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.