Just for example, this is what I wrote up for the Towers of Yuggoth:
WHAT’S GOING ON?
The Mi-Go got a little sick of the human race in the late 1970’s. Sure, they’d had some fun abducting human beings and throwing them into brain cans for a quick jaunt around the universe, and sure, there were some structures in the human mind that the Mi-Go thought might have been worth investigating, but there’s only so much you can do with a human brain before you get bored with it.
They still had a bunch of braincases on hand that they didn’t really have a use for. Toting them around the universe for the next three hundred years didn’t interest them. Killing them all seemed like a waste of effort, as being brain-encased usually meant that the Mi-Go “knew” that person enough to make the process worthwhile. (That’s not to say that a few brains weren’t discreetly poured down the alien equivalent of the kitchen sink.)
The Mi-Go decided to run one last experiment on the human race, this one social in nature. They found one of the emptier lightless towers of Yuggoth, chased out the horrible things that lived inside with lightning guns and slopped the human brains into a series of automatons that had been built for the purpose of using humans as slave labor miners. They reconfigured the interior to accomodate the stubby legs of the automatons, created some rooms for them to live in, ran some freshwater in a steady trickle from the roof throughout the entire complex and distributed food dispensers throughout, and ushered the automatons in. After they spent a few days stumbling around in the dark and killing themselves by falling from great heights, the Mi-Go remembered that humans needed certain spectrums of light in order to see, and threw in a combination of phosphorescent fungus and a few light strips that cast the geometry of the tower into sharp relief. Then, they sealed the place off and let the humans get about their lives.
It didn’t serve the Mi-Go to have the humans remembering too much of what they’d seen back on Earth, of course – that would lead to escape attempts, sucides, all manner of things that the Mi-Go didn’t want to have happen. A little bit of surgical sorcery managed to wipe out most of their old memories, leaving them clean slates for insertion into the tower.
So, then: the automatons have always lived in the tower. The black steel of their casings was the flesh that they’d always had, they had always seen through sharp glass lenses and spoken through the chirring voiceboxes of the Mi-Go. They’ve always eaten food from the dispensers, drank water through flexible pipes made from alien brass and dried membranes. And if they remember having skin, or a mouth, or eyes that blinked, then they don’t really talk about it with their neighbors unless they want to be regarded as somehow odd. Even in a city built by monsters and occupied by robots, social shunning still works.
SO WHAT DO THE AUTOMATONS LOOK LIKE?
The automatons are all built from a single template – a boxy rectangle, approximately four feet high and two feet thick, with a pair of stubby but nimble legs attached to the underside. The interior is largely hollow, with the exception of a human brain – which hangs in the middle, suspended in a silvery web of metal strands – and the fungoid life support system, which lines the bottom of the box and pumps the blood substitute that keeps the brain healthy. A series of microscopic sensory rings on the outside of the box manages to convey the array of sensations that a normal human being can feel. The only exception to this rule is pain, which the brain perceives as varying levels of cold. A feeding tube, constructed of brass rings inside an extremely tough membrane, snakes from the lower third of the box’s front, which allows the gathering of both food and water.
The genius of the casing is that it’s modular without needing to open and rewire the interior of the case. The most popular modules are ones that replicate the five senses and manipulator arms, both of which allow the casing to give its user the reassuring sensation that it’s still human in some way, shape or form. There’s nothing, however, that dictates that these modules have to mimic a human face. Many find it reassuring to install sensory organs in clusters, or to install them on the sides of the box, giving the brain inside a 270 degree field of vision. The only thing that can’t be done is to install a sensor “behind” the box, as the brain inside just isn’t equipped to handle having eyes in the back of its head.
There are other modules available. There are deposits of metallic clay – the same kind the Mi-Go used to make the boxes – in the ground outside the tower, sometimes even on the surface. Although it’s incredibly tough in its native state, it can be worked until it’s malleable enough to sculpt over the surface of a box. As there’s few mirrors in the Tower, most boxes have their friends – or professional sculptors – do the actual work of the sculpting.
It should be noted that the clay will not return to its full strength for some time – typically two to three years – so a quick jab with a manipulator arm can cause damage that takes a long time to resculpt. The end goal of a fistfight is to literally fuck up somebody’s face. Hardened fighters usually bear masks or markings that have been scarred and repaired over and over again, giving the clay a jagged, chipped appearance. Splitting a mask so that it falls off the box is considered a knockout blow.
While there’s a wide range of sensory options available to the residents of the tower, there’s relatively few available for the purpose of affecting their environment. The standard manipulator arm offers a reach of approximately five feet at its utmost limit, with an elbow halfway down and three narrow, flat fingers mounted on a swivelling orb at the wrist joint. It does the job, but its ability to apply degrees of force is suspect at best.
There are other manipulator arms available. Some of them replicate limbs that can be found in nature – for instance, the Wolf Box has a series of nineteen metallic dog legs, arranged around its torso like a ballerina’s tutu. It’s not impossible to lay hands on the emulation of a Mi-Go’s foreleg, although those are only useful as a weapon. The human brain just isn’t equipped to handle the challenge of manipulating a replica of a Mi-Go’s limb, but they make pretty good scythes.
The tower’s internal layout isn’t based on floors, but on the cells that have been carved out of the tower’s basalt interior. A cell consists of a series of spaces and rooms, interconnected in different ways and offering about as much internal room as a small shopping mall. However, that internal space is usually arranged in a variety of different ways, ranging from an enormous empty room with a ceiling just high enough to let a box pass through it – an intensely claustrophobic experience – to a vertical chimney starting at the base of the tower and proceeding to its top. Every cell has a series of rooms branching off from the central spaces. The entryways are always shaped in a particular way, similar in shape to a sagging pentagon, to identify them as a viable living space for a box.
As the boxes can’t fly, the Mi-Go created stairways that connect the various hives to each other, but the stairs are extremely steep and occasionally aren’t navigable without special climbing limbs or concerted effort. Most of the boxes know how to navigate from their living quarters to the top and bottom of the tower, but only a few brave explorers are familiar with the entire structure. Neurosis and fear keep the rest sticking to a few
The hallways of the tower snake into the bedrock of the planet like a geometric cancer. The Mi-Go never paid much attention to this area after building it, so it’s populated by a mixture of lobster-sized bugs, pools of water fallen in from the thunderstorms, and a degenerate subrace of humanity descended from some cultists who made it to Yuggoth and got shunted into the basement. The walls are coated with a variety of fungus, some phosphorescent, others edible. At the very bottom of the hallways are the cisterns, where natural caves collect rainwater from the rest of the tower. A few of them are heated by lava flows, allowing the humanoids to boil any food they can find.
Since this is the only place where food and water naturally collect, the Mi-Go have created a number of automatons to keep the tower fed. Silent, asymmetric, no two looking alike, the automatons roam through the caves collecting whatever organic material they can find with manipulator arms and grinding them into mush inside of their body cavities. The resulting mash is distributed throughout the tower by a form of perastalsis, accessible to any box by holding their feeding tube against a wall-mounted food nipple. Water is distributed by a different kind of nipple, brought up by a simple pumping mechanism in one of the deeper cisterns. (The Mi-Go are strange and alien, but decided to use a pump instead of sorcery for this particular task.) Note, however, that raw fungus can be consumed by the boxes without needing to be prepared, and this generally allows for stronger flavors than the nipples provide.
At the top of the tower, the Mi-Go tied the tower into their existing network of Gates. Unfortunately, the Gates aren’t tied to a particular point in space/time; instead, they wander across the flat rooftop like bored goldfish, occasionally opening to give passerby a look at whatever’s inside. More information can be found in the section entitled “The Gates”. All boxes can access the roof, but only the priesthood can access it safely. Boxes wishing to commit suicide frequently go to the roof, then step off the edge on the east side, where they tumble down to their demise. The ground around the east side of the tower is littered with shards of black metal from boxes exploded or crumpled from the force of their fall.
Without knowing the proper arcane formulae to control them, the roof is a dangerous place to be for a box; the gates will swallow anything up and transfer it to the other end of the Gate without needing to be activated. Only the priesthood of the boxes know how to manipulate the gates with any kind of accuracy, and even then, they’ll lose a few to a gate that opens in the wrong spot, or to an abrupt pressure change between the two worlds blasting one of their clergy off of the roof to the ground below. (The enormous thunderclap that this can generate is loud enought to temporarily deafen even the doughty auditory devices that the Mi-Go made for the boxes.)
If the gates moved along prearranged patterns, then they would be much more easy to control; instead, their movements are determined by a wide variety of factors, ranging from the wind to the strength of the tower’s electromagnetic field to the air pressure on the other side of the gate. Some gates are simply translucent windows to another world, while others are so open that they generate the air pressure changes mentioned above. Some require formulae to open; some require that you just occupy the same space as the gate. To the Mi-Go, finding a gate and moving through is a task akin to solving a simple algebra problem, difficult enough to require a few moments of internal math, but nothing more. For a box, the problem is significantly more complex.
The priesthood has cataloged each of the fifty-eight gates at the top of the tower, including the seven that don’t come close enough to the roof to be accessible. Of the remaining fifty-one, fifteen have been identified as consistently leading to the same spot every time that they’re accessed. Of those, two have been shown to lead somewhere that’s not instantly lethal to the health, safety and sanity of a box. One of them is a floating chunk of asteroid near the Fomalhaut system that’s being used by the Mi-Go as a small mining colony; it’s got a breathable atmosphere and it’s warm, which the boxes attribute to their gods and which the Mi-Go attribute to their magic.
The tower itself is surrounded on all sides by a titanic plain of gray dirt, as far as the eye can see. You can navigate the plain by using the tower as a benchmark, but as soon as you lose sight of it, you’ve got no way to navigate. The plain itself is sculpted into dunes and depressions by wind and rain. If you can make it out of the mud plain, you’ll pass into the jagged rocks leading up to the mountains of Yuggoth, and from there to the cities of the Mi-Go – at which point it’s only a short time before they’ll police you up and bring you back to the tower.
The sky above the tower is a flat metal gray during the day, similar to an overcast sky, but it turns clear as the night falls to reveal a field of stars. The sky isn’t overcast, but the sun is never visible; light is generated in proportion to the time of day, with the noontime light being almost painful to the naked ocular device. At night, the stars provide enough light to get around directly outside the tower, but only just.
Thunderstorms roll in at intermittent intervals, sometimes pounding down for a week, sometimes staying away for months. When they do, they melt the mud around the tower into a boiling ocean, stirred from beneath from the lava bleeding between Yuggoth’s tectonic plates. Every now and then, the lava will spurt from the clay like a brilliant spear of light, swallowed shortly thereafter by a blinding cloud of steam.
Being outside during a thunderstorm is almost a guaranteed death sentence for a box. While the boiling mud doesn’t do any damage, the box’s own weight drives it beneath the mud, entombing it until the nutrient systems wear out. One of the most retold stories in the Tower is that of a box who searched the mud plains after its lover had been lost outside during a thunderstorm. It found only a corner of it poking up from the side of a mud-dune, dug it out, and was reunited. For dozens of others, a search for a fellow box after a rainstorm comes up fruitless.
THE SOCIETY OF THE BOXES
For a society that’s been hacked out of their original brain pans, shoved into a metallic body and then left inside of a tower without any idea of how they got there, the boxes have actually done very well in creating a social order. Boxes now crack each other’s casings open and eat the goo inside only on rare occasions, for instance.
Most of the basic needs of a box are already filled. Food is available from any feeder, a water nipple can be found without much difficulty, and boxes can sleep standing up. (Social ostracism is the penalty for knocking somebody over while they’re sleeping._ As a result, the boxes have no small amount of time on their hands. In fact, without a sense of purpose, the human mind swiflty depresses and then slips into lethargy – and from there, it’s a short trip from the tower’s roof to the stack of ruined boxes at the east side.
One major pursuit is curiosity. The Mi-Go left a wide variety of stuff behind in the tower, mostly because they were too lazy to move it themselves – no shoggoths to do the grunt work – and so the average box can keep itself entertained trying to figure out how a particular bit of Mi-Go trash works, or why it doesn’t. Much of this exploration is academic in nature, but it’s a way to pass the time, and every now and then something can be found that improves the life of the boxes. One such discovery was of a mechanism that could swap human brains between different boxes, which was used maliciously to forcibly body-swap brains between different boxes until the priesthood caught and executed the perpetrator. Another was a half-charged lightning gun, which allowed a small raiding party of boxes to keep the humanoids at bay long enough to harvest a full crop of fungus.
Another is the priesthood. The role of the priesthood mostly revolves around trying to understand the nature of the floating gates on top of the tower, trying to communicate with the few stray Mi-Go who venture near the tower, and generally interacting with anything that they can relating to the Mythos. Some of them are still able to cast a few spells with knowledge left over from their previous lives, but aren’t sure what can be done with it – for instance,Shrivelling doesn’t work on boxes for a variety of reasons. One of the priests can summon a byakhee, but lacks the necessary Binding spell; its outer casing is covered in scratches and beak marks from where the byakhee frustratedly tried to bite through its outer casing to get at the brain inside. However, their control over the gates is getting better every year, with the end result that they now have access to Earth about once every year.
Some try to find a career and work at it. Art is a popular project; fungus inks, a specialized manipulator arm and a clay-covered surface to paint on allow the boxes to doodle or paint, while clay from the plains allows for a limited amount of sculpture. (Finding or creating a kiln to fire the clay would markedly improve the arts around the tower.) A small theater troupe of four boxes have scraped together enough clay to make switchable masks, and they perform a fragmentary version of “Waiting for Godot” every month or so to a small audience. Boxing matches are a big source of entertainment – while only two or three boxes are dedicated enough to fight on a regular basis, there’s enough petty disputes or hurt feelings to necessitate settling it with a boxing match at the bottom of the tower’s steps. If a clay mask gets hit hard enough to split, or fall off, it’s mounted over the doorway as a reminder of who won and who didn’t. (This is one of the few ways that the boxes can be identified as originally human by visitors.)
Others see the tower as a prison, and try to escape. As the tower is the only safe world that most of the boxes know,, “escape” is regarded as akin to as a strange form of suicide, like walking into the sea. But every now and then, something will drive a box to explore the larger world around the tower. The most popular way is to go to the top of the tower, and either take a gate at random – usually a suicidal course of action – or to bribe the priesthood into focusing a gate for you to go someplace specific. If you want to return, and thought to let the priesthood know, the priests will try to hold the gate open long enough for you to get back at a roughly predetermined time; if not, they’ll write you off and go about their business. The other way to escape – by crossing the mud plains – is dangerous, but it’ll get you to the mountains of Yuggoth. From there, you just have to evade the Mi-Go and find a way to get somewhere that isn’t Yuggoth, which is a bit beyond the scope of this article.
And then, of course, there’s always mental illness to pass the time – not in the Mythos sense, where the mind snaps, but the slow erosion that occurs when a human mind stuck in a metal box starts pondering about what its life is actually like. Thanks to Mi-Go surgery, they don’t suffer from the sanity-blasting shock of being trapped in a body that isn’t theirs on a world that isn’t theirs in a universe that wasn’t theirs to begin with. But it is possible for a mind to go sideways. Some of them group together to engage in parodies of sexual behavior, grinding their bodies together to emulate dim memories of what they did when they had fleshy bodies. Others use art obsessively, spending years etching the walls of a single hallway with rambling stories about nothing in particular. Some of them simply go mute and drift through the corridors like geometric ghosts. Some of them kill other boxes.
BOXES YOU MIGHT MEET
The Astronomer is a box who’s essentially transformed itself into a living telescope; its front is dominated by an enormous lens, almost two feet across, which it uses to watch the stars at night. During the day, to avoid damage to the lens, it covers the lens with an enormous metal-clay cover, molded out of the remains of the Astronomer’s unfortunate assistant. (Something came out of a gate, shattered the assistant with a flick of one of its flagellae, and flapped off into the night.) While the Astronomer’s eyesight is superb at watching the night sky, it’s terrible at seeing things at close range, including other boxes. Everything within sixty feet of it appear to be metallic, boxy blurs, which results in it constantly being unsure as to who it’s talking to.
If befriended, the Astronomer can reveal that the stars in the sky are changing – not turning in the sky, but changing.
The Wolf Box is a box dreaming that he’s a man dreaming that he’s a wolf.
SCENES FROM THE TOWERS
A box plays a primitive stringed instrument, made from human bones and the leg mechanism from a box; the creaky, reedy sound still manages to convey a tune – and a sense of alien loneliness, as if the box is separated from both its original human form and its current predicament.
Two boxes fruitlessly copulate, one banging its feeding tube against the featureless expanse of another’s back.