Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Shuffled Dungeon

Another thing I did, earlier this week, is take a number of smaller sheets of paper, upon which I would draw a map of a room. Each of the rooms had a single door out, a single door in, and an encounter or otherwise interesting content.

Each time the players opened the door to the next room, I would shuffle the sheets of paper and have the person opening the door pick one, in effect randomly determining the order in which they entered the rooms. Eventually, the last room ran full circle back to the entrance.

It was a lot of fun, I was just as uncertain as the players as to what encounter was next.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Old ENWorld Post That Describes A Neat Dungeon

A long while back, I ran a suspenseful little dungeon as a substitute for one of the old Rod of Seven Parts segment quests. It consisted of a largely abandoned crypt wherein there was only one monster (wait for it), and one form of treasure (the third segment of the Rod of Seven parts).

A dungeon with one monster doesn't sound like anything special. Under most circumstances, one might expect the dungeon to be over with very quickly. However, this dungeon was designed in such a way that while they were navigating its difficult-to-transverse passages, which seemed to pay little attention to gravity, they were at various times attacked by tentacles extending from convenient holes set in the wall, confronted with horrifying yet sourceless visions, and otherwise harangued by the single lonely monster as it sat comfortably in the center of the dungeon. With the right monster and the right dungeon, this sort of setup is entirely possible (and I recommend it).

The pcs spent a good three hours picking their way through the dungeon before they finally came to a huge mandala-like rune that was etched into the stone ceiling with gold dust. At the center of the really cool-looking glyph (I drew it), inserted into the ceiling, was the segment of The Rod. After some Knowledge (Arcana) checks, it became abundantly obvious that The Rod was powering an exceptionally powerful containment glyph. When the PCs eventually screwed up their courage and pulled the glyph out, I dropped my 3.0 monstrous manual and revealed the first edition Deities & Demigods, and flashed them the beautiful illustration of Yogsothoth. I guess in subsequent printings the Cthulhu Mythos was removed for legal reasons. At the time of this session, Call of Cthulhu had not yet come out yet, so the PCs were absolutely horrified. The PCs eventually defeated the (heavily modified towards the weak end of the spectrum) creature once they had stopped screaming.

[I love conceptual dungeons, and I love The Big Reveal.]

Monday, September 7, 2009

Base of Operations

I like the idea of a party of adventurers having a base of operations. Players are often reluctant to do so because DM's love blowing that kind of stuff up. So these are some optional rules for 3.5 that give players a reason to buy the stuff. If the DM makes an explicit social contract with the PCs to not mess with it too much, the players might even buy the stuff! It's up to you whether the PCs enjoy these benefits if they're traveling to the other side of the earth or whatever -- a really expensive wagon or ship might boast a limited number of the accessories, at your discretion.


Buying a suitable building costs 1000gp. Additional purchases that have game statistics are as follows:


Fancy Samovar (800gp): +1 initiative to entire party.

Laboratory (800gp): +1 damage when using poison, and 10% discount on potions and scrolls.

Sauna (800gp): +1 max HP to entire party.

Trophy Room (1500gp): +3% experience per session.

Library (2000gp): +3% experience per session.

Grindstone (2000gp): +1 melee damage to entire party.

Fine-Tuned Scale (4000gp): +5% value of raw GP treasure found.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Five Cursed Items

An intelligence check, DC 15 must be made when identifying these items, or else the drawbacks of the item will not be apparent or the item will be mis-identified as a beneficial item. None of these items can be destroyed or removed from one's person by conventional means.

The Black Gauntlet

An elbow-length, black leather glove that radiates powerful magic, the black gauntlet was worn by a mad king as he strangled his infant sons. It imparts a +3 bonus to damage dealt with melee weapons, but any time a natural 1 is rolled it instead causes the wearer to make a whirlwind attack against all adjacent allies. If there are no allies adjacent, then the wearer will instead attack himself.


A two-handed spear that often conceals itself by polymorphing into various kinds of pole-arms, the backbiter was used to injure a powerful priest in the early days of a major religion. The backbiter inflicts +10 poison damage per hit, but any time an attack with it misses, it instead causes damage to the wielder as though he were attacking himself.

Petitioner Boots

A pair of man-skin boots that often conceals its appearance via illusions, the petitioner boots are made from the skin of ghosts from the afterlife. Any creature wearing the boots gains +2 speed and +1 AC, but loses all fire resistance and cannot gain or benefit from it while wearing the boots.

Gnome Belt

A belt woven of tanned gnomish scalps that hides its true appearance with illusions, usually appearing as a dwarven belt or something that adventurers will assume is useful. As soon as it is donned, the belt polymorphs the wearer into a gnome. The wearer becomes small, gains -2 Strength and +2 Constitution, and temporarily loses any ability score modifiers from his true race (or loses access to his bonus feat, if human), but because the wearer is not a true gnome, that's as far as it goes. When the belt is finally removed, the wearer reverts to his true form, no worse for the wear.

Ring of Limb Paralysis

A gold ring with some ancient writing on the inside that seems to want to be worn. As soon as one puts it on, the arm on which it is worn becomes paralyzed and useless. It resists magics that cure paralysis until the ring is removed via remove curse, though a particularly desperate adventurer might remove the finger on which the ring resides.

Monday, August 10, 2009

a typical, overwrought forum post

Venomire: 4e isn't terrible, it's just different. Nothing says you must play it, and while I know that people posting here realize it, many tend to forget that.

pitycrit: i'm not playing your shitty wow tabletop clone what i lament is that anything i produce relating to the game is no longer relevant to the general player base because wizards made some poisonous design decisions because they think copying wow and catering to the lowest common denominator will make for the best game experience for the most people, and as long as they pour the money into marketing and high production value the user base will buy their schlock, enjoy your twenty round combats played with official hasbro miniatures you weak brained porcino-capitalist chimp

Sunday, August 9, 2009


I have always loved cults and religions. The mythology of most religions makes for great reading, and the means of worship vary significantly. This is one of my favorite religions, from one of my better games.

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branchèd thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain
Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind.

-John Keats (1795-1821), Ode to Psyche

The Salahs

In the Second Enlightened Sekolian Cult, a Salah is considered to be the personified power and authority of the shark-deity Sekolah, holding the authority to act as a leader in the church and to perform priestly duties, as well as the sacred power to work miracles. A group of Salahs is referred to as a 'shiver'.

The word 'Salah' denotes elements of both power and authority. All Salah have undergone and survived a shark attack known as 'the Shriving', and been spared death via Sekolah's implicit intervention. This brush with Sekolah and death gives the Salahs a mystical understanding and authority over the oceans, as well as the twin processes of life and death. As a spiritual power, Salahs are said to possess the abilities to control the winds, to communicate with sharks, and to devour wicked spirits that threaten their devotees.

The Shriving

There is a single requirement to become a Salah: Any man or woman that has been assaulted by sharks, lost two-fifths or more of his or her body mass, and survived, is then eligible to become a Salah. This loss of body is regarded as an offering to Sekolah, and may be either deliberate or accidental. Such horrible injuries are considered to cultivate detachment from mortality in the victim that then allows them to achieve a closer relationship with the deity than other worshippers.

The Modern Cult

The faith of Sekolah is referred to as a cult because it focuses on a principle deity and his associated menagerie of spirits, but does not purport a doctrine of morals by which believers are expected to live their lives by. The doctrine of Sekolah's cult is concerned chiefly with how to honor and revere Sekolah, and what few morals it espouses pertain to individuals and their duties to various categories of other people, such as spouses, family, and mamluks.

The modern cult is more temperate than its predecessors, who were blood-soaked and aggressive. It is presently led by one Iber Salah, who has distinguished himself by forbidding his Salahs to set foot on soil that is not part of the Guatican Co-Prosperity Sphere. This has led to a number of foreign Salah to reside aboard houseboats and the like, and is interpreted as a tacit support for the Shah's recent expansionist policies.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jabberwock's Aerie

Not a bad session tonight. I'm curious whether my PCs will try and go after the dragon, or pursue side quests that hold the promise of making killing the dragon easier.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Absinthe and Opium

I'll skip the mini-essay about the inclusion of drugs in the Book of Vile Darkness being related to Monte Cook not being invited to the really good parties.

I have included rules for fantastic versions of two much-storied substances that I feel sure can fit into most games. It is my thought that, although these substances can add gris gris to a campaign, they should not be the focus. Thus, the rules avoid complication as well as I am able.

Addiction: Creatures that are exposed to one of these substances must make Willpower saves of the listed DC or form a habit. A creature with a habit must take a dose of his drug each day or suffer the specified drawbacks.
Each week that a character goes without his substance, he must make a Willpower save against the listed DC in order to shake his addiction. If this check fails, the character will do anything in his power that does not violate his alignment to obtain more of the substance in question. If this check succeeds, the addiction is over, though if he ever takes even a single dose of the substance again, his habit automatically reforms.
Greater Restoration or more powerful magics are required to cure addiction via magical means.

Opium (DC 18, 15gp)

This substance is usually used in a tincture or smoked via apparatuses that avoid applying direct flame to the substance. Opium products such as laudanum (opium dissolved in red wine or alcohol) are prized for their medicinal effects, and when used in conjunction with a Heal check or cure spell, allow the recipient to heal an additional +6 hp. In this case, the recipient must check for addiction.
Opium is also used for pleasure, and is renowned for the strange visions and mental activity that it causes. Each day, a creature with an opium habit may choose to memorize one of the following, which may be used as an extraordinary ability: Detect Magic, Detect Poison, Detect Secret Doors, or Detect Undead. This ability does not resemble magic, and the user may not even be aware that he is acting in an extraordinary fashion when using these abilities.
Once one has an opium habit, one must use daily or else become fatigued. If one goes more than two days without, one instead becomes exhausted. These conditions cannot be ameliorated so long as the habit lasts, except by using opium.

Absinthe (DC 14, 25gp)

The green faerie, the artist's liquor, a distillation containing wormwood and anise, among other things. This is the wizards' drug, reputed to allow men to taste souls, see the future, and hold traffic with fae creatures. When quaffed as a potion, absinthe will function as a potion with the effects of detect invisibility and detect magic at the same time, with a duration of but a single round.
A character with an absinthe habit will enjoy +1 to the DC of his spells, and enjoy a +2 bonus to Charisma-related checks with fae creatures.
When one has an absinthe habit, one must use daily or else become dazzled. If one goes without for more than a day, he instead becomes shaken. These conditions cannot be ameliorated so long as the habit lasts, except by renewed use of absinthe.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Campaign Design Best Practices (Part 5)

17. Production Value - Treasure Art: If you have a black and white printer and an internet connection, you can find pictures of your treasure. I haven't done this in a long time, and every time I remember to I kick myself because there's nothing cooler than being handed a picture of your newly obtained hoard of goodies. Something fun that certain boxed sets have done is have cards for each item with a picture on the front and the item details on the back --i.e. nothing beyond the skills of your average computer using gamer.

18. Style - Reward What You Like, Punish What You Hate: For years I would offer to let people start out with extra experience points if they typed up a character background. I know that many DMs require this. The thing is, I hate them. Every time I read one I'd get bored. It's rare that I would actually finish an entire history unless I was looking for plot hooks. One day I had an epiphany: why am I rewarding players for boring me? So I stopped asking for character histories, and when I need to involve backgrounds it will be more along the lines of things that I want, like me giving them perks in exchange for accepting a certain amount of hassle-causing backstory. Another habit in the same vein that I have been cured of is trying to separate my emotional reactions from the rules of the game with regards to rewarding players. I'd think things like "Paul sure made that game less fun for me, tonight." And then I'd give him as much experience as everybody else. Your fun is important, and your opinion of whether players are fun or not fun is probably the best barometer your gaming group can get. Similarly, if someone is flexible about the rules and isn't always waving the rulebooks in your face, you should feel freer to give them a little leeway with the rules. If a player is a stickler and gets in your face about every minor rules mistake, don't feel bad about applying the same standard to them.

19. Style - Don't Be Scared To Change Things: A bad habit that I rid myself of only recently is trying to run modules or campaign worlds exactly how they are written. I guess I was convinced that if I could run things exactly as they were written, I would end up with the best game possible. This is untrue. Firstly, most mainstream game designers are kind of lazy and their modules are often not playtested or especially inspired. For the really mainstream games things have to be oriented toward the lowest common denominator, and so will be less interesting to people that rate low on the Aspergers scale. Secondly, no matter how good a module is, the author cannot know how the pacing is going in your game, because this will vary every time the module is run. What might seem like a great time to ambush the players on paper may in fact be when the players are getting cranky because things are too difficult. Fudge the module a bit, delay or omit, replace and swap. Your game will be better for it.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Campaign Design Best Practices (Part 4)

13. Drama - Segmented Dungeons: Break your dungeon levels up into sections that will take about a session each to manage. You might accomplish this by having there be seals that need to be broken between each level or section, by having unavoidable choke points, or assembly puzzles that need to be completed with items found in a given section. The reason to do this is so that each session feels like something fresh in the minds of the players when they begin a new session, and so that any rejoining players that missed a session or two don't feel clueless. If the segments increase in difficulty as one conquers them, there is also a rising dramatic arc.

14. Production Value - Logo: You should have a logo for your campaign. A symbol that has something to do with the game, perhaps a representation of the main MacGuffin or arch-villain's personal rune. Put the symbol on your character sheets and handouts. This is called branding, and will add "polish" to your campaign and make it more distinctive in the minds of your players.

15. Drama - Forming An Adventuring Party: Don't have them meet in a tavern. How will that distinguish your campaign as any different from tens of thousands of other games? The party works better when the players have an established relationship --making it a given that they are siblings and cousins has worked well for me. Or if you must have them meet, have them meet under circumstances likely to make them cooperative. Having them meet in the drunk tank of a jail, for example. Or in a more modern campaign, have them be caught in an elevator together for a few hours. I've also had one player be the head of a company that interviewed the other PCs to see if they were right for the job --if you do this, be sure to roleplay a few people that definitely won't get hired, just for fun.

16. Production Value - Character Portraits: Even if you aren't an artistically talented person (I'm not) you may have a player that is, or they may have amenable friends that are. Tell the players that if there is a decent character portrait made of their character then it is worth a good chunk of experience. Nothing makes a character more distinct than seeing it come to life.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Campaign Design Best Practices (Part 3)

9. Drama - Beginning The Session: Some people recite poetry or campaign literature at the start of each session. This, as we say in the business, is boring as fuck. I think I remember Monte Cook writing about doing that in his blog, no surprises there. Classier individuals play a theme song each time to set the tone and make starting the game a formula --it signals the transition from catching up with friends and prepping snacks to the exploring the game world. I usually ask my players where we left off, so they present their own perspective of what their situation was that I can then modify to my needs. Maybe they won't mention a key fact that I wish to ensure that they know; this way I know to re-state it for emphasis. This also freshens me up, in case there's something about their situation that I forgot.

10. Drama - Narrate From The Enemy's Perspective: You don't always need to present the PCs with a situation for them to disassemble. The PCs in an old campaign once expressed a desire to infiltrate the castle of the local tyrant for the purposes of assassination. I told them not to bother planning the infiltration itself, and instead spent ten minutes describing what kind of day the tyrant's guard assigned to watch the sewer entrance was having --his wife had left him, he had medical problems, and so forth. Then I narrated the PCs bursting out of the sewer and killing him. It was remarked upon as at least one PC's favorite encounter of the campaign.

11. Drama - In Media Res: Books and movies often have events begin halfway into a scene. Things are already happening and it doesn't take much to figure out what happened beforehand. One can also apply this to roleplaying games. Starting the game in the middle of a fight is always fun. Or beginning them in a precarious situation, like in a room with a slowly lowering ceiling, ala George Lucas. Almost any dramatic situation can be enhanced by simply dictating that the PCs start in the middle of it. Don't overuse this, though, or the PCs will get tired of it.

12. Drama - Experiment With Structure: I once began a session with the last encounter, with the PCs bound to a giant stalagmite. They roleplayed being tied up. One of the PCs was quicker on his feet and just went with it, while another one was furious and didn't go with it at all, so the first player pretended that the second had amnesia. Then I said "four hours earlier" and had the PCs scoping out a building and kicking in doors. The PCs caught on that we were doing the session backwards, and when the second player mentioned above received a critical hit, he ad libbed that it gave him amnesia. They made sure to include salient points about what they were doing and why, so when we jumped back another four hours it formed a continuum, eventually getting to the PCs waking up that morning, then jumping back to the stalagmite scene to resolve it. This session ruled.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Campaign Design Best Practices (Part 2)

I have begun enumerating these. I can crack a hundred, easy. Let's see if it holds my attention for that long.

5. Mechanics - Dungeon Design: If you are using D&D 3.0 or 3.5, be sure to include at the potential for at least one incidence each of Fortitude, Reflex, and Willpower saving throws. Be sure to include at least one trap, one locked door, one secret passage, and one optional encounter. Try to have "conceptual" dungeons, like a dungeon with only one monster that can attack them at various points throughout the dungeon. I once had a dungeon in which a piece of the Rod of Seven Parts was used to keep an avatar of Yogsothoth (as statted in the 1e Deities and Demigods) incarcerated in a crypt. On their way into the dungeon the PCs had to contend with tentacles coming out of holes in the walls that were treated as though they were individual monsters, weird spatial distortion, and abrupt mind-control effects --all courtesy of Yogsothoth, the sole inhabitant of the dungeon, whom they could not confront until the end.

6. Style - Dungeon Design: Don't be bland about your dungeon designs. You want dramatic locations. You want "ah-ha" moments. You want interesting terrain and situations. Do things like design a dungeon based on a Frank Lloyd Wright house, or Hitler's Berlin bunker. Have things to fall off or into. Have rivers and ledges and cliffs. Fight in all of these places. I once based a dungeon off the design of Masada, in Israel, for example. This will let you concentrate on filling the dungeon rather than drawing floor plans.

7. Style - Characters: The more you make it about your campaign world, the less it is about your player's characters. I have found that there is a sliding scale between these two that cannot be bypassed in tabletop gaming with more than two players. With smaller groups there is time to emphasize both the personal and the general, but in larger groups this is not possible, and you have to make the choice. I have run campaigns in which I desperately tried to convey the special noir of the campaign world, and I have had more bland campaign worlds in which the players' ideas for their characters became the driving force behind the action. Both make for wonderful games, but one or the other may be more suited for your group.

8. Style - Character Background: In exchange for a little extra experience -particularly if a player missed a session or two and wants to catch up- you can give him the opportunity to bluebook. That is, to write a summary or excerpt from the character's journal, or otherwise indicate what he was doing during the session that he missed. Alternatively, the bluebook may delve into the character's past -- it can be anything from a travelogue of the time before the PCs met, to any other form of campaign literature. In a more modern setting, perhaps the character has written a book or recorded a CD, the player might then write a review of the work.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Campaign Design Best Practices (Part 1)

Production Value - Campaign Maps
The campaign world map should be given out to PCs as soon as possible, and they should have some kind of idea about each area on it. I would encourage you not to make the map on a macro scale, as you would rather have the map be just large enough to contain the PCs for the first ten sessions or so, rather than have multiple continents that the PCs will never visit.

Production Value - Dungeon Maps
I don't use minis or tokens except for if I feel like amping up the production value a bit. Making these takes quite a bit of work, so the other parts of the game will often suffer as a result. But if it's the boss of a stretch of dungeon that the PCs have been working on for the past three sessions, it might be nice if you prepared a nice big map of the area the fight will take place in, and print out some battle tokens. I use modified pictures of my players for their characters. Just take the pictures off facebook and edit them to taste.

Think From The Player's Perspective
There is no point in designing the royal family tree of a nation if the PCs will never need or want to know about it. The wrong sort of details can quickly become tedious. This is probably the cardinal sin that most DMs commit.

Game Balance Is For Players Not Monsters
If a monster is too hard or too easy, as the DM you can adjust the difficulty upwards or downwards. Sometimes it's just a matter of giving the PCs more time to plan or achieve surprise, sometimes you need to fudge the HP. Not to make things easy on them, but rather if you underestimated a creature's lethality or what have you. Similarly, you can make something stronger if the PCs have all gone up a level. Thus, unless you are a rookie DM, balance between the party and monsters will not usually be a problem. The real balance issues are between the PCs: if a dungeon favors one class or build over the other PCs' characters, or one PC has a clear power advantage over the others, then you need to adjust it. Because most PCs (not mine, usually) overreact to downward shifts in their power level or ham handed attempts to make the situations not favor their character's advantages, it may be better to simply improve the other PCs in a discreet way. One might do this by dropping more magic items oriented toward their class, or perhaps by giving the other peoples' classes specific improvements.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Solarian: The Aspects of War Domains

The aspects of war were conceptualized as muses of war, like if instead of Melpomene and her sisters, if there was an equivalent sisterhood of Eris and the other Ares tagalongs. The Aspects of Wars' hierophants would wear alabaster masks with their lips, eyes and cheeks smudged with rust powder.

Battle (Aspects of War)

Granted Power: You enjoy a +1 morale bonus to your attack rolls.
Taboo: You cannot flee from a fight.
1: Sign: You gain a +4 bonus on your next initiative check. 10 min/lvl or until used.
2: Knight's Move: Instantaneously move 5'/2 lvls, target space must flank opponent.
3: Grace: +2 Dex, +10 land speed, melee attacks treated as blessed, glow 60' radius, lasts 1 rnd / lvl.
4: Fire Shield: Creatures attacking you take fire damage; you’re protected from heat or cold.

Murder (Aspects of War)
Granted Power: You enjoy a +1 morale bonus to your damage rolls.
Taboo: You must never allow a defeated foe to survive.
1: Critical Strike: Instant spell; for 1 rnd gain +1d6 dmg, doubled threat rng, and +4 on attack rolls to confirm critical threats.
2: Phantom Foe: Subject is always flanked by one creature. Will sv, 1 rnd/lvl.
3: Find the Gap: Your attacks ignore armor and natural armor. 1 rnd/lvl.
4: Rusted Blade: Touched weapon delivers filth fever. (Comp. Mage)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Solarian: Solarian's Domains

These domains are those associated with the deity Solarian. Each has a taboo which must be adhered to, or the Hierophant (cleric) cannot use that domain any longer. Many of these spells are from non-core books. I didn't need to go above 4th level spells for this campaign, and I always cut corners where I can, so the domains are unfinished.

Silence (Solarian)

Granted Power: You may restore a creature to life that died of damage within the past round. You touch the creature and roll 1d6 per character level; if the total of you roll exceed their negative hp score, the creature is restored to life at 0 hp.
Taboo: You may not speak above a whisper.
1: Mute: Target makes Will sv. or cannot speak for 1 min/lvl. Gaze-attack based.
2: Aura against Flame: Ignores 10 fire dmg/rnd and extinguishes fires.
3: Holy Storm: Good-aligned rain falls in 20' radius, damages evil creatures 2d6/rnd.
4: Globe of Invulnerability, Lesser: Stops 1st- through 3rd-level spell effects.

Power (Solarian)

Granted Power: You do not need to specifically memorize 0th level spells, and instead cast them freely as a sorcerer from your list. You should still memorize as usual because you may lose access to this domain if you violate the taboo.
Taboo: You cannot fight a foe over whom you have an unfair advantage; for example, you must dismount to fight a pedestrian foe, arm an unarmed humanoid opponent, et ceteras.
1: Rhino's Rush: Your next charge deals double damage.
2: Enhance Power: As Cat's Grace, except +4 morale to target's highest ability score.
3: Aid, Mass: As aid, but 1 creature per level.
4: Enlarge Person, Mass: Enlarges several creatures.

Innocence (Solarian)
Granted Power: You enjoy a +2 morale bonus to your AC and spirits cannot attack you with melee attacks, nor control you with compulsions. Compulsions originating from non-spirits function normally.
Taboo: You may not gain taint.
1: Remove Fear: You resist -2 of morale penalty and gain +2 to saves for 10 minutes.
2: Spell Immunity, Lesser: As spell immunity, but only 1st and 2nd level spells.
3: Purge Sin: Subject that is not you loses 1 taint, takes 10d6 subdual damage.
4: Transfer Wounds, Greater: Heals 4d10 +1/level, caster takes half that as subdual.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Solarian: Knowledge (religion)

In this game I had a little blurb or benefit associated with each level of the various knowledge skills. This ended up being a little too much work to keep track of, but wasn't too bad for the smaller player group at the time.

Knowledge: Religion
(gods and goddesses, mythic history, ecclesiastic tradition, holy symbols, undead)

1: The most popular deity in your region is Solarian, here is his profile and symbol:

Solarian is god of the sun, innocence, silence, youth, and beauty. His Hierophants describe him as a mute child, and say that he displays very little interest in or capability for understanding speech. The rooster is holy to him.

2: Here is a list of the other widely accepted deities and their associations:

Ilia -Purity, Childbirth, the Moon
Aspects of War -Battle, Emotion, Madness
The Spirit of the Soukh -Commerce, Travel, Charms
Defiled Woman -Rape, Betrayal
Great Worm -Transformation, Hunger
Ivory Father -Progenitor Deity

3: Here is the genealogy of the gods:

Ivory Father begat Solarian and Ilia, Aspects of War, Defiled Woman, Great Worm, and the Spirit of the Soukh. Ivory Father was then slain and devoured by his daughters the Aspects of War. Neither Ivory Father nor Ilia are much worshipped, and Great Worm is only almost solely worshipped at Silk Waters.

4: You may purchase potions of cure light wounds for 50 gp each, at any oasis where you are able to peacefully interact with the market.

You are also familiar with the Hexachord:

It represents the totality of your pantheon, with the central circle being mankind and each deities' symbol encircling it. They are, starting from the top and proceeding clockwise, Ivory Father, Aspects of War, Ilia, Great Worm, Spirit of the Soukh, and Solarian. Ivory Father is included out of respect, Defiled Woman is regarded as a demon and as such is not included.

5: More about the Genealogy of the Gods:

Many do not consider Defiled Woman or Great Worm to be true deities, as Defiled Woman was born much later than the other deities, and Great Worm appears not to be the child of Ivory Father. Indeed, Great Worm is the only deity aside from Ivory Father that seems to have created itself.

6: More about the Hexachord:

Deities on the left side are male, deities on the right are female. The higher a deity is on the hexachord, the more powerful he, she, or it is in relation to the other deities (ie Ivory father was the most powerful, Great Worm is the weakest). Defiled Woman's power remains largely unknown.

7: Extra domain option
You gain access to a domain pertaining to a deity of your choice, you retain the option of access to that domain.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Solarian: Dying Of Thirst

Saliva becomes thick and foul-tasting; the tongue clings irritatingly to the teeth and the roof of the mouth .... A lump seems to form in the throat ... severe pain is felt in the head and neck. The face feels full due to the shrinking of the skin. Hearing is affected, and many people begin to hallucinate... then come the agonies of a mouth that has ceased to generate saliva. The tongue hardens into "a senseless weight, swinging on the still-soft root and striking foreignly against the teeth." Speech becomes impossible, although sufferers have been known to moan and bellow.

Next is the "blood sweats" phase, involving "a progressive mummification of the initially living body." The tongue swells to such proportions that it squeezes past the jaws. The eyelids crack and the eyeballs begin to weep tears of blood. The throat is so swollen that breathing becomes difficult, creating an incongruous yet terrifying sense of drowning.

Finally ... there is living death, crawling on your hands and knees: "your lips disappear as if amputated, leaving low edges of blackened tissue; your teeth and gums project like those of a skinned animal, but the flesh is black and dry as a hank of jerky; your nose withers and shrinks to half its length, and the nostril-lining showing black; your eyes set in a winkless stare, with surrounding skin so contracted as to expose the conjunctiva, itself as black as the gums...; your skin [had] generally turns a ghastly purplish yet ashen gray, with great livid blotches and streaks; your lower legs and feet ... are torn and scratched by contact with thorns and sharp rocks, yet even the freshest cuts were so many scratches in dry leather, without a trace of blood"

Solarian: The Free

This is a write-up for a campaign that I ran based in a fantastical version of the Sahara desert. The customs and caste system outlined below are more or less based on the fascinating real-life Tuareg peoples, an amazing culture on whom Frank Herbert based the Fremen. The culture did not end up featuring as prominently as I had hoped, for reason that I will delve into in successive blogs.

The Free

We are known as the free. We are the favored people of the gods, created by Ivory Father to people the earth and be good. Ivory Father made the sky and the world, and had children. His children created the beasts of the sky and land to make the world more seemly. Ivory Father created mankind out of snakes, and told us that we are his finest creation --the other gods agreed. Eventually -and this is something the holy men discuss endlessly- Ivory Father died, leaving his children to care for us. His final instructions to mankind were to "Live free and be well."

The Desert

And indeed, your people live a free life of herding animals from one oasis to another, always following water and the seasons. There are many dangers in the desert, either from divine mistake or deliberate challenge to mankind. Each god or goddess has a favored desert tribe. Yours is Solarian, whose kindness warms the earth.

Your Ways

Your ways have been shaped by the gods and the needs of the desert. Your tribes are divided into castes with unique duties and privileges. The castes of your tribe are:

Ihsid (warrior-aristocrats, +2 Str, -2 Wis)
You are permitted to wield sacred Takoba swords, and even start out with one. You begin the game with the quick-draw feat. You also have a tribal enemy, against whom you have practiced fighting and deal +1 damage against.

Imhad (herdsman, +2 Con, -2 Int)
You begin the game with two bonus feats: Diehard and Toughness. You begin the game with an exceptional mount.

Ineden (blacksmith-wizards, +2 Dex, -2 Cha)
You may cast a number of 0th level spells each day equal to your Wis mod. You begin the game with three potions of random type.

It is considered spiritually unhealthy to touch iron unless you are a member of the third cast (Takoba swords have hilts of ivory or other, nonmetallic substances). Holy men are chosen for their blue eyes, while the Ineden have much darker skin than other castes.
Your men wear veils; it is considered shameful to show one's face (especially one's nose or mouth) to strangers, especially women to whom you are not married. These veils are always indigo, made by pounding plants into cotton cloth. This results in the blue dye rubbing off onto one's skin. After many years, one's skin is permanetly stained blue in the affected regions. In addition to protecting one from the dangers of the desert, veils protect from evil spirits and maintain one's dignity. Indigo and blue are holy colors.

The Old Evil and the First Men

The very first man, Banu Antania, was created as powerful and long-lived, and for whatever reason despised Ivory Father. After Banu deserted him, Ivory Father created a man and woman for each of his children, whose descendants form the tribes today. Eventually, Banu corrupted each of the first men and women, causing them to hate Ivory Father. As they grew more and more wicked, they slowly lost the gift of human form, becoming more similar to the serpents from which they were made. Their children feared them and, recognizing the wrath of Ivory Father, cast them out into the desert.
Eventually, Banu and the other first men murdered Ivory Father. The gods had by then all taken oaths not to kill Banu, and so they locked him and the first men away in chains beneath the earth where they could do no more harm.
The tribes now can live their lives without being tampered with by the Banu Antania.

Monday, July 13, 2009

My Mind, She Is Blown

A major complaint I have had about the d20 core rules is that the classes are largely boring and weak tea after five or six levels. For example, why would you ever want to continue as a pure barbarian after the first seven levels? Assuming you had the stomach to make it that far.

The reason for this is that Wizards of the Coast wants you to need to use prestige classes, thereby creating a demand that splatbooks fill. Although prestige classes (and feats) are obviously a selling point and half the point of splatbooks, it had not occurred to me that marketing concerns might have dictated the nuts and bolts of the basic classes.

The basic classes were intentionally made boring to generate sales for WOTC. Amazing!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Affiliations: The Populace

This was for a game in which the PCs were fighting the rule of an evil band of knights. Affiliation rules were found in the PHB II (3e).

Criterion / Affiliation Score Modifier
Character level +1/2 PC's level
BAB +6 or higher +1
Helping kill a black knight +2
Killing a dangerous monster +1
Knight Class +1
Refuse a request for rescue -3
Intimidating the populace -1

3 or lower Nobody: No affiliation or junior member with no benefits.

4 - 10 Adventurer: A mayor or other personage presents you with a masterwork lance or other melee weapon. You have a -4 to defensive social checks against members of the peasantry.

11 - 17 Hero: A grateful commoner will present himself as your henchman so long as you do not have more henchmen than CHA MOD. If this henchman should perish, a new one will pledge himself next time you enter an appropriate town.

18 - 22: Champion: You gain the toughness feat. You must defeat an enemy of the populace each week or you will suffer a -4 to your affiliation.

23 - 29: Idol: You enjoy a +1 inherent bonus to an ability score of your choice. You cannot use non-masterwork/non-magic weapons or armor, or you suffer -1 affiliation per day of usage.

30 or higher Legend: Any henchmen, familiars, or mounts you have enjoy the toughness feat. You enjoy a second +1 inherent bonus to an ability score of your choice.

Monday, June 29, 2009

d20 Madness

I have never been very happy with the madness rules for roleplaying games, be they the "gotta catch them all" of the Cthulhu games, or White Wolf's terrible derangement system. They are neither horrible nor interesting, or are social penalty window dressing --always a poor game mechanic choice. Insanity ought to be macabre as fuck in most games.

Below is a short in the dark at what I'm more interested in. I would have these be caused by particular monsters or encounters if a saving throw is failed, or possibly arrange for a table of them. Though I hate the idea of insanities that are completely disconnected from their cause.

I also considered having a Willpower save version based on the disease rules from d&d 4e, but am essentially too lazy to stat that, though the mechanic would better suit insanity than disease -- the latter is too boring to be the focus of much of a game session, and therefore there is no need for such a sophisticated mechanic. The former, however, is interesting enough to have a sliding scale and so forth.

These result in some constant penalty or semi-permanent effect.

Formication: You sense what feels like a swarm of writhing insects underneath your skin. You start each encounter at a maximum of half your maximum hit points because of self-inflicted wounds from scratching and attempts to dig them out.

Maliced Hand: Your hand does not obey your commands, but rather does its own thing. It cannot be used helpfully and, left unrestrained will use weapons or spells (as appropriate) to attempt to harm your friends. The hand can do anything you can do, and uses your skills and abilities (including make escape artist checks).

Otherworldly Nightmares: You suffer from torturous nightmares that subject you to alien locales and mindsets, and prevent you from effectively resting. You do not heal naturally, and if applicable, memorize one less spell of the highest level that you can cast.

Anhedonia: You cannot experience pleasure. This prevents you from benefiting from spells or effects that impart morale bonuses. Alas, you are all too capable of experiencing suffering, and penalties of that sort affect you normally.

Dark Urges

Each day that you do not indulge in these, you suffer -1 to attack rolls and spell DCs, until your bonuses reach 0.

Dark Hunger: You must feast upon your own kind. One average human-sized body will sustain a character with this madness for three days.

Morbid Fascination: You want to make art out of fresh human body parts, bathe in gallons of human blood, or otherwise indulge yourself at the expense of freshly dead enemies. One human will sustain a character with this madness for a day.

Alien Limb: You become convinced that one of your major limbs or body parts is not a part of you, and must be removed. Left to your own devices, you will take all appropriate measures to sever the limb or organ. Roll on the following chart (d6): 1-3: Leg, 4: Secondary Arm, 5: Eyes, 6: Primary Arm.

You follow some terrible rule, like never entering a sunlit area. A Willpower save may be attempted to temporarily suppress these for an encounter, with the DC of the effect being the same as the thing that caused the effect.

Clinical Lycanthropy: You believe that you are afflicted by lycanthropy. On nights when the moon is visible and not overly occluded, you will must make a Will save or enter a form of sleepwalking in which you will attempt to kill a member your own species. While in this state you will not respond to language and will especially brutally. If damaged while at less than half your maximum hit points, you may make a Willpower save to shake off the effect for the remainder of the night. In any case, you will remember nothing about your time spent sleepwalking.

Solar Horror: You cannot bear the light of the sun, and will not willingly enter a sunlit area. If you are forced to (or force yourself to), you suffer a -5 penalty to your attack rolls and spell DC. As a variant, one might have a lunar horror.

Dread of Magic: You cannot stand to have spells cast upon you, even beneficial spells. You automatically attempt saving throws against all spells, including things like cure spells.

Piquerism: You refuse to use a weapon that does not deal piercing damage because you crave causing piercing injuries. A successful willpower saves will only suppress this for a round.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Forums and So Forth

I've been reading the Brilliant Gameologists forums for inspiration. Not just the min/max stuff, though that has been helpful in reminding myself what it is players like out of their game mechanics. Their house rules section is pretty good, too. It's the best venue for 3(.5)e that I've found, since the Wizards forums are total abortions and entirely 4e anyway.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Negative Conditions

I'm a big fan of some of the changes made in 4e regarding conditions. Being paralyzed and stunned means waiting until it's your turn again, and maybe you can take an action if it wears off, or maybe not. Not being able to take an action isn't fun, nor is having to roll on a confusion table to see what action you'll take. Nor is ability damage fun: who wants to recalculate attack and damage every time a ghost hits you?

Far better to limit certain action choices, i.e. instead of having an effect cause -6 to strength, better to simply have the character deal half damage. Instead of stunning a character, have him fall prone --it doesn't prevent the player from making choices, but it does limit them.

Below are the common negative conditions (I omit Deafness and other tedious conditions) as I have been using them in my present game. I am particularly proud of how Diseased and Delirious work.

Common Conditions

Afraid: You suffer a -2 penalty to your attack rolls and spell DC for the remainder of the encounter. Additionally, you cannot benefit from leadership bonuses or morale bonuses (such as those granted by clerical spells). Characters that are immune to fear cannot be made afraid.

Blind: -5 penalty to attack rolls and spell DC. Cannot target ranged attacks or spells to farther away than ten feet.

Damaged: Some monster attacks disable magic items semi-permanently, but do not destroy them. These items may be repaired via arcane rituals, but until then they offer no benefit beyond a non-magical item, and cannot be used as normal.

Delirious: You cannot cast spells of the highest level that you are capable of casting, nor activate magic items other than potions. Nor may you cast spells that are affected by metamagic feats. Nor may you use per encounter maneuvers such as those gained by the warrior and rogue classes.

Diseased: Effects that restore lost hit points and grant temporary hit points have their effectiveness reduced by half (round down).

Prone: You suffer a -4 to your AC. Prone creatures have their speed reduced to 1. You may stand up as a move action.

Slow: Your speed is reduced to 2.

Surprised: You suffer -3 to your AC and saving throws. You are normally only surprised during the first round of combat before you have taken an action.

Weak: Your attacks and spells inflict half damage (round down).

Other Ideas

I want to have more negative conditions, but I'm struggling to come up with equally elegant mechanics. Some sort of "Rotting" condition might work, as might "Exhausted" or "Dehydrated". The drawbacks need to be significant, but not a pain in the ass to remember or deal with. I use poison as a damage type, so that's not really a venue for ideas.

All of the conditions listed above are non-trivial, and aside from prone require magic or time to end their effect. Some negative conditions that have non-trivial effects but are easily dismissed might be good, such as a Dehydrated condition that could be ended by drinking any magical potion.

I dunno, I'm still working on it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Third Edition Grognards

Definition: In D&D, a person who prefers an older edition to the newer one.
Gamer A: "After playing 4th edition for six months, our group decided to give it up and go back to 3.5."
Gamer B: "You are officially grognards."

On the Virtues of Third Edition

It was very, very easy for me to adapt third edition to non-fantasy settings, and to do so in such a way as to not scare away my players, who would otherwise shy away from learning a new rules system. It served varied fantasy campaigns equally well.

Unfortunately, this easy flexibility that I felt to be the primary strength of the system did not seem to be accessible to the Wizards staff, whose non-fantasy books were without exception uncreative rehashes of previously released material. I suppose they know that it's already successful and so it's sensible to be conservative and build one's intellectual property up through re-use.

I wish I could say that the OGL publishers picked up the slack. They did not. The OGL is an amazing way to trick older nerds into publishing vanity press, and younger nerds into buying it. Oh well, it's better than being sent cease and desist orders by TSR's lawyers for putting your home brew module on the web --which used to be standard operating practice.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Island: Dreki Corpse-Eater

Dreki Corpse-Eater is an immense dragon that lives atop a mountain of frozen corpses. The corpses are those that have died outside of battles. He is Nidhoggur and Beowulf's dragon at once, the spawner dragons. The players couldn't really hope fight him, and he wasn't interested in fighting. After Dreki gave his speech, the players fought some of Dreki's children.

I did my best polish accent, inflected all the words wrong, and went with it. The words are partially derived from John Gardener's nihilist dragon, and partially from TS Eliot's The Wasteland. The main thrust of it is that Dreki is aware of the future and what The Tree wants to do with island: kill the dragons, end magic, and supplant the nature of reality in the campaign setting.

I don't expect it looks like much on paper, but despite its nonsensical nature and what I'll charitably call "poetic logic" it made an impression on my players.

"We've been expecting you. I am Dreki Corpse-Eater, world-wrecker, fatal my fang, hungry my horde, father of Goin Dreki and mother of Murrain Dreki."

Because you will one day not exist you do not exist now. You are neither living nor dead. And you know nothing. You see nothing. You remember nothing. You don't see Island, the nymphs departing, thunder screaming out of bells in the distant sunrise.

I heard what The Thunder said. I heard it, but have not heeded it. Dry sterile thunder. Wrongful thunder, bad bad bad thunder. A world of rock but no water, a world of sound but no word. That is what I was to make. What I have given to man to do instead.

You come to me here in this dead land, death's other kingdom. You think you can crush the multifoliate rose of death's true kingdom. That is the only hope for empty men. For thine is the kingdom.

It was my job, but I have given it to man. This capacity to destroy. no part of it want I. Mankind's time on Island is no more than a swirl in the stream of time, but I have prolonged it.

I am killed not by you, but by one like you. Shantih shantih shantih."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Island: Elemental Domains

These are priestly domains for clerics that wanted to worship the impersonal forces of frost or fire. The elemental forces that interested in mortals, they were more like manichean forces that were constantly at war with each other. The more powerful they were, the less human-like and less sentient they were.

These are the domains that they grant to their priests. Nobody ended up playing a cleric in this campain, so I didn't end up needing to increase any above 4th level. Each domain has a religious taboo associated with it that must not be violated or the cleric loses access to the ability and spells associated with that domain until penance is made. Spells marked with an asterisk are from the Spell Compendium (3e).

Frost Domains

Granted Power: You may breath water or water-containing liquids such as mud as easily as air. You also enjoy a +1 bonus to your caster level.
Taboo: You may not speak above a whisper.
1: Chill Touch: One touch/level deals 1d6 damage and a -1 penalty to attack rolls for 1 round. (Rule change: rather than deal 1 Str damage on a failed save, it always causes the penalty)
2: Creeping Cold*: Escalating cold damage to subject over three rounds.
3: Hypothermia*: Causes 1d6 dmg/lvl, fatigue.
4: Creeping Cold, Greater*: Escalating cold damage to subject over four rounds.

Granted Power: You enjoy cold resistance 5, or increase any existing cold resistance by 5. At tenth level this bonus increases to 10.
Taboo: You cannot cause direct harm to a creature aligned with ice.
1: Aura against Flame*: Ignores 10 fire dmg/rnd and extinguishes small fires for 1 rnd/
2: Gust of Wind: Medium creatures cannot move against wind, small are blown away.
3: Icelance*: Changes ice into lance, which attacks subject for 6d6 damage and stuns for 1d4 rounds.
4: Ice Storm: Hail deals 5d6 damage in cylinder 40' across.

Granted Power: You enjoy a +1 morale bonus to your AC and outsiders cannot attack you with melee attacks, nor control you with compulsions. Compulsions originating from non-outsiders function normally.
Taboo: You cannot cast offensive spells that have a range of touch.
1: Remove Fear: You resist -2 of morale penalty and gain +2 to saves for 10 minutes.
2: Spell Immunity, Lesser*: As spell immunity, but only 1st and 2nd level spells.
3: Corona of Cold*: Aura of cold protects you, damages others.
4: Globe of Invulnerability, Lesser: Stops 1st- through 3rd-level spell effects.

Fire Domains


Granted Power: You enjoy a +1 morale bonus to your attack rolls.
Taboo: You must never allow a defeated foe to survive.
1: Blood Wind*: Subject uses natural weapon at range.
2: Rhino's Rush*: Your next charge deals double damage.
3: Find the Gap*: Your attacks ignore armor and natural armor. 1 rnd/lvl.
4: Fire Shield: Creatures attacking you take fire damage; you’re protected from heat or cold. You only have access to the fire version.


Granted Power: You enjoy a +2 morale bonus to your damage rolls.
Taboo: You cannot willingly sleep within a permanent structure.
1: Foundation of Stone*: Subject gains +2 AC, resists forced movement.
2: Curse of Ill Fortune*: Subject gets -3 to attacks, checks, and saves. Will sv.
3: Clutch of Orcus*: Deals 1d12 damage per round and paralyzes foe. The version of this spell that you know does fire damage.
4: Orb of Fire*: Ranged touch, 1d6/level fire damage and subject might be dazed.

Granted Power: You enjoy fire resistance 5, or increase existing fire resistance by that amount.
Taboo: You must dispose of the remains of any foe slain by your hand, via funeral pyre.
1: Burning Hands: 1d4/level fire damage (max 5d4).
2: Body of the Sun*: Your body emanates fire, dealing 1d4 fire damage/2 levels.
3: Flashburst*: Burst of light dazzles and blinds creatures in area.
4: Wall of Fire: Deals 2d4 fire damage out to 10 ft. and 1d4 out to 20 ft. Passing through wall deals 2d6 damage +1/level.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Campaign Snippets: The Island part II

Above is a picture of the cosmology of this campagin, sans Tree.

The Dream Of The Tree

Last night, you dreamed a true dream. While other men reclined on their beds and dreamt lies, you perceived a rare and wondrous Tree which glowed like the sun. It's bark was gold, it's trunk studded with jewels. This Tree was no hangman's Tree; no body twisted in the wind beneath his mighty branches. This was the Victory Tree, to which the world is nailed.

You wondered why you deserved to view this Tree. And it was then that you saw that the Tree was dripping sap, and it was your crimes which caused this injury. It's blood was rare perfume!

Then did the Tree deign to speak to me. "Your people have worshipped presence and absence, yet they care not. I alone shall heed your prayer, I alone bring glory." And I saw that it was also the Truth Tree.

"Now do I command, my best beloved, that you this vision tell to man: reveal the word that it is this glorious Tree which will bring surcease of sorrow and give renewed life." Prayed you then to the Tree in joyful spirit, with great zeal, and then there you were alone.


It was supposed to be sort of a vegetable Christ, semi-based on how the Danes were more easily converted to Christianity because of the similarities between Odin hanging from a tree, and Christ nailed to a "tree." In my version, it also shared certain characteristics with the Yggdrasil, the Norse world tree.

I fell in love with the idea of a near-mindless, all-loving entity that instinctively tried to grow, and snuff out magic by killing dragons and fairies wherever it could. It would send The Dream Of The Tree to just about anybody, instructing them how to build bells out of iron that would weaken magic and supernatural creatures for miles around. If enough such bells were constructed and rung, magic and fae creatures would disappear entirely, leaving only The Tree as the source of the miraculous. Below is included the affiliation rules that I used for it. Affiliation rules are from the 3.5 PHB II, and basically represent how much a group or entity likes you.

Affiliation: The True Rood
Criterion / Affiliation Score Modifier
Character level +1/2 PC's level
Religion 9 or higher +1
Setting up a bell tower in a new region +2
Killing or banishing a spirit +1
Killing or banishing a group of spirits +2
Saving an innocent life +1
Saving a group of innocents' life +2
Making use of heathen magics -3

(3 or lower) No affiliation or junior member with no benefits.

(4 - 10) Brother/Sister: You gain a bonus exalted feat. Must donate at least 50 gp per month toward bell foundry construction and upkeep. Gain access to a special equipment list, any of which may be used if you possess an exalted feat.

325 gp Incense: Delayed Bless spell, as scroll.
360 gp Sacred Splinter: Swift cure light wounds cast @ 1st level, self only.
720 gp Coat of Many Colors: Energy resistance 1. Vest Slot.
5500 gp True Leaf: Raise Dead as scroll.

(11 - 17) Saint: +4 competence bonus on Religion and Spellcraft checks. You may take a -1 to your affiliation score to be raised from the dead as a raise dead spell, save that there is no level loss.

(18 - 22) Beacon: +1 luck bonus to all saving throws while wearing a Coat of Many Colors. You must disperse a den of fae or heathens each week, or suffer a -1 to your affiliation.

(23 - 29) Apostle: You must tithe 10% of your income toward bell foundry construction and upkeep. You are constantly under the effects of the tongues spell.

(30 or higher) Seed: You gain a bonus exalted feat.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Campaign Snippets: The Island

The Island

One of the better games I've ever run, this featured a war between the elemental forces of fire and ice over an isolated, fantastic version of Iceland, as a foreign tree deity tried to get its foot in the door and eliminate magic from the Island.

I delved into Iceland chic pretty hard for this one. Ambient soundtracks featuring Sigur Ros were prominent. Scandinavian folklore was shamelessly plundered, especially from the early Christian period. I used Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf. In that spirit, here is my take on Grendel. The low-effort art was a gestalt of the art in John Gardener's nihilistic version of Grendel, Where The Wild Things Are, and the often terrible yet occasionally good Grendel comics.

Grendel (large giant)
Caine-cursed, demon-gleeful, man and beast at once.
Init +8, Speed 8
HP 200, bloody 100
AC 20
F +12 R +9 W+9
-Resists: damage reduction 10, electric 10, fire 10
-Vulnerabilities: critical hits 10, unarmed 10

Claws +14, dmg 3d6 +5 (crit 18-20)
Bite +18, dmg4d6+10
-Pounce: Grendel may make a bite and claw attack as a standard action.
-Rend: If both the bite and claw attack hit a target during the same round, that target suffers an additional +12 damage.
-Cleave: When Grendel "drops" an opponent, he may make an immediate Whirlwind attack. This whirlwind attack will not affect any unconscious or dropped creatures.

Special Vulnerabilities: Grendel's damage reduction does not apply against critical hits from any source, nor against unarmed attacks. Critical vulnerability applies to sneak attack damage.

Bloody: When first bloodied during an encounter, Grendel may make an immediate whirlwind attack with a bonus +2 to critical threat range. If a critical hit was what rendered Grendel bloodied, he loses an arm and instead of his extra attack, he can no longer make whirlwind attacks.

Kinslayer Curse: Any creature that participates in killing Grendel must make a Willpower Save (DC 20) or suffer a curse. The curse causes all giants to enjoy a +2 bonus to attack and damage against the character. The curse may be removed via the Remove Curse spell, but additional material components worth 300 gp each are required.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nouveau Regimes

Continuing yesterday's themes, these are some of the campaigns that I have run over the years.

The Weird Games

-An airplane based drama (!) set in an ever more surreal Mormon Utah populated by personified holes in reality itself. Flame-shirt wearing otaku favorite Nausicaa and the Valley of Wind was my main influence for this. Who would have thought that you could really base a good d20 game around airplanes?

-A company of actors is practicing in Prague, the city of ghosts, during the Great War (WWI) but so many have died within such a short span that the afterlife has overflowed like a clogged sink. The dead return to life, and their spirits haunt the living. And what is this about the mysterious Dee family? And will Bohemia shake itself loose from the Kaiser?

-A generation ship is headed between solar systems, populated by people that do not even realize that they are traveling. First contact is made with an otherworldly alien species that seems intent on destroying the "angelic intelligences" that run the ship. Initially informed by Sikh culture, I ran a redux of this with Soviet chic in which the players were cybernetic hit men. Good times!

-A game set in the modern era based around the characters being exorcists for hire. It ran like a cross between Ghost Busters and A Confederacy of Dunces, or the incredible book by David Wong, "John Dies at the End". Think dogs possessed by demons that won't stop barking at wall crucifixes.

-A Colder War, Redux: The players are paranormal CIA liaisons dispatched to various international locations to deal with the threat of supernatural terrorism. From Kiev to the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan, this story was informed by Charles Strauss' amazing story A Colder War, that juxtaposed the Cold War with the Cthulhu Mythos in a really charming way. My game was more Russian oligarchs learning to control shoggoths and using them as weapons of mass destruction, less Cold War era. One of the characters was one of those deep cover Al-Qaida operatives that was secretly working for the US government --this kind of alternative perspective is the kind of stuff roleplaying was invented for.

Many Terrible Modules

There were other games less worthy of mention. I've attempted various modules over the years, but they are rarely worth it. When I usually attempted to run them, I'd resist completely re-writing them to my taste since it would be about as much work as making my own module, but that led to miserably-paced, unimaginative boredom festivals as I'd try and run some bland schlock cranked out by an unpaid T$R employee or Monte Cook's latest "boy wizards are cool do you like wizards" self-congratulation event.

I did enjoy trying (and failing) to run the 2e Rod of Seven Parts boxed set, even though this typified the worst of TSR's products from the interregnum, before Wizards of the Coast bought them. It had some really slow, boring parts, and for whatever reason at the time I felt that it was best to run the adventure as-is, with as little modification as possible.

The 2e planescape adventure Fires of Dis worked quite well, and showed off what the Planescape setting had to offer. A lot of the boxed sets have preluds that run for weeks, I enjoyed running the Dragon Mountain megadungeon and The Night Below, but it took a dozen sessions in each set to even get to the dungeon. Even then, it didn't feel like it was well-paced.

Two of the best adventures released for 2e were also amongst the last products released: The first was The Apocalypse Stone, a transitional module designed to end your campaign world in preparation for 3e. The second was Reverse Dungeon, a conceptual take on playing monsters as the adventurers come to you. The latter may be the best module ever published. It's that great. It's like this metacontextual exercise in examining dungeons from the other perspective.

There was not a single worthwhile module published. A good example of the uninspired problems with 3e is Monte Cook's Temple of Elemental Evil. Nothing interesting happens in the entire book, and Cook goes off on his evil lovecraftian god tangent for the umpteenth time without it making for a fun or dynamic module.

I tried running a number of the Dungeon magazine modules available for the game, including some epic-level journey to a demi-plane inside a spinning cube that exemplified just how terrible the epic-level play rules were.

Speaking of, I have mixed feelings about Andy Collins. He wrote the excellent yet antiquely named Oriental Adventures, featuring excellent mechanics for feats, monsters, and prestige classes. On the other hand, the Epic Level Handbook was so badly conceived that it was unplayable. The classes were just mishmashes of epic-level feats that were often worse than non-epic feats. The spell system failed, and was a super example of 3e's attempts at using math to extrapolate rules instead of inspiration. I suppose he had his hits and misses.

The Porphyry (or whatever it was called) was also published in Dungeon Magazine, using the lamentable Vile Darkness rules, was amusing in that it enraged stolid social conservatives like the otherwise talented Tracy Hickman, but otherwise lacked gris-gris.

None of the 3e modules produced by third party publishers took my fancy, either. That Freeport one that happened to be the first wasn't especially good. The White Wolf adventures were hurried out and lacked imagination. Necromancer Games' Rappan Athuk series were a complete waste of time.

In short, 3e was bad for modules, and 2e had some high notes. I haven't ever run a 1e module, aside from the Tomb of Horrors, but I have the feeling that their virtues lie more in their originality than in their conception or execution.

Next: Parceling out useful/inspirational byproducts from my games.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Ancien Régime

I've run a lot of D&D campaigns, and about half of them were outside the box of standard fantasy dungeon crawls. Though the setting and genre might have changed, somehow the way I ran them always made them D&D, even if neither of the Ds were actually represented in the game.

I thought it might be a pleasant exercise to outline some of the more memorable campaigns just to horrify more conservative grognards. All of the games listed below used 2e, 3e, or my own perversion of the d20 rules.

The D&D Games

-A war between the elemental forces of fire and ice over an isolated, fantastic version of Iceland, as a foreign tree deity tries to get its foot in the door and chase all the wyrms off the island. This campaign boasted Grendel, the Dream of the Rood, a Bjork cognate, and the fatalistic dragon from John Gardner's Grendel.

-A miserable princess escapes a forced marriage, and embarks on a quest to kill the circle of traitorous knights that betrayed her father the king. High production values didn't help me with this one, it stank.

-The unjust tyrant is responsible for many injustices, including personally wronging each of the player characters. They embark upon a campaign of domestic terrorism, assassinations, and eventually, revolution. Their adventures are punctuated by frequent flashbacks to before they became obsessed with vengeance.

-A group of friends is raised amongst a community descended entirely from adventurers, but must leave their home when it (and many others' homes) are threatened by an expanding empire of psionic slavers. This campaign boasted two adventuring parties played by different players, operating contemporaneously in the same world. One was the party of exiles, and the other was charged with destabilizing the slavers' targets.

-The Sahara desert as never seen before, the strange people that live in it, and the even stranger deities. The culture was based on the fascinating Tuareg people, to whom much Frank Herbert's Fremen owe a large creative debt. Iron was considered magical, and the goat men were to be the primary nemesis, though this didn't quite take off.

-A fantasic retelling of the reconquista in which the players were the personal playthings of a decidedly malicious creator deity. Drew strongly on the early surrealist book "Les Chants de Maldoror" by the Comte de Lautreamont.

-A kingdom that spared itself annihilation by using magic to cut itself off from the outside world, yet remained in danger of destroying itself. This setting had everything, from the good prince player fighting the evil prince player for the crown, to the hex crawl, to the city-based adventure, to two competing parties of players questing for the same item --more about this later, it's probably worth writing about in more detail.

Next: The Weird Games.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Edition Edition of Pity Crit

It got the job done and there was nothing else like it. Which is all there is to say about it, really. Some grogtards really worship this shit like there was no improvement possible, as if antiquity equates quality. You know the kind of people that I'm talking about --there is no label group more afraid of the new than nerds.

I do miss kits, distinct/non-generic campaign settings, and specialty priests. I sort of miss how the character classes weren't balanced and didn't try to be, but had different XP tables. The campaign settings were actually different from each other instead of being some sort of fantasy lowest common denominator shit. They actually had real themes built into the setting --you didn't see anything like Dark Sun or Planescape come out of 3e, even with the open gaming license. And there could be whack ass shit that worked like a ranger kit that slowly turns into a treant, and grew extra arms. On the other hand, there would be whack ass shit that didn't work, like the mechanician sha'ir class. But there was the Peasant Hero, the Warlock, the Jackal, the Myrmidon, the Wild Mage, and lots of others that I can't even remember that seemed juuustst right.

I don't miss the fragility of low level characters (wizards with 1 hit point, negative HP was optional for over a decade) or the relative monotony of going up levels, nor the gibberish saving throws. Nor the completely arbitrary limitations (dwarves can't be paladins, etc).

Third edition made some serious improvements but also had a lot of problems --I can't remember a single 2e fight taking as long as the average fight in 3e. I don't like feats being more important than classes. I don't like the hundreds of buff spells and modifier types and so forth. More of the classes were useful, but bards were somehow worse than in 2e --every other class had a noticeable power jump. Clerics were still healing batteries first and interesting second. I would buy entire source books just to use five pages of them... fuck, I'd buy entire lines of sourcebooks just to use five pages of them, and even then it would be one feat that occupied a single paragraph, and half of that would be repetitive mechanics information with maybe a quote from every marketing major's darking, the iconic character Lidda, thrown in.

The OGL: Jesus, you could legally publish your own campaign or sourcebook. Which was amazing -lots of non-fantasy games including some that were reputably worth playing --like Mutants and Masterminds, or creative like Godlike). Even with the complete market glut of shitty, unbalanced products, like The Adventurer's Guide To Amazons and its cousins. I guess Hasbro is continuing this in 4e, which is both good and bad.

Is it possible for something to be too balanced? I dunno. There are a lot of things that I really like, a lot of bullshit fixed, but it's a little too precise, at certain points I think to myself "maybe I'd be better off playing left for dead" since that's basically what I'm going for. Well, left4dead meets A Confederacy of Dunces.

I dunno. Lots of 1 round benefits, lots of moving people around the battlefield. I don't know why they even bothered to retain feats in this edition, they're so shitty. They moved away from skillpoints towards what are basically Non-Weapon Proficiencies, which I think a useful anachronism. They also pander completely to the sort of player that I wouldn't be interested in having around.

Again, I dunno. There's some serious mechanics sprawl with saving throws and Defenses (what used to be called Saves). The classes are so perfectly balanced that it's intimidating to try and develop your own classes and abilities. It feels like they actually tried to make it so that things would not be backwards compatible --they slew the sacred cows and then, in lieu of making hamburgers, they made WoW on paper.

It's like they remade the game so that it was so cold and predictable that WoW would be a perfect replacement. There's got to be a sort of balance between rules and drama --and this ain't it.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The RPG Kool Aid pt II

My disillusionment came on slow. I drank the kool aid for a long, long time. When 3e came out, I didn't mind one bit. The 2e rules were stale, I'd done everything that could be done with them and, although I was disappointed at Wizards' transparent attempts to sell miniatures via D&D, I was ready to move on the next edition.

Still, the many flaws stood out. Prior to 3e, miniatures were deliciously optional. And it's true (as was asserted when creating 4e) that choosing feats in 3e was more important than choosing a class, that the fighting in 3e was more complicated. The weapons didn't offer much variety, the skill point system was an entirely new level of complexity, and the combat took much longer.

But despite these and other misgivings, I helped myself to cup after cup of sugary red kool aid. I would buy huge splat books just for the six pages with feats, and even then only a third of the feats would even be well-designed, let alone useful to my players. Fluff in rpg books is usually useless, and often bad, but the text in the 3e books was cliche to the point of being infantile. The monster books remained useful, as indeed my 1e and 2e books did.


Yes, there were hiccups. Simple fights taking three hours a round, for example. Entire books that seemed to take themselves seriously and yet, failed to satiate this hunger I had for a better game. But I persevered. Then 4e came out.

I was a little naive. All of the changes that I heard about prior to publishing sounded good. Things seemed to be getting fixed. Some of my house rules even ended up canonized through some sort of process of rpg convergent evolution. When I cracked open the book and was greeted by dragon men and demon men, it was fine. I could just skip ahead --I wouldn't need to use that sort of thing, and it's just there to cater to the lowest common denominator of role-player, anyway.

Yes, everything would be fine, I told myself.

Fourth Time Is The Charm

At last the day came when I had a copy of the glossy, art-heavy, designed by marketing majors Player's Handbook. And I tried to use the rules. They were useless and actually prevented me from enjoying myself. I'm not talking about the usual hurdles with learning a new rules system, I'm talking about the design choices.

All of the characters are the same. All of the class flavor is beaten out of them --the differences between are marginal. The fights take even longer than 4e, stretching even my patience. Blech.

What caused these terrible changes to the game that I love? What could have made the marketing execs at Hasbro say to themselves, "let's make the game like this."

Well, obviously: World of Warcraft. Thanks to the brand identity messiahs in Hasbro's basement thinking they can tap into some sort of consumer confusion, you too can know the joyful tepidity of being the tank for band of asperger-lite neck-beards. Thrill as you deal progressively more monotonous amounts of damage in an ever so slightly different way than the other people sitting at the table. Soar as you experience the wretched grind and quest for purple items.

Not that there wasn't good stuff. Many of 3e's foibles were finessed, and even more of 1e and 2e's sacred cows were slain. But the changes are so comprehensive that one may as well be playing a different game, and that game may as well be WoW.

No thanks.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Subverted Modron

Subverted Modron
A clockwork outsider from the lawfully aligned planes, reprogrammed by a clockwork mechanician to serve him.
Init -5
Speed 6
HP 100, Bloody 50
AC 13
F +5 R +1 W+3
-Resists: poison 10, misc 10 (see below)

Pliers +10
Dmg 1d6 + 5.

Orderly Combat: Once per round when the modron is targeted with an offensive spell, he may immediately cast a spell that targets the source of the spell.

Spells: Burning Hands, Flame Arrows, Incinerating Touch. (Swap with any first to third level spells that you like)

Orderly Adaption: Once per round when the modron suffers energy damage, he may immediately change his misc energy resistance to that energy type. This does not help against that particular energy attack, but remains that energy resistance until the end of the encounter or the modron decides to change it.

Logical Aura: Any creature opposing you must roll a Will save DC 20 at the start of the encounter, or become delirious for the duration of the encounter.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Clockwork Prawnalope aka "The Brillig Beasty"

This was the boss of the "futuristic" clockwork dungeon that my PCs have just hacked their way through. It was a pretty neat dungeon, I'm digging the clockwork chic. I omitted the limb loss stuff that all my bosses/minibosses in this campaign have.

Mechanical Prawnalope (huge construct)

A mechanical creatures resembling a cross between a deer and a giant prawn.
Init +5
Speed 8
HP 140, Bloody 70
AC 17
F +11
R +4
W +3
-Resists: Electric 20

Claw +9 (Crit 17-20)
dmg 1d10
-May make Whirlwind Attack as a full round action.

-Ram: When struck by a ranged attack or spell, the prawnalope may immediately charge the source of the damage and make an attack, assuming that the target is within its movement range. If the attack hits, the target is knocked prone unless he is wearing heavy armor.

-Bloody: When first bloodied, the prawnalope may emit a medium range lightning bolt that is 10' wide and inflicts 24 damage, Reflex 19 for half.
-While bloodied, the prawnalope's whirlwind and ram damage increase by 2d6 damage.

-Death: When destroyed, the prawnalope explodes, causing 8 fire damage to creatures within short range.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Rust Snark

My present adventure is going pretty well. The PCs have found a clockwork garden from a lost civilization, a sort of clockwork Xanadu. They fought a slightly tougher version of the Snark, given here. The picture is by me, though I based some of the line work on a random google image that I found.

Rust Snark (huge construct)
A clockwork monster that resembles a cross between a shark and a lobster. It is surrounded by a cloud of poisonous corrosion.

Init +0
Speed 6
HP 100, Bloody 50
AC 17
F +10 R +2 W+5
-Resists: Fire 10, Cold 10
-Vuln: Electric 5

Chomp +9 Dmg 1d12
-Critical 18-20: On a critical, the shark bites off a limb. Any equipment worn on that limb is destroyed, even if not made of ferrous metal. Limb Loss Table (d6): 1-3: Leg, 4-5: Secondary Arm, 6: Primary Arm.

Aura: On the snark's turn, it automatically inflicts 4 poison damage to all adjacent creatures.

-Breath Weapon: The creature may exhale a short range cone of corrosion as a move action, 14 poison damage, Reflex 17 for half. It may not use this ability two rounds in a row. If a natural roll of 1-3 is rolled on this save, a piece of equipment is also destroyed. Roll 1d10 to determine which slot: 1: Head, 2: Neck, 3: Hands, 4: Waist, 5: Cloak, 6: Feet, 7: Ring, 8: Weapon/Implement, 9-10: Armor.

-Like Clockwork: This creature is immune to mind and metabolic effects.

-Bloody: When the snark becomes bloodied, it may immediately charge and make a chomp attack against the source of the damage that rendered it bloody, if the damage source is within range.

-Death: When the snark is slain, it explodes in a cloud of burning corrosion. Creatures within short range suffer as though targeted by it's breath weapon.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

New Campaign World Map

Here's the campaign map for my new game. The map isn't going to be used for a hex crawl or anything, my players just wanted some context for the game.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Edgy Commentary About The Forgotten Realms

Baby's First RPG

With a slight Dragon Quest prelude, my roleplaying teeth were cut on the 2e Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting boxed set. It was and is a terrible setting. There were a few things I liked. The adventure portion was all right. It had exploration, infiltration, weird shit, and best of all, an evil plan to foil. The pictures of NPCs were very shi-shi, too.

An Exercise In Bland, Derivative Drivel

Unfortunately, it also acclimated the player to the bland, derivative Realms setting. Beyond the cheesy, instantly cliched characters, the indecisively vast pantheon, and the novel-cum-game profit model, it committed an unforgivable sin. It failed to convince me, even at age thirteen, that there was really a place where the players could be heroes. As best I could tell, the big guys had it under control.

And the big guys, oy. It felt like there was some kind of weird adventurer class struggle going on. Elminster would make cameos in published modules so you could brush shoulders with people that actually matter in the campaign world. Never mind that Elminster is the most obvious fantasy character cliche in existence. And never mind that the character it ripped off was pretty tepid, too. If Gandalf was a stately nod toward Merlin, then Elminster is a burning paper bag left on Gandalf's front porch.

Worse and Worse

Since then, the situation has worsened. Campaign settings don't update well. Every edition, the Realms has had some lame catastrophe occur to justify whatever changes the game designers would make, and more schlock would get plastered onto the earlier layers of schlock. The Time of Troubles was like a bad Neil Gaiman novel, and the more recent 4e moon magic crap is even worse. Just another excuse to showcase novels about drow and half-dragons, cat people and dinosaur people. Give it a rest, dudes.

I have played in other peoples' well-meaning attempts to run Realms campaigns. They have been festooned with chaotic good drow, thinly veiled attempts on the part of the DMs to insert their own characters into the Realms metaplot, and otherwise were complete let-downs. This is less a commentary on the Realms, than a commentary on the kind of people that the Realms attracts.


Part of the problem with the Realms is that they don't have a unifying theme. Or if they do, I'm completely mystified about what it could be. Dark Sun had ecological and liberty-related themes. Planescape had philosophical struggle. Even Spelljammer had exploration. If I had to sum up the theme of the Realms in a few words, and I had to use words with more than four letters, I'd probably call it "excess by design."

The sole joy for me to find in the Realms is pushing the envelope and misusing the setting to scandalize people that actually like it. A good example: Dark-skinned elves that murder and attack the surface? Well let me tell you, my Sun Elf knew just how to deal with that sort of criminal. I got to roleplay a lynching!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Old Campaigns: Brython Map

I've been too busy to post, so I thought I would upload this old campaign map that I made. It was printed on colored stationary so that the minor color differences wouldn't show at all. The villains of the setting were a circle of knights that has betrayed an Arthuresque figure. Their coats of arms are visible on the map, indicating what areas they controlled.

The campaign features bandit knights, Tamlin, a Christianity cognate sweeping away pagan religions from a fantastic British isles, St. Brandon, and a really cool dragon that deserves its own update. The monsters on the map are taken from the Carta Marina, a 16th-century ancient map of northwestern Europe that should be required viewing for all d&d players. I would draw your attention in particular to the creature near the bottom of my version of the map: it's a 16th-century cartographer's version of a whale!