If I am the referee, then Neve Canri exists in the game world. Whether her machinations are visible to the players, or her attention is focused on some far off corner of the cosmos, she is there.
Neve Canri is a God. Various worshipers claim she is the patron of various things: secrets, lies, conspiracies, undeath. But these are human attempts to understand the divine. Neve Canri is the patron only of her own unknowable will.
On a divine scale, Neve Canri is young. But her ceaseless campaigning has left only a few gods that remember a time before her. The rest are mere infant godlings by comparison, having risen to fill the vacuums she created.
She typically appears as a dark haired woman wearing an elegant gown. There are diamonds where her eyes ought to be, and her withered hands that are little more than skin and bone.
She resides in the Citadel of the Seed, a tower hidden amongst the mountain ranges of the abyss. Each of the tower’s 16 levels appears to be a whole world, with the pathway upwards hidden somewhere in its landscape. At the center of the top level is a great mountain, at the peak of which is the granite throne from which Neve Canri rules.
Orcus is dead. All undead creatures serve Neve Canri.
Neve Canri began life circa 2008 as an NPC I largely improvised on the spot when a game session lasted well beyond the material I had prepared. I was a different kind of referee back then. The kind who planned out storylines in advance, loved D&D 3.5, and had never killed a character at his table.
I still have all my notes for that first session of what I later called the “Ascendant Crusade Campaign.” I’d recently grown close with some new friends through World of Warcraft, and I wanted to introduce them to the hobby. The first line of my notes is “Start: Almost cartoonishly generic.” This is followed by what I think is supposed to be boxed text. Like I said, a different kind of referee.
The structure of the adventure was, indeed, generic. The players would begin in town A, and there was a caravan going to town B. They’d first be presented with the opportunity to join a group of bandits planning to ambush the caravan. If they turned down the job, they’d be approached by the governor with a counter offer to protect it.
I actually wrote notes for three different paths the players could take through the adventure, and felt quite proud of myself for the level of agency I was providing. As an amusing aside: the players immediately split the party. The halfling rogue went off with the bandits, while the rest joined up with the caravan as guards. It was all sorts of amusing, but that’s neither here nor there.
More to the point, these were the halcyon days when D&D lasted for as long as everyone felt like playing. The group was still going strong, even as they approached the end of my prepared notes. So I began weaving rumors of cult activity in the town they’d just arrived in. Some additional adventuring revealed a hidden cavern beneath the city, and what appeared to be a human sacrifice in progress. A young woman lay on an altar, with chanting cultists and burning braziers around her. Her name was Erin Wallcraft.
I don’t remember exactly how much about Erin was improvised on the spot. I seem to recall it had always been my plan to have a rival adventuring party in this campaign. I might have even outlined who the characters in that rival party would be. But, I certainly didn’t plan for the whole conspiracy which grew out of this improvised moment.
See, Erin wasn’t being sacrificed. She was, in fact, a very important member of the cult, and a fellow worshiper of their god: Vecna, lord of magic, undeath, and secrets. Under Erin’s orders, the cultists were performing a ritual to transform her into an undead creature. A ritual the players interrupted on the assumption that they were rescuing her. But Erin was pretty good at rolling with the punches, so she happily thanked the PCs for her ‘rescue.’
I was careful to note that Erin got up off the altar on her own, because of course, she hadn’t been restrained. Further, when Erin told the party that she needed to go “free” her companions, I described her running ahead of the group. She opened the door (without unlocking it), and said something to the effect of “Hey guys, these adventurers right here just rescued us from the evil death cult that was trying to kill me! Yaay!” When the players saw these supposed prisoners, I mentioned that they were all fully armed and armored.
I often think back on my younger days as a referee with some shame. To this day, though, I’m proud of how much agency the players had here. I dropped hints like crazy that Erin and her friends were lying, but the players were oblivious. It made the many betrayals that followed so much sweeter.
Erin’s adventuring party wove their way in and out of the campaign from that point onward. They showed up in roughly every 3rd adventure. My original intent was for them to be the PCs’ rivals, but my players really liked them. The two parties became very buddy-buddy with one another, and the players would actually get excited when they ran into Erin & Co. The single longest game session I’ve ever played was 15 hours straight of of the PCs assisting Erin in recovering “her teacher’s journals” from a trap-filled dungeon. “Her teacher’s journals,” of course, being code for “The copy of Ordinary Necromancy penned in Vecna’s own hand.” Failed spot checks allowed her to slip the book under her robe and claim someone else must have raided the dungeon before them.
Between game sessions I was developing Erin and her party voraciously. Something about these characters took hold of me. I planned out their whole story, backwards and forward. I started drawing them a lot. I’ve never drawn so much in my life as I did when I was trying to pin down these NPCs. I even outlined two sequel campaigns that would pick up after Erin conquered the world. In the first, the PCs would start as low-level mooks in Erin’s army, as it marched into the Abyss to overthrow Graz’zt and place one of her party members on his throne. And after that campaign ended, I’d jump forward a thousand years so the players could be the peasant children that were destined to defeat Erin once and for all. I had a bit of that frustrated novelist syndrome, for sure.
Unfortunately, life began to pull everyone in different directions. Like so many other D&D games, The Ascendent Crusade petered out. The final session (played with only 2 of the original group), was meant to be the first of a new phase of the campaign. The players encountered Erin’s group. They were fording a river with a coffin, and Erin wasn’t with them. They told the PCs that they had encountered someone called “The Whispered Empress,” and that this mysterious figure had killed Erin. They were on their way to bury her now, after which they were planning to retire from adventuring for good.
What had really happened is that Erin had become a vampire, slain & replaced the High Priest of Vecna, and re-dubbed herself “The Whispered Empress” in preparation for her coming war of conquest. This encounter was one final clue for the party, albeit a subtle one. Vampires cannot cross running water under their own power.
It has always bothered me that I never got to finish Erin’s story. The very fact that I thought of that game as “Erin’s Story” speaks to my frustrated novelist syndrome, but by all accounts the players were enjoying themselves. One actually told me they wished I still ran more narrative-driven games. No harm no foul, I suppose?
Years after the campaign ended, I did have the pleasure of revealing to one of the players that Erin had been evil the whole time. I told her my plan had been for the campaign to end when the players finally met The Whispered Empress, and it turned out to be their old friend Erin. She would have offered them positions of power within her empire, and killed them (or tried to) if they refused. That player’s complete surprise at this revelation was satisfying to me.
Erin’s adventuring party inspired me to do some of my first really serious D&D writing. Like the clumsy addiction system I put together for Erin’s drug habit, or the Arcane Surgeon class I drafted when I decided Erin’s party needed an irreligious healer. Notably, many of the very first posts on Papers & Pencils were my attempt to tell Erin’s story through The Girl and the Granite Throne. But that never really worked out either. Such is life.
All of which finally brings us around to Erin’s transformation into Neve Canri. It was October 2012, and my younger brother Ronnie came to me and asked me to run a D&D game for him. He had never played D&D at that point, and I was happy to put together a campaign. I recruited my ladyfriend (one of the original Ascendant Crusade players), and Ronnie recruited one of his friends, and we had a quorum. I hacked together a quick custom ruleset that I called D&D&LB. Dungeons & Dragons & Little Brothers.
I set the game in the distant future of the Ascendant Crusade world. One where everything I planned had taken place, and then faded into obscure legend. Erin had conquered the world, placed one of her allies on a demon lord’s throne, and reigned for a thousand years before the world was freed from her iron-fisted grip by a band of plucky upstart heroes.
As a little treat for my ladyfriend, the whole world was designed to be vaguely recognizable. I was really just curious if she’d pick up on it. Most of the names for places and things were altered to sound like they’d gone through a thousand years of playing ‘telephone.’ So the town of Heathrop (He-Thrup) became Haetrop (Hay-Trope). Stuff like that.
It was as I was answering Jeff’s 20 questions that I decided to take it one step further. “Who are your campaign’s gods?” Why not Erin? But “Erin” is a silly name for a god. So somehow I came up with the name “Neve Canri.” I honestly couldn’t tell you how I got it. There’s a better than even chance that I just played around with syllables until I found a jumble of them that sounded good in my ear. And it still does. It’s a fuckin’ awesome name for a god, if I do say so myself.
I didn’t plan for Neve Canri to play any special role in the campaign. There were two good gods, and two evil gods, and she was just one of the latter. I suppose, though, it was inevitable that she started to show up more and more. I had such a strong sense of her character compared to the other three gods. Plus, the megadungeon the players were exploring was specifically the remnants of one of Erin’s fortresses. It was only natural the players tended to find a lot of cultists and artifacts dedicated to her.
Late in the campaign my brother’s Hireling died. He was bummed. He looked at me and declared that his character would call out to Neve Canri. He offered his soul in exchange for his Hireling’s life. I wasn’t really prepared for that, but the exchange seemed reasonable enough. I agreed. His hireling returned to life with full hit points, and his PC’s eyes turned into diamonds. I told him he would be expected to act always in the best interests of Neve Canri. And he did, for about ten minutes.
Maybe two sessions after that, the players slew a dragon. This was exciting not only because of the horde of treasure they earned, but also because that game allowed PCs to consume bits of dragon to empower themselves. Or maybe die, if they failed a save. My brother chose to eat the dragon’s eyes, which I warned would be a betrayal of Neve Canri. He did it anyway. A pair of dragon eyes forced the diamonds out of his sockets. He gained dragon eyes, and his resurrected hireling immediately exploded in a rain of gore.
During the last few sessions of the campaign, Neve Canri sabotaged the party at every turn. Undead would pop out of nowhere to attack at the worst possible moment. A doppleganger of my brother was created with the express purpose of assassinating and replacing him. The final session of the game was a flash-forward to 10 years in the future, where the PCs were all super high level and badass. They ventured into Neve Canri’s own realm to destroy her, which they utterly failed at. It was a good time.
It was in the aftermath of that campaign that I decided I wanted to keep Neve Canri around as a meta connection between my game worlds. She’s hardly the most original or interesting god. Honestly she’s pretty much a ripoff of Vecna that I’ve tried to contort into something vaguely resembling an original creation. But after spending 10 years with this NPC, she feels like a more substantive deity to me. Her ridiculous backstory actually happened, more or less. And while “her” story is over, I find that her continued presence pushes me to come up with schemes that are worthy of her.
So if we ever play together, remember: Neve Canri is watching.