Saturday, July 31, 2010

Old School Combat Cards

In a true old school combat anything is possible. The actions a player might choose to perform, because they are not described, are infinite.

But what do we do for new players who have no idea what could happen in a combat? Or what will we do in a few years when all those entering the hobby will only have had experience with 4e and most likely be looking for explicit action they can take in a battle?

Old School Combat Cards!

Make some cards that have some basic maneuvers a player might make. Include simple instructions on them. Better yet if they all had silhouettes illustrating the maneuver being made for easy identification during play. Also, if you could color code different types of maneuvers. Maybe anything that moves an opponent is green, maneuvers that result in a definite combat advantage in red, etc.

The mechanics you use to determine success are up to you. But for me, I'd use Simple Combat Maneuvers. Every card would have the same mechanic! The idea would be eventually the player would no longer need them-- like training wheels.

So what would be some good cards to have?

Those that Move a Foe
  • Push Back
  • Lead Forward
  • Trade Positions
Those that Give an Advantage over a Foe
  • Trip
  • Disarm
  • Blind
  • Tackle
  • Shield Ally
  • Slip By
What do you think? Have you had players that might have benefited from something like this? Suggestions for other cards or ways to use them?

Undertavern - Design Notes

First, I corrected all the typos I could find in the files I'd hurriedly uploaded before heading out of town: the one-page format and the word document, now with added tavern patrons.

The Star of the Dungeon

Whether the dungeon turns out fun for your group or a flop, it was built around the idea of the pale beast thing chained to a course, its scraping warning of its approach. This is what I meant by thinking up situations and then building a dungeon around them here.

I probably shouldn't have named the thing, because it seems to make it more tangible and less frightening. I would have it be intelligent and squeeze as much tension out of it as possible; let players hear the strange scraping sound far away, nearer, nearer, and a flash of white as it passes a corridor intersection. Later, have it walk very slowly holding the chain so as to make no noise. Maybe even let the players see it doing this (from behind, from the side) so they are creeped out by the idea that a) its smart and b) they can't count on the noise giving it away any more.

John Jentilman

I wanted to leave the whole situation fruitfully ambiguous: is John a kook whose secret digging has gotten him in trouble, a weird serial killer, a combination of the two? The humans with arrows in them in room 3 pushes it toward the killer choice, but that could have been done by the dollfolk, or even the forsaken. If a DM wanted, they could play John as a sympathetic kook that was terrified by the ark in room 8, doesn't know how to ask for help, and thus pushes parties underground.

Tone as Generating Technique

I mentioned early on that I wanted to think in terms of gonzo, creepy and wondrous and then see if I could mash them together. This was actually really helpful. fun and interesting, but . . . insane! Can you imagine writing three dungeons for every one you map and play?

I actually did most of a map in the style of Tony Dowler for my gonzo ideas. The first goofy idea I had was that if there couldn't be giant rats in the dungeon there would be everything like them I could stuff in. That produced the idea of straw rats, beavers, and a capybara. On my map I had a beaver standing next to an underground dam. This damn later turned into the Behemoth.

It was interesting and quite easy for the funny to turn weird-- the stuffed rats became made of meat and filled with victims. I actually can't claim one of the weirdest aspects, the duplicate tavern underground. I had asked my buddy weeks ago "What would you expect under a tavern?" and he said "A well you have to go down and then another tavern with talking frogs." The talking frogs will have to wait for their own dungeon, but the model of the tavern seemed like genius to me, so I used it.

Simulation vs. Mysterious Underworld

If you deconstruct this dungeon, it, like my Coastal Caves, really points to a simulationist struggling with the fact that they know dungeons need variety, wonder, and mystery. I really tried to make a place John Jentilman could have dug with his own hands in ~40 years, sometime uncovering the Ark room. The Behemoth and its dollfolk worshipers are me trying to add the mystery of the underworld (who knows where they came from), but again, the fact that something has been eating the poor, big, grub is indication that my default thinking is realistic.

Design Process

Early on I did actually trace some dice and place dominoes to see what I would come up with. The dice resulted in too natural a setting, it didn't look like someone had carved them out. The dominoes were too linear, but they did result in a religious room overlooking a chasm that I think was the seed for the undersky.

Oddly, both the beaver dam turning to a Behemoth and the domino dungeon tile turning into a platform overlooking an underground sky came to mind as I was waking from sleep on the same morning.

Some Goals

I wanted to incorporate all the things in T. Foster's suggestion for a session of play. I didn't really get the telegraphed trap in, unless you consider the mud spiral one. I also didn't get magic that changes characters permanently, but as suggested the musical hives in room 8 could fill that role. As a side not, the music that activates the glass vessel isn't meant to be silly, it's just the simplest song I would know, as a non-musician, how to peck out on a keyboard. If your players are musicians you could make the tune more complex/interesting and also have a different tone.

I also wanted to incorporate factions if I could, but by making the Forsaken savage beserkers I broke Alex Schroeder's suggestion for intelligent opposition. If you play through this you might consider forgetting that beserker part, make them more like Lord of the Flies boys, not so much raving mad as merciless, at least someone players could negotiate with. Hmm . . . maybe the Gulo wants something? I know the Behemoth wants something . . . out. And that's one reason I put the amulet of ESP in the dungeon (I have no idea how players might free it though). But maybe the Gulo wants something more than just fresh flesh too . . .

Okay, enough blah, blah, blah from me. Hey, what about my SAGE request, "What did Telecanter get?" you might wonder. I was going to post, but I'll just point you in the direction of the goodies. PatrickWR made this great list of treasure items here. Thanks!

Japanese Monster Illustrations

Did y'all see this? Kid's book illustrations by Gojin Ishihara.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Patrons of the Two Moon Tavern

Another part of the SAGE request I received was to flesh out some of the patrons of the Two Moon Tavern. I do that now:

Barmaid Alice Robinsdoughter
is in her twenties and has hair almost to the back of her knees. Patrons wonder at it and jest with her about the amorous complication such hair might cause. She takes it all good naturedly, but is constantly looking to Agnes for direction-- should he be offended, is it all in good fun?

Barmaid Agnes Bonamy is in her fifties and has a stunted left arm that she carries crooked close to her body. She constantly makes light of Alice with patrons, though behind her back.

Many of the regulars at the Two Moon are travelers or traders that stop on their normal routes (thus they don't notice the people constantly disappearing in the cellars), John Fairjohn and his son Roger are two of these. Both men share the unfortunate feature of greatly bucked teeth. John, in his sixties, is quite slow. He believes Agnes arm was caused by her mother's womb being kicked by a fairy. Roger is in his twenties and seems completely unaware that his teeth disgust Alice, as he pursues her favor with unswerving aplomb.

John Merriman is a devoted drinking partner of John Fairjohn's. Though this forty year old will rarely let a night pass without spilling ale over the man. He is missing his right ear and will tell the tale of how he lost it as a child in a smithy, trying to see what hot iron sounded like.

Robert Punchun's huge feet are constantly tripping up the barmaids. He believes John Fairjohn's tales, laughs at John Merriman's foolishness, and considers himself a man to be reckoned with. Though the thirty year old would enter a fray to prove it, the only thing worth reckoning about him, really, is the size of his shoes.

John Stoutlook has a scarred nose, that people say he got fending off robbers on the road one night. The twenty year old certainly seems fearless.

Robert Alansman, also in his twenties is gaunt and red nosed from ale. He is the one patron sure to be in the Moons and the one patron sure to be drunk, though he mostly keep to himself.

Thomas Marmaduke, in his forties, is a pale and slight man with a wisp of a goatee. He is the frequent target of conversation from Agnes but would really rather be left alone.

A foreign couple (demihumans? What land do they hale from? choose for your campaign) has been frequenting the tavern of late. The man in his fifties has a huge beard and show sign of being a doughty veteran. His female companion is slightly younger and has her hair beautifully ornamented with beads of rare wood and semiprecious stones. She seems watchful and actually suspects John Jentilman.

A second foreign pair is likely to be encountered in the tavern. A woman in her fifties with hennaed hands is cheerful and garrulous, happy to engage anyone in a seemingly unending conversation about her place of origin and her affairs. Her companion a beautiful woman in her twenties seems incredibly uncomfortable about the attention this draws and will try to politely curtail conversation. Her nose ring is a feature of interest for Alice, who would be interested in striking up a conversation, if Agnes thought it okay.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Happy SAGE!

Today is a celebration of Gary Gygax' birthday. While I'm normally not t0o big on celebrating anniversaries of any kind, doing it in a way that incorporates sharing with others and forces me to stretch my creative potential is a good deal in my book. Thanks again to Zak for organizing it. See some of the results at his blog here.

The request I received was for a dungeon under a tavern run by an odd man. He asks the party to kill some rats in the cellar and then locks the door behind them. The only real restriction I has was to not, in fact have there be any giant rats. Here is what I came up with. (I'd like to polish it more but if I don't publish it I'll keep tinkering forever).

The Undertavern

John Jentilman owns the Two Moon Tavern, a cheerful if simple establishment. Always an odd sort, he constantly complains about rats in the cella
r of the tavern. After coaxing the party into helping he ushers them through the iron cellar door . . . and locks it behind them.

Trapped in a bare room with a well i
n the center of the floor. They must seek a way out of their predicament. (Well leads to room 1)

Here it is in one-page dungeon format and as a word doc.

Update 7/28: Uggh, sorry for the egregious typos. I'm back in the mountains again and will have to fix those when I get back.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Old Game Art in Your Browser

Back in the day when all computer artists had to work with was 256 colors they found a way to make simple animations by cycling through different colors. Apparently this is possible in our browsers now.

That's interesting. I'm always interested in the way resource constraints force people to find elegant solutions. But I'm more interested in Mark Ferrari's evocative art. Go here and click on the demo. You can see scenes like the above Mountain Stream in the morning, afternoon, and at night. Some pictures have rain or fog.

I don't know what games these were from but I wish I could play them right now.

via Boing Boing

Sunday, July 25, 2010

What RPGs are About

Noisms posted a while back that D&D is about Ambition. I thought that was interesting and have been turning it over in my mind since I read it.

First, ambition has negative connotations from my middle-class perspective (it's blind, it's selfish). I might say D&D is about Progress, or Mastery. You start out being crappy at everything and with luck, smart decisions, and perseverence you get better at things.

It seems analogous in many ways to the stages of life we all go through, or even the Heroes Journey. If you want an answer as to why D&D is the most predominate rpg and that mechanics of progress, either levels or skill levels, exist in 90% of rpgs, I think this is the reason.

It's hard wired into our brains isn't it? Why the hell do thousands and thousands of people spend hours of their life playing Farmville?

Noisms mentions some rpgs that are about other things than ambition. I'm unfamiliar with those he mentions. I was thinking about games a little more familiar to me. So what about these:
  • Traveller
  • Call of Cthulu
  • Boot Hill
  • Any Superhero Game
Is Traveller about ambition too? I don't have extensive experience with it, but from what I recall, getting better at abilities or learning new ones is much more time consuming. It certainly didn't seem like the point of the game was to become the best pilot in the galaxy. I'm sure you could play it that way, but it didn't seem like the system was crafted with that in mind.

I've never played CoC, but from what everyone says about it, it's just a matter of time before your character dies or goes mad. So, what is that about? Is there even such a thing as a CoC campaign or are they by nature necessarily one-offs? I'm not criticizing here, actually curious.

Boot Hill was my second attempt at being a DM, and way back then as a proto-gamer, I was puzzled by what we were supposed to do. Ok, yes, this may have been influenced by my having experienced D&D first. I knew there should be tension, a gun fight, but then what? I wanted the game to give me some kind of framework. I remember very clearly noticing in the rule book how the playtester campaign had set a time limit and a boundary distance: whoever crossed that boundary with the most money by the end of the time limit "won." I remember thinking that very odd at the time (I suppose all law men were run by the DM?) and also thought "Aha, I'm not weird, they had to impose a framework too." So, what's Boot Hill about? And again, does anyone play Western campaigns, or are these all one-offs, situations?

Superheroes! The games I played as a youth (Champions, Marvel, DC) made only the barest nod at character improvement. I mean, Batman did all that before he walked onto stage, right? He doesn't get any better, he's at the top of his form. He may craft individual gadgets to deal with threats but that's different. So, the hero you made, was pretty much always going to be the same hero. So what was that game about? Our games had a lot to do with balancing secret identities/normal lives with hero lives. Also a lot of personal interactions/rivalries within our hero groups.

It strikes me that people really unsatisfied with D&D because there isn't enough roleplaying should really be flocking to hero games. That doesn't seem to be the case though, is it because that genre is traditionally drenched in testosterone, and that there is always the violent confrontations spaced between all the drama?

My hypothesis is that as humans, we tend toward some idea of progress, even artificial, and that games that don't incorporate this (by design or because of genre constraints) end up being one-off games, played as a fun session in-between long stretches of games that do allow for progress.

But I freely admit I may be blinded by my own desires (I crave a sense of progress and accomplishment). In fact, I'm intrigued by the idea of an ongoing game that is about the characters interacting with each other, without worrying about ambition. But I'm having trouble envisioning what the characters would be interacting about, if not goals, and aren't goals the small steps of progress?

Thoughts? Comments?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Four-Headed Saint

Been reading The Medieval Village by G. G. Coulton. Not sure I'd recommend it, it's kind of a rambly, scholarly book from 1925. But it does have fascinating little medieval nuggets scattered throughout, like this from pg 265:
The islanders of Rugen, in the Baltic, had been converted by monks of Corvey, who built there a church in honour of their patron saint St Vitus. In 1168, Waldemar of Denmark conquered the island, took stock of its religion, and found that St Vitus had become a monstrous image with four heads, to which all kinds of sacrifices were offered, even human . . . 'These people having relapsed into idolatry, forgot the true God and substituted for Him this martyr, whom in their tongue they called Suantovit, making him into an idol . . .' "
How's that, Cthulu meets D&D!?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

DIY Minatures Coming

I've been watching the 3D printer scene. I am really looking forward to the day we are sharing Creative Commons models of miniatures with each other to print on our own printers. You can actually get one for ~$800 bucks, so the price is coming into range. The problem was with resolution. That printer could not match the detail in the fantasy miniatures you use at your table, but look at this:

Apparently that was printed with an Envisiontec Aureus. No idea on the price, but looks like the detail is here. Read more about it here.

via Boing Boing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


When people talk about old school D&D being hack n' slash I'm guessing that person hasn't played a retroclone. When I played 1e, 2e and 4e yep we hacked the monsters and took what they had. That's why the monsters were there. With Swords & Wizardry however, my sessions have been more about the characters getting hacked n' slashed.

If what is grating to people about H n' S play is the attitude-- savage, imperialistic, kill things to solve problems-- this hasn't existed much in my sessions. My players' attitude is more generally one of trepidation, of, "God I hope we find enough treasure to at least pay for these torches."

I like the idea of them treating the mystic underworld as a place they are a visitor in, not a master. The system does a lot of that with limited hit points and limited damage capability. But I like to try to push players to feel vulnerable. Here's a brainstorm of some situations that might make players feel out of control, uncertain, and at risk:
  • Water slowly deepening-- once chin-deep I would start to wonder if we should head back
  • Something moving around in that water
  • Or the water beginning to move, faster and faster
  • Not water, but mud or muck that must be waded through-- getting thicker
  • Trapdoors, cupboards, or curtains that open face-high or above the head.
  • Uncertain footing: walking on rotten boards or broken glass, ramps that look slick
  • Unsafe terrain: "That ceiling looks really cracked," "This hall could hide archers all along here"
  • Low ceilings that make them crawl
  • Small holes to be investigated-- hand-sized-- in walls, on altars
  • Ledges half-a foot length wide
  • Steam or fine webs obscuring vision.
  • Suspicious, sharp protrusions covering sections of walls.
  • Skeletons, suits of armor, statues, or strawmen-- anything human-shaped propped against walls and they expect them to attack at any moment
  • Similar doors/corridors so they have a feeling they may be lost
Basically any time the players say "Oh, great," sarcastically, or hesitate before deciding between two equally unattractive routes I feel like I'm doing my job.

Anything you'd add to the list?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dungeon Making

The SAGE due date is fast approaching and I've already revealed I'm working on a small dungeon.

What I'm noticing is the way I make a dungeon is to think up situations and then somehow cobble them together on a map.

What I mean by situations is I have an idea of a trap door that when opened from below dumps nasty stuff on the opener. Pretty simple, even obvious as a situation, but to make that one little thing possible means my dungeon now has two levels. I like the idea that an early dumping combined with other trapdoors encountered later might produce dread/disgust in players. So that means this particular trapdoor should be early on in the dungeon. But if there are other trapdoors does that mean this dungeon must have even more levels?

Just an idea of the creative process I use and how it's usually situations that shapes a whole map.

I realize the dungeon making tools I posted before (using dominoes & tracing dice) work the opposite way; a map is made which then must be interpreted/fleshed out into an adventure locale.

I wonder how you all make your dungeons?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Silhouettes III

Here's a quick and dirty cleric . . . you know what I mean.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Player Mini-Games III

Continuing an investigation into simples ways to get players creating at the table. I looked at letter constraints, word constraints and today look at:

Concept Constraints

Alien Concepts

Interact with something that completely lacks a common concept. I feel I couldn't put this better than noisms of Monsters and Manuals does in two of his posts. Here, looking at human universals and the play possibilities if creatures didn't share them. And here, exploring the idea of what it might be like for demi-humans to have different conceptions of law.

Now, I'm not sure how this might work as a mini-game. Maybe your alien Xxrrph have no sense of "Past," and the players want to know what happened a month ago when the last caravan disappeared. . . . Umm, I'm having a hard time myself imagining how the creature would interact with past events without a concept of past. Would the past be like a different place, or would it be like people who lack long term memory, trapped in the present moment?

"Do you know what a caravan is?"
"Yes. It isn't here"
"I know, but a month ago one should have come through, what happened to it?"
"Sometimes one comes through, must not be today though."
" . . . Have you seen a caravan?"
"I must have, they come through here some times."


Interact with a creature while avoiding a forbidden topic. Taboos aren't just words, but whole topics. The key here would be to find a topic that the avoidance of would cause enough problems for players as to make it game-like and require creativity to get around. Perhaps violence/aggression is a no-no and players have to explain why they need money from the tribal chief to outfit themselves. Or maybe the local dwarf fortress is astounded at how your pale, weakly mage took out a whole swarm of stirge because magic is taboo.

"Ahh, yes, stirge are a difficult adversary, yes"
"How did you defeat them?"
"I took my staff, I started swinging like this . . ."

Taboo and Alien concepts seem more like roleplaying situations than mini-games. I there something more like the goblin opposite talk that got me started on this topic? You might reverse it and come up with:

Truth Telling

Everyone tells the exact truth. Even with experienced, honest roleplayers I don't think this would work quite as well as opposite talk. You might just tend to avoid plans of action that would cause problems if you confessed them. In the worst case scenario this mini-game would make play more boring! But if the players were in a situation where they didn't feel really threatened you might construct an amusing situation. Perhaps a disgruntled local mage spiked the punch at the Baron's party. Everyone has to say what they are really thinking. Put some interesting and annoying npcs into the mix and you have an old-school cocktail party.

"I know you are a mage, but I find I'm not intimidated by you because you are so short"
"Hmm, I'm not sure what you just said because I was looking at your friend's bulging purse"

Yes, I'm feeling that at this level of granularity the mini-games blend into roleplaying situations, basically the game of make believe itself. It looks like Zak picked the most useful one, opposite talk is easy to understand and perform, doesn't require players to reveal anything they don't want to, and works in a setting that can be equally bizarro, i.e. walking on ceilings.

The only thing coming to mind outside of my letter/word/concept schema is pantomime or crafty stuff like drawing. While the first might work if you asked players to just use their hands to try and communicate with a creature that doesn't speak the same language, I would be worried that it and any kind of drawing/singing/sculpting would be getting too far into the performance category. I'm trying to think of things that might engage shy, new players, not scare them off.

Help me out here, is there anything you've done or seen done in a session that got players sitting up and eager to take part of what was happening at the table?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Player Mini-Games II

Okay, we're continuing our examination of possible player mini-games. These are simple ways to get players interacting at the table. Last post was letter constraints, let's kick it up a notch to:

Word Constraints

Small Words

Use only one-syllable words. I think it's too much to ask newbie players to make haiku count syllables, but they should be able to do this. Because most of the words we use in every day speech are single syllable this would need to be an extended use for the challenge aspect of it to show up. Small words could be used to simulate speaking in a different language. Maybe the Dwarf in the party does know Kobold, just not very much.

"Hear me small one. If you let us in the door I will give you food. If you do not let us through, this great mage will show you his power and burn you nests with fire!"

Werral's simple language rules fit here, and extend the idea. Basically language fluency is simulated by what words you can use-- less fluent=just nouns, more fluent=verbs also, but just 1 per sentence, etc. I really like this as a way to simulate languages in a world. (the only reason I haven't used it in play yet is because I haven't decided on the main languages of my world)

Personal Pronouns

Speak with wrong but consistent personal pronouns. This seems less about a challenge than amusing confusion. It could be something as simple as Abbott and Costello's Who's on First (the female high priest Hee, the temple spirit "U" etc.), or the royal "we." Or it might be a little more complicated, using third person or first person plural to refer to self (we are hungry, it doesn't really want to hurt you, etc.). This mini-game is perfect to simulate a monster's alien consciousness.

"It's going to eat you"
"What is?"
"The guardian of the pool"
"How do you know?"
"Because it's about to take you unawares"

Code Words

Use some words to mean different words. Not ciphers, where letters are replaced, but whole words like in a Cold War codebook. Maybe the Great Fair has a black market that functions right under the nose of the king's men. To buy a tun of royal wine you ask for a "bolt," (as in cloth) to ask for poached boar meat "wine," to ask for forbidden scarlet cloth you ask for "tusks." Simple enough except the merchants are leery of anyone catching on so they rotate the meanings every day.

"I'd like tusks"
"How many?"
"Whaa . . . um a bolt"
"A bolt, I thought you wanted some meat, you want wine?"

Again, more sitcomesque confusion than a creative challenge but it could be fun.


Riddles, like rhyming, are too hard for this. You might get away with it if you keep it really simple, something like Scandinavian kennings. And I'd want the players to hear some examples first. A kenning is just a metaphorical way to use, usually, two words to represent one other word, so ship becomes "wave's steed," etc. Maybe this comes into play as a way to pass as warriors of the north, or maybe a viking lich only understands this kind of speech.

"Where is the arm's thorn of Bjorn?"
"It lies under the whale's road."

Feel free to jump in with any other ideas you might have. Notice, none of the letter or word constraints replicate Zak's goblin "opposite talk." I think that is more of a concept, so the next post will be on conceptual constraints.

Serf King

I'm on the porch of a lodge in the mountians, it's raining and thundering, instead of posting what I intended I'm fiddling with this silly joke. Then the power goes off. Okay it's on again, go, go, go.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Player Mini-Games I

At the risk of seeming fawning I'm going to praise something of Zak's again. The goblins that show up in episode 8 of I Hit it With My Axe always say the opposite of what they mean. In trying to communicate with these goblins the player characters have to do the same. And what happens (if you don't have time to watch and see) is that the players immediately perk up, everyone is attentive of what's going on, they're puzzled for a second, have a flash as they realize what's going on, and then they all start contributing their own opposite talk.

I think that's great. That's the whole point of this game right-- everyone involved, laughing and creating together? What makes this achievement especially cool is that (if I'm remembering correctly) at least some of these players were leery of having to create on the spot at the game table-- and here they were creating willingly and successfully. After seeing that episode (and a few after it) I've been wracking my brains trying to think of equally simple ways to pull players in.

You might consider these the smallest possible of games within a game, and if they work the same way as the goblin opposite talk, they'll be fun not just because they draw players into the game creatively but because they highlight the ironic distance of players trying to be successful dungeoneers by making up the best silly sentences.

I've got some ideas in several categories so I thought I'd break them up into several posts. Let's start with:

Letter Constraints


You can't use a certain vowel. In English the frequency of vowels is e a o i u y. I might stick to the middle three as a balance between being too hard and being frequent enough to actually make the players have to stop and think. So, maybe the a local dialect of Thieves' Cant is just Common with no "a"s, that's how the thieves know who is in the the "know."

"Oi, governor, the shipment comes in the first night of this week. We'll pick it up before you might wink your pretty eyes."


You have to start all your words with the same sound (you might forgive prepositions and articles and such). This might be the way to activate a particular magic item.

"Bring back blessed brother Boniface!"

It varies by what corpus you look at but the frequency of consonants in the initial letter of English words is something like t s h w b m f c l d p n g r k j v q z x. This means you could vary the difficulty to use and power of the above magic item by requiring "t"s for the very easy to "r"s for much harder.

Language Games

Any gibberish language games might work as long as they're consistent and simple-- Pig Latin, Double Dutch, etc. Of course it would work best if some of your players new one of these already. Most of these are easily understood by a listener unless they are used so sparingly as to hide the pattern or rattled off quickly enough to do the same. Maybe the test is if you as DM can follow so can the npcs.

"This wine is the best in the city!"
"Gentlemen, I understand your gibberish"


Rhyming in English is hard. I wouldn't recommend this as a mini game but if you're playing in a different language it might work great. It could work if the rhymed words didn't have to make literal sense, like Cockney Rhyming slang or a code or something, but that is more of a word constraint. I'll cover some of those next post.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Silhouettes II

I'm working on a longer post put couldn't quite pull it together today so here are two more silhouettes. These are bearers. I'm planning on trying to use them on encumbrance/group equipment sheets later. But if you have any use for them yourself, please feel free.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Floating Castle

No, not that kind. ze Bulette reminded me during CaveCon that pumice floats. I'd forgotten showing my nephew how I could float a rock in a glass of water years ago (he wasn't impressed).

At this reminder pumice castles and towers floating on water popped into my mind. And I thought I had an interesting new possible dungeon level.

But the more I thought about it the less I think I could add anything that wasn't already done very cleverly in the Water Temple in Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Poking around online, I was surprised to find people hated that temple. It's my all time favorite dungeon level.

It's been a while since I played the game, but the Water Temple is mostly about raising and lowering water levels to reveal features of the dungeon inaccessible otherwise. Raising the water floats platforms, door obstructions, and yourself. Lowering the water level will lower door obstructions out of the way and allow you to travel through passages that would be difficult to make it through holding your breath. There are also iron boots you can put on to help you access features deep under the water, to be taken off once you want to emerge.

I feel like I should play it again before I can abstract out anything more specific dungeon building wise.

About the only thing I might add (because Zelda is single player) is the idea of a floating tower that sinks to different levels depending on the number of players in a party. Interesting way for your local mad mage to tailor a tower to handle solo vs. group incursions.

Maybe it's the Tower of Courage and the fewer people that enter at once the better the rewards they encounter.

Have you utilized clever floating features in your own dungeons?

Monday, July 12, 2010

What Could It Be?

Stealing a page from Zak's book, here's a picture, you tell me what the hell it is:

It puzzled me when I first saw it because it didn't seem to fit in the book it appeared in. I'll clue you in on that book and what they are later, but I'm more interested in what they could be in our games.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Desiccated Font

The Desiccated Font is located in a chapel bereft of worshipers for so long it has been dry for centuries. The font is so dry as to pull moisture into itself. Uncovered flesh touching it will feel as if burning as the water is drawn out. Fluids poured into it will disappear as fast as they are poured and affect the pourer in strange ways:

Unfortunately, I just couldn't finish all the entries before my deadline. Any suggestions to fill those gaps?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Dark Honey

Found in the forgotten corners of abandoned places, it has the texture of warm but slightly gritty honey. Its flavor is that of alcoholic spirits with an aftertaste of ash. No one knows whether it is made by shadowy bees, an undiscovered variety of stirge, wounded imps or something else entirely. Eating a handful will allow a person to see normally in utter darkness for half an hour. Ingesting a second handful will allow a person to travel through shadows as if they were doorways for the same length of time. Continued use blackens teeth and fingers permanently.

Timed Posts

I got invited on a camping trip and so I'll be heading into a different part of the mountains for a few days. I'm going to try to write up some blog posts and time them to publish while I'm far away.

Hopefully it works well. It means I won't be able to respond to your comments until I get back though. Have a great weekend!

p.s., hey to good friend "J" who I just found out has been reading this blog for weeks

Friday, July 9, 2010

Broken Lands - Post Session

When last we left our party they had just escaped the salt flats with millions of transparent, moisture seeking frogs. Their magical cart attended by a blind hireling they set off single file into the the red lava rocks of the Broken Lands.

After some travel in the heat the party saw a thin strand of smoke in the sky. Bodabox the elf set out to investigate. On his path toward the smoke he stumbled upon a gaping cave entrance, cool air pouring from the mouth. (The lava tube cave entrances are mostly below surface level and thus hard to see . . . the party could be surrounded by them).

After noting the entrance Bodabox pushed on toward the smoke. He finally came to a small cave entrance surrounded with bits of trash and piles of human feces. He also saw a tower in the distance to the north. Disgusted he made his way back to the party.

After much strategizing the party decided to circle around toward the tower from the east. The vulture still circled ominously above the tower.

After a few minutes of travel what appeared to be mere rocks flicked into motion snapping at Scantilus' porter Afria. It missed.

At this point Scantilous started a cautious retreat, Robert son of Robert dropped his battleaxe and took off running and Ehud started flicking darts at the beast (non-plumbata type :).

The terrifed Afria managed to drive one of Ehud's dart deeper and a few more darts and the beast lay dead.

Scantilus had managed to coax Robertsson back to the body. The party began chopping the carcass up for meat when the dark shadow of the huge vulture swooped down to light on the lizard.

A quick thinking Ehud dropped the great bird with a sleep spell and Robertsson cleaved its head off proudly with his battleaxe.

Bereft of spell, worried about the heat and possible monsters the party decided to send scout around their immediate area for caves. They found one slightly south west. The cave entrance was built up with carved stairs, a brick wall and gutters to direct rain water around the entrance.

Cautiously entering, our intrepid heroes found a rounded tunnel smoothed and carved by intelligent hands with depictions of stylized figures at war and sport. After deciding to set a guard at the side of the tunnel continuing underground the party camped out in the cool of the tunnel.

That night, as Bodabox was being relieved by Cloud, five figures in curiasses and holding short spears appeared in the cave. They spoke a foreign language but appeared to be motioning for party to drop their weapons to the floor. And then . . .

Some notes, this was my first Skype game. For some reason the technology of it all made me nervous to DM, but after we got going things seemed to be fine. We'd attempted this a while back but had technical problems. But things worked fine this time, my Ubuntu box connecting to ze Bullette's Mac.

The other player was sitting right beside me. Skype worked fairly well, it allowed me to share digital pictures (the giant moloch lizard, for example), but it sometimes seemed like a two way radio; one person has to finish speaking before the next starts. I think part of it is the body language and back channeling we do to facillitate turn-taking are hard to convey through a webcam/limited bandwith protocol.

As far as the game goes, having my map prepared ahead of time really helped me here. I'll post it once these fools are all dead (just kidding!). I was surprised that the lizard didn't take out at least one porter, but I rolled crappy and Ehud's multiple darts helped here.

Now what will happen with these strangely pale warriors?

The Still Earth

This seems perfect for Mutant Future/Gamma World DMs. What would happen if the Earth stopped rotating? Check out this great article. It lays out the process, explains the year long nights that would result, and gives some nice maps.


Via Metafilter.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Unborn

Fleshed out more fully from here. And attempting another frightening, perplexing monster.

The Unborn

Found in tight spaces underground, the only sound they make is the quick inhalation of breath, as if surprised. Some say this is them realizing, over and over, that they live. When encountered by living creatures the unborn, usually in small groups, will approach, mindlessly clubbing with fingerless hands. Cutting their flesh open reveals dry, gristly meat almost like sausage. If they successfully hit a human, that person's mind is transfered into the unborn's body. The human's original body will stare mutely or wander randomly. Scholars say this happens because the unborn have no soul of their own.

A victim newly trapped in an unborn body will find they cannot speak and can only gesture at their allies or attempt to touch their former body to swap their mind back. Tales of doughty fighters butchering unborn often end with the strange fate of the rest of the party-- oddly docile for the rest of their days.

The Unborn

Armor Class: 9 [10]
Hit Dice: 2
Attacks: Club-like arms 1d6
Saving Throw:16
Special: Touch causes bodyswap
Move: 6
Challenge Level/XP: 4/120


Yeah, the pic has them on a swing (it's unborn recess!), but imagine those bodies crawling toward you in a cave with a two foot ceiling and that noise they make. . .

Update 7/9/10:

After posting I'm thinking these guys might be a little too powerful. I might drop damage to 1d4 HD to 1 and maybe even give players a save versus the soul swap, but not sure on the last.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

In Praise of the Vomiter

You can find Zak's creation here. I'm not interested in badass monsters much, seems like the depths of badassery have been thoroughly plumbed (beholder, anyone?). I'm more interested in monsters that perplex players or work on their emotions. Thus my series of Deadly Distractions. I think the vomiter deserves some attention along these lines.

I like the vomiter for several reasons:
  • It is surprising the first time encountered-- What the hell is coming out of his mouth!?
  • It is still surprising on later encounters-- I don't want to stick around and find out what is coming out of her mouth!
  • But it's also tragic-- here is this victim suffering before you and to dally trying to think of how you might help them could cost you your own life.
The vomiter is reminiscent of the old Alien chest-burster but different in the second two points above. First, you never know what you're going to get (like a really nasty box of chocolates). And second, a person screaming and having chest pains might freak you out and raise the tension level, but someone throwing up in front of you is more likely to elicit sympathy, at least it does for me. Because vomiting isn't usually life-threatening like a heart attack, maybe there is just more emotional space to feel sorry for the individual puking.

So, I wanted to make some creatures that might work similarly, not the surprise so much, I don't think you can top the vomiter there, but the sympathy.

Many players couldn't care less for npc's in trouble, though, so how do we make them care? By putting them in dire need. And so, based on the humble Rat King I give you:

The Peasant King

Sometimes known as a Dark Throng, Petitioner's Circle, or just Tom Tangle, this rare mass of humanity is found moving across the countryside at night, or in dark, abandoned places. Formed from what appears to be a circle of men, women, and children with hands fused together, it moves along clumsily, slowly spinning in the direction of travel.

Those bodies closer to the center of the circle have eyes and mouths fused shut. Those on the outside beg for help of anyone in earshot. If a person touches this mass of bodies they must make a save versus petrification or begin fusing to the mass themselves. One limb is quick, the rest following as the hours pass (generally an hour per hit point before complete fusion).

If a person makes their save and resists the fusing, all the bodies not completely fused will be released as well. A person trapped in the Peasant King will know this, will feel the circle's binding strained to the limit. They will also realize that each new person touched gives a chance of release. Stories tell of strong individuals dragging the King from village to village seeking just that. Those viewing the horrific wheel of flesh generally feel differently and flee at its sight.

So, the idea is one of your players will touch this thing, get caught, and then desperately beg for help knowing just a made save is between them and freedom. The rest of the party will have to decide whther the gamble is worth it, pull out the hacksaws, or just harden their hearts to the begging as the walk away.

p.s. I thought of calling it the Serf King, but every time I thought the name I heard surf guitar. :)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sandbox Happening Escalation

On the Year of the Dungeon a small dungeon was posted with a rumor/encounter escalation chart for a curse, depending on whether the player characters get involved with stopping that curse or not. I thought it was a brilliant idea. And I thought you might abstract out a more general escalation pattern for use with any sandbox happenings. (I use the word "happenings" because "event" sounds like discreet and limited things but these are on-going in the background as pcs merrily explore caverns and tombs).

So here is an abstract way to think about and maybe keep track of these happenings in 5 stages:
  1. Rumors
  2. First-hand Tale
  3. Personal Experience
  4. Witness a Mass Event
  5. Unavoidable Consequences / Civilization Interrupted

Rumors are clear. Stage 2 has pcs encounter a person who has witnessed the happening themselves and can give an eye-witness account. A stage 3 things are becoming so common that the pcs are the ones to witness something. Stage for the pcs witness something again, but now it is bigger and more dire. By stage 5 even if the players have avoided interacting with this event for session after session they can't now, merchant, towns, trade, lodgings, even camping safely in the woods will be affected.

When do stages escalate? I say that's up to you as DM. The simplest of course would be to kick it up a notch each session of play. But you could make some happenings build slowly to a boil over the course of a year of real gameplay too.

I don't think every happening would have to end at stage 5; if every happening has unavoidable consequences, eventually the players will realize this and say “Ah, screw it, we've got to go deal with this war.” Happenings could resolve themselves, or be resolved by other parties. Or in an evil campaign a happening may never escalate past a certain level unless players push it gleefully along.

Now, I don't have any experience running a sandbox, so if this is all old hat forgive me. Here are some ideas off the top of my head of things that might happen in the background:

Possible Dire Happenings

Seems pretty straightforward even if players never get involved in actual fighting they'll experience raids, looting, and the wreckage of places armies have been..

Check out the Vaults of Nagoh's memestorms and ideocults for great ideas regarding this category. I think the idea of the Dance of Death is really archetypal of the dark ages too.

While many disasters are eye-blink fast, I think a few would work well with escalation: the earth has been rumbling for weeks, faults have been opening up underneath people, before the big quake hits. Or, the mountain has been smoking, someone saw some lava streaming down the opposite face, before the huge eruption. Or maybe, for some reason, it . . . just . . . won't . . . stop . . . raining.

I sort of like the idea of deciding ahead of time that the player characters will be immune to whatever pestilence is spreading, and having them deal with the envious npcs and any guilty feelings they might have that they are unscathed.

Great Beast
My first thought was dragon, but this could work for a Giant or a Vampire and his followers, anything that can progressively become more of a problem.

Not-So-Dire World Events

Not everything that happens in the world is potentially world-ending, maybe there is just a fad of people wearing Red-checked hose. So, what might happen that would be interesting/important enough to notice but not so dire?
  • Memestorms/Ideocults could fit here too
  • Religion on the Rise (the cult of the Red-Checked Hose)
  • Cultures Mixing (An Influx of Dwarves)
  • Guild Strife
  • Newly Chartered City
  • Trade Shortage
  • Noble Intrigues
Of course you could have multiple happenings . . . um, happening at once but with staggered start times. Players may have just seen a group of plague-ridden peasants when they hear the first rumors of war.

What background happenings have you had going on in your sandbox?

Mountain D&D

I'm posting from King's Canyon National Park! Up here working on a family cabin. I excited about getting it into shape because I want to invite a bunch of people up here to game and BBQ this month. I'm a little conflicted about taking the hike to the lodge here just to connect to the net, though. Seems kind of wrong somehow, to not just be up here. But, I want to keep my blog rollin'. So on to my next post.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What the Hell are Darts?

I've read about shuriken and chakram, I know about throwing sticks, throwing axes, and throwing knives, but I have no idea what Mr. Gygax envisioned when he put darts in D&D as a weapon.

According to the all-wise Wikipedia, darts differ from javelins by being fletched, except it doesn't mention any actual dart usage in warfare, just speculation that men probably used darts before javelins.

My best guess is that they were supposed to be like Roman plumbata. But those were heavy, lead-weighted things thrown overhand. They were meant to be used on the field of battle and fall down into massed units of men. I don't think a wizard would be chucking them in a dungeon.

I'm thinking, even though there is 40 years of precedence, I should just replace darts with throwing knives. That might mean an adjustment in weight, damage, and rate of fire, though.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Japanese Map Symbols

Ran across Japanese map symbols for the first time yesterday. Many of them are more modern than my pseudo-medieval needs, but I'm always interested in iconic representations. Here are a few I thought I might be able to use and that I found aesthetically pleasing:

Point of Interest


Fishing Port


Hot Spring

I took Wikimedia's svgs and turned them into pngs. These are all in the public domain, so if nothing else you can edit them to make your own map symbols.

Saturday, July 3, 2010


Here are some silhouettes I made from public domain images. Feel free to use them in character sheets or whatever.

Friday, July 2, 2010

SAGE Participation

I'm taking part in the Secret Arneson Gift Exchange. Thanks to Zak for setting it up; it's great to share our creativity with each other as a community. I got my request yesterday. I guess to keep it secret I shouldn't blog the process, just release on the 27th, But I want to say a few words.

It feels weird, not knowing the requester. Mine is essentially a small dungeon and I feel I could go at least three main ways: 1) gonzo, play on the ironic distance that exists when we play the game, 2) creepy, try to make it scary in earnest, 3) fantastic and full of wonder.

I'm not much of a gonzo guy, I tend to make those jokes as meta-game banter and like a base line serious game to always return too. But I'm not opposed to the concept. I'm really interested in how 2 can actually scare players and get them involved, but I think you have to be careful, too much serious stuff about torture and violent crimes against the helpless can be a drag.

I really like the third, the stuff of dreams, the stuff hard to find in real life (usually little islands of it in national parks and art galleries). But this is hard to convey to players. "You see a waterfall", no matter how you describe it, is never going to be the same as seeing Bridalveil Falls. We must strive, though.

So, I'm thinking, I might try three runs at this request with styles 1, 2, & 3 and see what I get. I think not making one unified work might be a cop out, but I'm also thinking mining these three veins may help me generate and then I can pick the best rooms from each and smoosh them together.

Whale-Eating Whale

Did you see this news about the skull found in Peru? This picture is worth a thousand rpg sea voyages:

Hacking Monopoly

I'm fascinated with re-purposing household items many people can be assumed to have to play rpgs. Thus the constant thinking about playing cards, poker chips, dominoes. But one other item many, many US households can be assumed to have is a Monopoly board game.

But forget it as a game. It is an abstracted American city most of us are familiar with and have the maps to.

Here are some ideas of what you might do with it:
  • Gangbusters spring to mind, maybe houses could represent player owned speakeasies and hotels, brothels or banks that could be robbed.
  • Call of Cthulu is another possibility, I imagine players following the trail of some demented, clue-carrying target through flophouses and brownstones.
  • Super heroes seems like a strong possibility, especially if the characters are high powered. You could have Hulk-vs-Superman-type battles sending supers smashing into houses miles away.
I think with any possible hack you might also take a piece of paper and map out the center of the board. I don't mean necessarily fleshing out a whole city, but keeping it equally abstract. Maybe a central base for supers, a lake, a big city park, could be there. I also like the idea of tracing out actual courses for the railroads. This central addition could be sketched up quickly, even collaboratively with the players.

So next time you are sitting around with friends and the idea of a city-based game comes up, maybe whip out this old work horse and give it a try.