The orbus is an engineered organism... originally from a beholder species (likely long extinct now), and so altered as to be an abomination. One of the best kept secrets of wildspace is that the Arcane are the race of beings responsible for this obscene experimentation (more on that later).
An orbus is only found in wildspace, aboard the tyrant ships of the beholder nations, and was first described in the original Spelljammer setting boxed set. It is a living being that functions much like a series helm on tyrant ships, and are the means by which beholders travel through space. For each living orbus (maximum of five for the typical tyrant ship), the ship has an SR of 1. It’s body is chalk-white, and contains the typical huge central eye typical of beholder species above a small, toothless mouth. The large eye has anti-magic properties, however appears to be milky white and blind. The handful of eye stalks crowning it’s body are atrophied and functionless, lacking the typical smaller eyes. The creatures are helpless and have no wills of their own, apparently having been bred only to serve.
Orbi are usually located closest to the hive mother in the deepest part of the ship. If an orbus is slain, the ship’s SR is diminished by 1, and if all orbi are lost the ship completely loses all power. A single orbus can move 20 tons of ship, 2 can move 40 tons, and three or more have a limit of 60 tons. If there are insufficient orbi for the ship’s tonnage, then the SR of the ship is 1.
|Maldin examines an orbus, while the orbus does what it does best.
2nd Edition Stats:
Climate/Terrain: Any space
Activity Cycle: Any
Intelligence: Non- (0)
No. Appearing: 1-6
Armor Class: 10
Movement: Fl 3 (B)
Hit Dice: 5-10
No. of Attacks: 0
Special Attacks: Nil
Special Defenses: Anti-magic ray
Magic Resistance: Special
Size: M (4-6’ in diameter)
Morale: Average (10)
XP Value: 270+
The orbus is a living creature, true, but most of its higher-functions have been mutagenetically lobotomized. It is not capable of direct communication... with anything. It cannot even communicate with other beholders. Basically it is a mindless machine. It can receive communication, but only from another beholder. The beholder mind (especially one as twisted as an orbus) is so alien, that nothing else could possibly get through to it.
Side note: In the SJ adventure Wildspace, the PCs are on a ship, the Skyrunner, that is spelljammed using an orbus. The captain is a beholder polymorphed into human form. A question DMs often have is "Could the PCs do away with the captain and take over the ship themselves?" A polymorphed beholder could use an orbus, however the PCs will NOT be able to fly the Skyrunner unless they somehow acquire a helm (or appropriate spell).
The orbus does not serve as a captain, but rather is a living helm. The energy that powers that helm is not derived from arcane (or other) spells, but the spell-like-abilities of beholders, and the orbus is specifically tuned to that "magical frequency" of beholders. Nothing else will do, hence the absolute need for another (intelligent) living beholder. The idea that there may be a special magic item that can "convert" arcane energy into beholder-compatible energy is an intriguing one that I could easily get behind, but I wouldn't put it on the Skyrunner. Such an item would be far too powerful for that particular adventure.
Intelligent beholders can communicate brain-to-brain with the orbus over short distances, such as across the breadth of a ship ("Orbus... head towards Oerth"). Whichever beholder tunes in to the orbus becomes the defacto "captain" of the ship. For smaller ships like a scout, it can be a normal beholder... for large ships, it must have the mental power of at least a hive mother.
So why create this abomination, when the Arcane could have created a more standard non-living helm for beholders much more easily then centuries of mutation experiments? And why risk bringing down the wrath of all beholders (and beholder gods!) everywhere? The orbus was created as a secondary result of the experiments (and they saw the profit in making them available to the beholders), and not the real purpose of those experiments.
Deep under the surface of Refuge, the Arcane have labs where they perform all sorts of obscene experimentation. Exactly the sort of thing that would unite and mobilize scores of species everywhere on a massive crusade to try and wipe them out if anyone ever found out... well, except for the fact that the Arcane are so damn useful. So far, the Arcane have managed to keep their dark secret (or so they think). During these experiments on one of the species of beholders a millenia ago (the current Arcane may not even remember the exact details any longer), they discovered that beholder brains have a special function that actually turns out to be the reason why beholder brains are so large.
Beholder brains subconsciously communicate over great distances, basically short-circuiting interplanar dimensions to do so, not for conscious communication but for the purpose of unidirectional transmission of information. The beholders themselves have no idea that they are doing this over any distance greater than the length of a ship.
Part of the evidence for this lies in the fact that beholders don't use navigators on their ships. How do they know where they are going? Well, the lead beholder (=captain) communicates to the orbus where it wants to go, and the orbus just seems to know how to get there. Beholders don't really care how or why... in fact, it has never crossed their huge alien minds to even ask. The arcane were never able to figure out how it happened either, although they realized that it was happening, and they developed and marketed that. An orbus is, well... pretty stupid. It doesn't know where Oerth is. It doesn’t even know WHAT Oerth is. And if you tried to ask an orbus how it knew how to get there, it would reply with nothing but its usual blank stare.
Only one beholder alive today knows the truth, and Large Luigi is not telling. The dark of it is that the original beholder gods created beholders to collect information and "transmit" that information for storage. All knowledge known to all beholders. Ever. (Up until the present time, of course). The mutant orbi have two-way communication, and essentially get their directional information (unknowingly to them, other beholders, or anybody else... except Large Luigi) from the multiversal repository of knowledge that is the Spindle on H´catha. To put it another way, the orbi are basically an unintended backdoor into the multiversal mega-computer, modified from the beholders which are the computer's sensory peripherals, with H’Catha being the memory core.
The planet farthest from the central sun of Realmspace (home to Toril) is the flat (mostly water) world of H’Catha. At the very center of the disk is an incredibly high mountain known as the Spindle. It is 200 miles thick at its base, but tapers and thins to the very top, over 1,000 miles above the surface. The planet is home to a large number of constantly warring beholder species, fighting over possession of the Spindle. The location is a central obsession for all beholders, though for the most part they don’t really understand why. Only the battle for supremacy matters. At the top of the Spindle, a constant storm keeps the peak in continual darkness. Hidden within that darkness is the knowledge of the multiverse. Accessing that knowledge is a problem, however. See SJR2 Realmspace for more information about H’Catha and for the source of what follows about the Spindle.
In order to unlock the hidden knowledge of the beholders, the mountain must be climbed from the base, all the way to its pinnacle. There are hundreds of mind-readying stations along the way, and all are extremely difficult to locate, even with divination spells. A thief suffers a -80% penalty against his detect traps skill to locate these areas, while a divination spell works only 25% of the time.
To succeed, the climber’s brain must come within 2 feet of every station on the Spindle. Once the 1,000-mile climb is complete, the brain is immediately stuffed with every known nugget of knowledge and wisdom collected by beholders throughout the eons since the creation of the phlogiston. Ok, well, since the creation of the first beholders, anyways.
If the recipient’s brain is smaller than two feet in diameter, the being suffers irrevocable and complete insanity. Even a being that somehow retains some semblance of sanity is no longer able to function in normal society, because everything appears to him to be completely inane. Their alignment at this point changes to lawful neutral, no matter what their alignment was before.
With this mind-accosting danger, it is evident that this knowledge station was placed here by the gods of the beholders to find, in case they strayed from their original mission. A few have found it, but the beholders reject anyone who is affected, instead of accepting them as was the original plan of the gods. Large Luigi is one of the few beholders that has managed to successfully climb the Spindle and receive that ultimate download.
The Spindle was created by the original beholder gods, who may not even be around anymore (or at least are currently not actively influencing the beholder race in any apparent way). Their power lasts, however. The only current gods we know of, the Great Mother (who claims to be the creator deity, as many deities often do, although she clearly cannot be) and her immortal spawn Gzemnid, are definitely not responsible for the Spindle and the revealed true purpose of the beholder race. In fact, she may even be responsible for the current destructive path that the race is on (or at the very least, is a product of that path), or may not even know about the beholder race's ancient true purpose.
It is important to understand that the Spindle can only collect and store information witnessed by, or known to, beholders. It does not contain all knowledge of everything everywhere. If a beholder wasn't there, Large Luigi doesn't know it. Likewise, it does not store any future knowledge. When Large Luigi climbed the Spire, he acquired the knowledge download of what was known only up to that moment in time. I handle the question of "what does Large Luigi know?" by asking myself "is there any chance that a beholder(kin) may have observed this at some point in history?" I usually give him the benefit of the doubt.
This logic also fits in with the Spelljammer concept that gods cannot see into crystal spheres where their worshipers do not have an established church. Each beholder clan now becomes the beholder version of a clerical stronghold that lets the beholder god-equivalent gain access to that specific crystal sphere. And The Spire becomes a divine-level object that can take that knowledge and grant it to a beholder who is worthy enough.
There could even be "dark spheres" where there are no beholders that can transmit information to the Spindle. Additionally, a DM could easily rule that the gods of a particular sphere (if they were old enough to have known of the original beholder god) have learned the secret and block the process that puts beholder knowledge into The Spire. In such a cases, Large Luigi would only know indirect information about that particular sphere. This "indirect information" would come from beholders who traveled into that sphere and then traveled on to another sphere where their memories of that "dark sphere" could get transmitted onward.
A DM would also have to decide if the transmission of information to the Spindle can only occur within the Radiant Triangle’s particular Prime Material Plane, or if that functions across planes. Personally, I side to the former, rather than the latter. To have Large Luigi know everything there is to know about the Inner and Outer Planes, as well as all Primes, is just too much (and would also attract the attention of outer planer creatures, including the gods). He would only have indirect knowledge (as described above) of the other planes, and thus would likely find that kind of information from adventurers particularly attractive!
The Spindle behaves more as an elder-artifact, a non-self-aware object with a function, rather than a god-level object with a purpose. It therefore needs a creator entity (Power). That entity would be an ancient, non-evil beholder god of knowledge - the “All Seeing Eye”, perhaps - who had a portfolio that matched the ethos of The Spindle and would be the observer of everything that all beholders see. Now, that beholder god of knowledge might be unknown, perhaps even slumbering in the Astral Plane.
One interesting side effect of the "snap shot" concept (having only the knowledge contained in the Spindle at the time of the “download”), is that an enlightened beholder (like Luigi) could return to The Spindle to gain an "updated download" of knowledge. I'm not sure how many enlightened beholders would want to do that, but they would know if the traps on The Spindle move over time, so the dangers of a return trip would be more predictable. Alternatively, perhaps a second full download explodes even a beholder brain (and Large Luigi will know if a beholder had previously tried).
So, who is Large Luigi?
From SJR2 Realmspace, and SJR5 Rock of Bral:
Occupation: Bartender, Rock of Bral
Str: 16 Int: 25 Dex: 16
Cha: 4 Wis: 25 Con: 15
Large Luigi is a beholder who hails from the Realmspace planet of H’Catha. He was one of the few beholders who were able to ascend the Spindle and gain the complete knowledge of the repository.
When he returned to the bottom of the mountain, he had changed. No longer was he lawful evil in alignment, for the knowledge he gained boosted his Intelligence and his Wisdom to the maximum, and his alignment had changed to lawful neutral as a direct result.
Large Luigi was instantly rejected by the other beholders in his species, reviled as an abomination. He finally understood the purpose of his race: to gain all the information that there is to learn, and to teach, effectively becoming the observers and archivers of the universe (and potentially the ultimate information brokers), a truth that no other beholder was willing to accept. He had gained all knowledge of everything, but the other beholders refused to accept him. Once they found that his death ray had been replaced by the ability to detect lie, he became an immediate outcast.
Running for his life, he again traversed the Spindle. After convincing the captain of a passing tradesman ship of his dilemma, the humans took him on as a crew member, eventually dropping him off at the Rock of Bral, where he lives to this day. He purchased a bar, and currently bartends and keeps the peace at the small but prosperous tavern, the Laughing Beholder. He is known to use his charm person and sleep abilities to keep the fighting in his bar to a minimum. He is an outstanding civic-minded Bral citizen and a well-liked businessman. He spends most of his time listening to the rumors of far spheres and great adventures, actively pursuing the true purpose (information gathering) of his ancestors. He is a vision of the potential of the beholder race, a potential that they may never reach.
He is the ultimate non-deity information broker in the known spheres. Luigi is more than happy to share information with anyone who cares to seek the answers from him, but he has an infuriating tendency to withhold vital knowledge. He never gives out information which would upset the delicate balance between good and evil. Both serve a purpose, as he commonly says, and neither can exist without the other. While he sometimes takes payment for information, as he knows others will place more value on his information if there is a cost involved, he will always expect to receive information in return. If adventurers actively cultivate their relationship with Large Luigi by continually supplying him with information about their exploits and the many places they visit (the more exotic and unusual the better), they will find him much more forthcoming with his own information (within limits, of course).
All the friends he makes are lawful in one way or another. His close friends, however, are lawful neutral alignment like himself.
All of this is quite fascinating, however as “secret knowledge”, it is hardly usable as an explanation for players. We have a great idea that makes the orbus work - and can't realistically give it to the players or PCs.
If this knowledge would start to spread throughout the spelljamming community, the Arcane would try all and everything to silence each and every one who knows the dark about the Orbi, lest they have all beholder nations mobilize as a united front against them. This might work as a campaign idea, but as knowledge that is accessible to the PC... nope. The PCs would become the most hunted targets of an entire race of creatures with unlimited resources, allies and reach, a race that is considered indispensable to most of the races of wildspace. It seems to make only sense as one of the "big secrets of Known Space", so the only ones in the know probably are the Arcane themselves, Large Luigi and a few gods.
This “problem” actually doesn't trouble me one bit. I've always been a strong proponent of "DMs need to have their own private fun". Many of my grander ideas are not for players at all, but for the fun of DMs (and me), such as my infamous Grand Unified Theory for D&D on my Life, the Multiverse and Everything page (see all of D&D explained!), and to a lesser degree, other pages on my website such as the related Codex of the Infinite Planes. Most of that information can never be revealed to players, however it does help DMs to create a fun framework within which they can create internally consistent ideas that do spawn adventures. And I love to tie completely unrelated ideas from all sort of different publications in a way that company designers rarely bother to do. The Spindle (and Large Luigi, who does figure into my current campaign) has always fascinated me. And the Arcane? Well everybody (especially players) have always had a gut feeling that there's something slimy about them beyond their "used-car-salesmen" demeanor... now DMs can actually have evidence of that. Players don't need the evidence. Believing is often more powerful then knowing.
If they really wanted to, DM’s could use part of the ideas presented here as speculations and theories of an obscure and ridiculed sage:
- The legends about the beholders as knowledge gatherers: Are they widely known (as myths) or is this a local rumor as part of the mystery surrounding the Spindle on H'Catha? If these stories are "publicly available", then some sages might connect them with another idea:
- Orbi can access parts of the gathered knowledge: Let's say the story about the fall of the beholders is more or less widely known. Then it is entirely logical that some sage who discovered a few bits of information about the Orbi (they are living helms and don't need special equipment like regular SJ helms, they can spelljam only when other "real" beholders are nearby, they somehow “just know” where the desired destination is and exactly how to get there without the use of any external charts or equipment)
might come to the conclusion that they have some kind of access to this trove of knowledge.
Of course this variant would have to exclude the parts about the Arcane lab on Refuge, but it would basically work as an explanation, or a theory, for the PC. Just remember to also throw other conflicting (and erroneous) theories at your players to keep them guessing! Keep in mind that beholders will do anything to prevent orbi from falling into enemy hands, including slaughtering the orbi themselves, so it is very difficult to get an opportunity to carefully examine an orbus that is not dead and destroyed. Examples of alternate theories could include:
- The orbus is not a true beholder-kin, but a magic device much like a normal helm in the shape of a golem-like automaton created by the Arcane to mimic beholder appearances, in order to satisfy their customers’ delicate sensibilities (remember, all beholders hate anything that doesn’t look like them).
- Hive mothers actually give birth to the orbi as a sort of specialized “drone” (in the way that bees produce drones, not a reference to modern mechanical flying drones), and have nothing to do with the Arcane at all (beholder propaganda).
- The orbi are a naturally-occurring species of beholder that have either been magically subjugated into a type of slavery by the other beholder races, or are actually faking their zombie-like demeanor.
We know about the physical changes (regarding his eyes) that Large Luigi underwent. To suddenly realize the true (lost) purpose of beholders really opened up his eyes (sorry about that, couldn't resist), and changed his philosophy. Now his purpose is to collect information. Not to sell information. He'll meter out a little information to chosen individuals whom he thinks will take that information and put it to a use that will enable them to collect more information that they will report back to him. Essentially what he doles out will repay him in even more information that he otherwise would not get. Sure, he may (or may not) charge for the information, only because that makes the PCs value it so much more. However, financial reward is not his game.
Luigi would also realise that his old life (including his place in his beholder clan) would conflict with his new purpose in life. Luigi (or any other beholder) that ascends The Spire and gains his knowledge is also going to see exactly what happened to every other beholder who gained knowledge from The Spire.
If there ever was a beholder who gained the knowledge of the universe, and went back to their clan and said: "I have the knowledge of the universe and our way of life is wrong". What is going to happen? In ninety nine times out of one hundred cases they are going to be blasted to bits by their clan members. There might be a very few beholder clans (or beholder individuals) who go with that "knowledge" and aspire to all ascend The Spire, but a fraction of one percent survival rate is probably on the generous side. Individuals like Large Luigi are going to be unbelievably rare throughout the centuries, and there are probably long periods of time where there are no such living individuals anywhere in the multiverse.
DMs should be careful to control the effect of Luigi on your campaign. He is not a font of all that is, was, or will be! In fact, for those in search of info, he's rather stingy with it... unless you've become his friend by action and by words. Even then, being Neutral, there is no way he'll knowingly let out information that he thinks will ultimately compromise the Balance. He is an Observer (with a capital "O"!) and will not knowingly let out any information that will upset or affect the status quo. He also knows something else... if he were to make too much noise by influencing events, directly or indirectly, the Great Mother would take notice and do something about it. After all, he is not only living proof that she is not the beholder creator deity, but his knowledge could undermine all her power. How long would Bral stand if it were surrounded by hundreds of beholder hive ships? And how long would Luigi last when its citizens found out that all they wanted was a single tavern owner?
If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, the knowledge of the multiverse is... well... potentially cataclysmic on a multiversal level. Nobody knows it better then Large Luigi. He is not about to muck things up for a few paltry coins. Luigi will have the knowledge of the location of every other beholder who has previously been up The Spire and still lives. And any beholders who get up the spire after Luigi will know exactly where he is. While normal beholders will be obsessed with killing the "enlightened-by-The-Spire" beholders, it is also possible that one enlightened beholder might try to kill other previously enlightened beholders. If Luigi were to do things that were bad for the beholder race, another enlightened beholder would know about it, and might likely seek to eliminate him.
This article benefited from discussions with Tauster and BigMac on the Piazza Board many moons ago.