their servants, all located within the same general area and ruled by a single overlord, who is either the strongest warrior or a particularly gifted religious leader. Unlike some of their brutish kin, rune giants judge their strongest warrior on both strength and strategy, and many rune giants enjoy an incredibly complex, chesslike game called kurosho to test one another’s tactical skill on the battlefield. In order to play kurosho, rune giants move human-sized statues of ivory, jade, and obsidian across a massive board, strategically maneuvering their troops in order to overcome their opponent. Such a pastime is typically only a minor distraction from rune giants’ true lust for domination and destruction—when quarrels break out between rune giants, the last thing on their minds is a civil game of kurosho.
Male and female rune giants alike take up arms in their all-encompassing pursuit for control, and few strictures within rune giant society prevent one sex from doing anything the other can do. Although heavily pregnant rune giant females often swell to massive proportions and become significantly weaker than non-gestating kin, their enormous power is still incredibly daunting, and many female overlords have maintained their throne even during the vulnerable throes of labor. Rune giant birth typically takes place in a solitary temple designed for just this purpose, far from the great hall in the center of a rune giant settlement. This is largely because the destructive force of a pregnant rune giant female is entirely unpredictable during childbirth, and during labor the runes covering her body can pulsate and spark violently, sending shock waves of magical energy throughout her surroundings as she gives life to her terrifying young.
The various giants that rune giants enslave all serve unique purposes within the tyrannical structure of rune giant society. Stone giants work endlessly to mine great heaps of ore from the mountains, while hill giants break their backs to cart the unrefined minerals out of the tunnels. There, fire giants smelt the metals and shape them into the massive weapons and armors used by their rune giant masters, while frost giants guarded the titanic craft of their forges.
Arguably the most powerful of giant kind, rune giants are capable of easily destroying all but the hardiest PCs in direct combat. However, a rune giant’s spell-like abilities and power to control other giants present a unique option for GMs who wish to incorporate them into longer running campaigns, as rune giants make for ideal masterminds in larger plots. Low- to mid-level giants like ogres and hill giants are easily overwhelmed and controlled by rune giants, who may use such pawns to rid their lands of nuisances such as nosy PCs or nearby humanoid settlements. As the PCs advance in levels, their actions might take them closer and closer to a direct confrontation with the rune giant himself, as the overlord sets more and more powerful minions upon these interfering adventurers. In addition, almost any intelligent creature can serve as a rune giant’s thrall, offering a long list of able-bodied foes for PCs to fight. Good cloud or storm giants dominated by the party’s rune giant nemesis pose more difficult challenges, ones that cannot be so easily resolved with a simple brawl (at least for good-aligned parties). Such players might put themselves in greater peril as they work to subdue their foes, either in hopes of breaking the rune giant’s domination without killing a normally benevolent giant, or with the idea of garnering a powerful potential ally.
The ancient ruins rune giants often dwell in also make for interesting and memorable encounters, since these relics of lost civilizations are natural segues into further adventures. Primordial beings of an even more destructive bent may slumber beneath the forgotten catacombs of rune giant commanders, who unknowingly tread upon ruins that house the true face of evil.
Even the specter of a rune giant can be enough to compel a group of low- to mid-level adventurers to swift action. In such cases, avoiding direct confrontation with a rune giant actually becomes the party’s goal, and a sort of victory. PCs who successfully prevent a meeting between rune giant emissaries and the messenger of some other evil race might foil a rune giant’s plans without the threat of actually battling the behemoth. Similarly, PCs who find a way to rebury ruins perfect for rune giant habitation might spare their lands from the evil giants’ attentions for years to come.
Rune giants are avaricious collectors of all manner of treasures, and have a particular fondness for rare metals, gems, weapons, and useful magical items. Such valuables are usually stripped from fallen enemies or plundered from the forgotten ruins where rune giants settle, and are often sold to emissaries from equally powerful and evil societies. Industrious clans often use the strength of their enslaved giant minions to dig for precious ores or gems, and vast mining operations have been spearheaded by rune giants seeking to carve nature’s bounty from the land. During such excavations, the relics of ancient civilizations are inevitably thrust up from the earth as well. Rune giants often establish intricate trading channels through their humanoid thralls, and utilize these networks in order to sell exotic and potentially magical goods to buyers in other societies, who may or may not realize the terrifying origin of these illicit wares. Likewise, rune giants often trade valuable but ornamental treasures for more useful artifacts and items, using their brainwashed slaves as their proxies for such transactions.
Regardless of the source of such treasures, rune giants are not hoarders by nature, and instead typically seek to use such items for the advancement of themselves and their clan. For most rune giants, treasure is used for the upkeep of weapons and armor. The longswords they carry into battle contain more metal than a human blacksmith might work in a lifetime, and rune giants sometimes enslave dwarven artisans to inlay their blades with adamantine or cold iron. The ornate fixtures of rune giant armor require massive metal plates and silk padding thousands of strands thick. Such materials are usually crafted within rune giant settlements themselves, charmed and enslaved servants of all races and builds working to keep up with the grand demands of their rune giant masters, and one might easily find dozens—if not hundreds—of such slaves toiling away in longhouses to make the enormous swaths of fabric, leather, and straps that go into rune giant armaments.
Untold treasures, rare books, and even large stocks of ancient coins are sometimes traded to greedy dragons or other powerful creatures for the materials needed to enchant armor massive enough to protect a rune giant. Indeed, rune giants don’t even throw rocks like most of their giant kin, preferring instead to employ massive spears the length of a siege engine’s battering ram or longer. The upkeep and upgrading of arms and armor occupy the bulk of a rune giant’s funds and free time.
Beyond such practical concerns, some clans use their wealth to employ exotic artisans like duergar stonemasons or drow calligraphers to gild homes or items of personal significance as befits the giants’ status or station. And while some clans have the aid of those who craft enchanted items, rune giants often shy away from overly ostentatious or complex items of magic. Such “trinkets” as they are sometimes branded, suggest that the owner or bearer’s own powers are not strong enough to vanquish foes or defend the honor of his clan—an implication that would bring shame upon most any rune giant.