A return to the dark mysteries of the guilds

August 9th, 2016

I’ve blogged about this before: real-world medieval guilds like the Masons cloaked mystical secrets in mystery. In a D&D world, of course, mystical secrets are a Big Deal. Guilds might guard fabulous treasures, dark conspiracies, and the secrets of the cosmos itself.

For each of the six guilds below, roll d6 to determine which secret – or secrets – the guild hides in your campaign.

Mason’s Guild. The masons are architects, mathemeticians, preservers, and sculptors. Among its elders are many dwarven craftspeople.

1. The Wall East of Everything is weakening. Last time it failed, dwarfish lords defended the breach against horrors while masons repaired it.
2. The Masons know the secret location of some holy artifact and will produce it when it is needed.
3. The Masons know hidden tunnels into every fortification in the world – and can create new ones with their magic.
4. In alliance with the blacksmiths, the guild has discovered a formula for making towers that could scrape the very sky.
5. The Masons compete with the Venturers Guild to plumb the depths of the Mythic Underworld. The two guilds race for a legendary treasure.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

Children’s guild. It’s not recognized by the other guilds, but the Children’s Guild rings its secrets with rituals just as elaborate and ancient. At puberty, every member of the guild magically forgets that guild matters were anything but make-believe.
1. The scriveners guild is coming to believe that children’s games may preserve prehistoric secrets. A scrivener will help any child in exchange for an unfamiliar rhyme.
2. The children’s guild is controlled by a group of evil halflings who teach them new sinister games.
3 A new magic power is cropping up in some children, called “psionic” by the few who believe in it.
4. Once every few years, heroic children use guild secrets to save the world from unthinkable evil – and then, when they grow up, come to believe it was all pretend.
5. Any time you hear a new children’s rhyme or game, take note: it’s a clue to some evil that threatens the local children (thieves guild recruiters, vampires, ogre mages, clowns, etc).
6. Roll twice more on this table.

Jeweler’s guild. Besides jewelry, this guild dabbles in steampunk machinery and material magic.
1. The jewelers have secretly built a few prototypes of mechanical people which they call “war forged”.
2. Elders of the guild can build clockwork replacements for failing body parts. Someone who replaces all their parts becomes immortal, cam makes copies of themselves, and transcends emotion.
3. The jewelers are working with the alchemists on fire-spewing bronze ships that would put an end to the carpenters’ and weavers’ guild’s control of shipping.
4. With lenses from the glaziers guild, jewelers have discovered the elemental bits that make up solid stone. They are working on a process that can tap energy from gemstones – rubies to fireballs, sapphires to lightning bolts, etc.
5. Guild jewelry adorns every noble and monarch in the known world. The jewelers can work subtle Suggestion runes into their pieces, undetectable to low-level divination spells.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

Scriveners Guild. The Scriveners Guild houses poor literary hacks and scribes, mid-level bureaucrats and rich wizards.

1. Scriveners write to each other in a language of their own called Grub. It’s written-only, un-learnable without knowing at least three other languages, and it can be hidden within unrelated text, like a non-magic version of Secret Page. Scriveners are forbidden to read hidden Grub text to non-scriveners. Master scriveners can add a third layer of meaning which only other masters will be aware of.
2. Scriveners have secretly invented the printing press, which they’re sort of on the fence about. On one hand, it would disseminate knowledge (good) but also put scribes out of jobs (bad) and even put spellcasting in the hands of the general public (weird).
3. Scriveners are on the verge of rediscovering the 10th-level spells that brought down the last few civilizations – all for research purposes, not for casting, they promise. They’re hiring Venturers Guild heroes to plunder ancient libraries for the last clues.
4. Secrets known only to the guild are appearing all over the world, scrawled on scrap paper and painted on walls, mixed with mad ramblings. All the scraps are in the same handwriting which no one recognizes.
5. The scriveners fear that the glaziers guild has turned from its own tradition and towards lying whispers from evil stars. The scriveners seek to infiltrate the Glazier’s Guild to learn which entity the Glaziers will inevitably unleash.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

Finally, here are the two guilds to which PCS are most likely to claim allegiance. At mid-level, PCs might be initiated into one of the secrets below.

Thieves guild. The guild includes burglars, muggers, assassins, gamblers, and bravos. Guild PCs and their friends can hide indefinitely at safe houses. They must exclusively use guild fences for stolen property. These fences are fairly generous, paying 50% of an item’s value.

1. Crackpot guild scribes have come up with an idea called “insurance” where people bet on bad things happening to themselves. Theoretically, anyone who buys insurance from the guild should be off-limits for theft, and those who don’t buy should be high-priority thievery targets.
2. The thieves guild has uncovered the existence of illuminati who seek to wake the five elder dragons and resurrect Tiamat. The guild has not decided which way it wants to jump on this whole “resurrect Tiamat” thing.
3. The godless Masons plan to build a tower that reaches to the clouds or even the heavens – a dagger in the heart of the gods. This cannot stand. If anyone is putting a dagger in the heart of anyone, it should be the Thieves Guild.
4. You can bypass most security by taking a jaunt through the Ethereal Plane. Thieves have discovered a shortcut through the plane, but ghosts and spectres may be following them back into the world.
5. Apparently the Venturers Guild and the Masons are competing with each other to find some lost treasure deep in the Mythic Underworld. It would be funny if the Thieves Guild beat them both to it.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

Venturers Guild. The Venturers are a loose collection of dungeon explorers, mercenaries, guides, treasure hunters, caravan leaders, and business capitalists. The guild charges no dues, but expects members to share maps with other guild members. PCs in the guild may visit city guild halls to learn of 1d3 dungeons/jobs in the surrounding area.

1. The Guild is setting up an experimental mail service where adventurers are paid to take stuff to places they were going anyway.
2. Colossal evils swim right outside of our reality. They might discover us any time. The real purpose of adventuring is to train heroes badass enough to defend reality.
3. On the eleventh level of the Mythic Underworld is the Great Treasure of Ur. It can only be gathered once the entire path is mapped and lit: otherwise the path will shift.
4. The leaders of the guild have a grudge against the gods and plan to lead an army to conquer heaven. The greatest adventurers will become the new gods.
5. The blacksmiths have learned an infernal art, the Devil’s Belch, that can blow down walls and sweep away the world’s heroes. This secret must never see the light of day.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

the annotated adventure

June 21st, 2016

illo1-annotatedhobbitPublished D&D modules are typically laid out like dictionaries: dense columns of prescriptive rules, sorted by location instead of by word. They’d be more useful if they were designed more like annotated texts (text body in one column, commentary in the other). When there’s no spatial way to organize room descriptions, they become untidy with digressions, commentary, and rulings on potential player actions. The important and the unimportant, the obvious and the hidden are necessarily jumbled together.

Tomb of Horrors is famous for being a player-killer dungeon, but with its info-dump approach to tricks and puzzles, it’s a bit of a DM-killer too. Take the final confrontation with Acererak. It takes up a full two-column page, and you don’t get Acererak’s stats until the bottom of the second column, after a description of his treasure, an out-of-place history of the Tomb, and the details of every other trick in the room. Furthermore, this monolithic wall of text gives the false impression that everything in the description merits the same level of authority. As others have remarked before, many of the methods used to damage Acererak (a haphazard list of spells, certain magic swords, a thief slinging gemstones) feel like on-the-spot rulings during a playtest, encoded by the author into rules law. There’s no reason why clever players shouldn’t invent new attacks and add their own exploits to this list, which should be presented as a sort of Talmudic commentary to the module’s scripture that “Acererak is nearly invulnerable.”


What would an annotated adventure module look like?

The main column would be primarily concerned with objects: the room and its description, its contents, its occupants, immediate traps, and other information that the DM needs up front. Objects in boldface would have annotations next to them.

Next to each boldfaced object would be its verbs: a non-exhaustive menu of things the players might do and what happens in response. Here is where we’d move all the minor but necessary mechanical details that clog up room descriptions: the tricks, traps, and secrets that players find by messing with stuff in the room. If a player touches Acererak’s skull, the DM doesn’t have to search the whole page; just find the bold-faced “Acererak” in the main column and scan its annotation.

Annotations can’t possibly be comprehensive and don’t even have to be authoritative. They might include traps and puzzle solutions, described in the standard impersonal rulesy voice, as well as conversational anecdotes about crazy things that happened in the author’s home game. After all, half of every adventure is written during play; the module author doesn’t need to obfuscate that fact.

As a proof of concept, I’ll try setting up the Acererak room as one annotated page. While I’m reformatting, I’d like to fix a few other things that bug me about D&D module layout:

Space for DM annotations. A D&D module isn’t a collector’s item to be preserved mint, and an adventure location isn’t static. PCs change every room they enter. The DM should have somewhere to record these state changes. For instance, there should always be space below a monster’s stat block to track HP. If the players befriend the monster instead of fighting it, the DM can use this space to record details of that alliance. (Chances of befriending Acererak are low, but never rule anything out.) Furthermore, many DMs don’t run modules as written. They make lots of notes before ever running the adventure. A densely printed page doesn’t leave a lot of room for this kind of marginalia. An annotated module, with uneven amounts of text in the right and left column, will probably have lots of white space. That’s a plus.

In the case of Acererak’s vault, we’re going to have very little room for DM notes, because the original layout is already a full page with no white space or margins to speak of. But we should be able to carve out some room to track Acererak’s and his pet ghost’s HP. Furthermore, the vault’s treasure includes a potentially large amount of gear stolen from players in various teleportation traps. We have to add a place for the DM to list this gear.

Artwork. Tomb of Horrors has many pages of player handouts, two of which are referred to on this page. The reference to any player handout should include a thumbnail for the benefit of the DM.

Here’s my version of Acererak’s Vault, with significant text changes in red.


Proper-named spells must be treasure

June 7th, 2016

In the first-edition DMG, magic-users choose three starting spells by rolling on “offensive spells”, “defensive spells”, and “misc. spells” tables. These tables cover every first-level spell – except two. Says the DMG: “Note that both Nystul’s Magic Aura and Tenser’s Floating Disc must be located by the character; they can never be known at the start.”

Looking at these excluded spells, two possibilities spring to my mind. The first and almost certainly the right one is that these two spells happen to be the least generally useful of the first-level spells and most likely to hamper a fledgling wizard, so they’re left out. The second is that there’s a generalizable rule at work: “proper name spells” can only be obtained as treasure. After all, the two excluded spells are the only two first-level spells with a wizard’s name attached.

A rule about spells available at character creation is minimally interesting. But in 1e as in later editions, the wizard gets to pick new spells at every character level. What if we excluded Mordenkainen’s, Bigby’s, and any other Somebody’s spells from this auto-learn list? We’d add a rule like this: Any spell that starts with a proper name and an apostrophe can’t be learned at character creation or as part of leveling up. It can only be found as treasure.

It would make some game-world sense. Spells with still-intact author attribution might be relatively new spells, jealously guarded by the original creators or their pupils. These spells would act as a sort of trademark. A giant clenched hand appears in the sky? Bigby (or your campaign’s equivalent) must be in town.

Both the 1e and 5e spell list include about 1 or 2 named spells per spell level, making them occur in about the right frequency for “rare spells”. Furthermore, the named spells tend to be somewhat odd. Many are comments on game rules. “Encumbrance stinks! Tenser’s floating disk.” “I hate ambushes! Leomund’s tiny hut.” “1e spell memorization, right? Rary’s mnemonic enhancer.” No Fireball, Charm Person or other staple spells here. These spells are all in the category of “liveable without.”

rare versions of every spells

This proposed rare-spell rule is fine as far as it goes, but I think the rare-spell idea could be expanded to the entire spell list.

Way back in 2011, during 4e, I blogged about adding rare 4e spells: that is, improved versions of common spells, like “Flame Jester’s Improved Fireball” which does extra damage something. I still think this is a good idea. I’d love to see a book full of these: say 3 variations of each common spell, each with a different proper name attached. These would be slightly more powerful than the basic version of the spell, but cast with the same spell slot. Because they’d only be obtainable as treasure (or via costly research), they need not be precisely balanced against other spells: they could be treated in power more like magic items.

Non-wizard classes could get in on the spell-collecting fun. Sure, clerics already have access to the entire Book of Common Prayers represented by the PHB cleric spell list, but there are rare versions of clerical spells only learnable from ancient prayer books, pilgrimages, and the like.

As an example, here are three rare versions of Fireball:

Flame Jester’s Explosive Fireball: For each 6 rolled on the fireball’s damage dice, the radius of the spell increases by 5 feet. This radius increase is not optional. Flame Jester was undoubtedly very amused to be killed by this spell.
Nanda’s Fireball of Death: At casting time, the caster may choose to inflict either fire or necrotic damage. The necrotic version of the spell is a silent black ball of flame that does no damage to objects.
St. Cuthbert’s Holy Fireball: This spell does no damage to anyone wearing a holy symbol of St. Cuthbert.

the red doctor

May 19th, 2016

“This is not blood magic. This is blood science!”
–Dr. Peter Blood, physician/pirate

The_Anatomy_LessonHere’s an alternative to clerical magic and 5e hit dice that might be a good fit for your gritty horror campaign.

The Red Doctors are a college of physicians who heal their patients through a course of bleeding (the blood does not always come from the patients). In towns where the temple healers might not take you, the Red Doctors will.

The Red Doctors offer the following services:

Phlebotomy (Cure wounds cast as level 1): 100 gp and the patient’s max HP is reduced by 1. Like all maximum hit point damage, this damage goes away with a long rest.

Operation (Lesser Restoration): 300 gp and 3d6 damage to patient’s max HP.

Transfusion (Raise Dead): 500 gp and an extra corpse, unwounded, extremely fresh (no questions asked about either corpse provenance. No guarantees, no returns, no exorcisms in the event of accident)

So much for the Red Doctors as a replacement for NPC healers. But in a dark setting, with a PC Red Doctor, you could roll on happily without either clerical healing or Hit Dice healing.

The Red Doctor abilities hit the highlights of the clerical healing list: they don’t mimic every clerical spell, obviously, but arguably they’ve got everything that’s absolutely required on a day-to-day basis: healing, curing, and resurrection. The nice-to-have’s, like Turn Undead, are, in this case, don’t-have’s. That might be a feature in a Ravenloft game.

I like Phlebotomy as a straight-up replacement for Hit Dice. There’s no spell-slot cost to this Cure Light Wounds effect, so it can be done infinite times per day, but there is a cost: 1 max HP damage per 1d8 HP healed. Instead of ticking off daily HD and then hitting a wall, you’re watching your max HP diminish every time you heal, which is a nice way to model decreasing stamina in terms of resource management, instead of imposing, say, penalties to d20 rolls.

In a world without clerics or HD, I’d make the Red Doctor abilities widely available. I might make them a feat, or even consider giving them to anyone who is trained in medicine. Here they are as a feat.

Bachelor of Sanguinity

If a PC studies at the Red Doctor school (a study which requires downtime and a fairly steady supply of fresh corpses), he or she gains the following abilities. (In the sinister jargon of the red doctors, a patient is any humanoid creature, Small or larger, that bleeds when cut. An intact corpse is one that has no external injuries and hasn’t shed blood in the past day. I use these terms in the following description.)

A Bachelor of Sanguinity can use the power of a patient’s blood to cast magic spells, using Intelligence as spellcasting stat, without the use of spell slots.

Phlebotomy. As an action, the doctor may draw blood from a willing or helpless patient. The creature’s hp and maximum hp are reduced by 1. If the patient’s HP hits 0, it dies. Otherwise, as part of the same action, the red doctor may cast Cure Wounds as a first level spell on the patient. Higher levels: at each odd level after the first, the doctor can perform the Cure Wounds at one spell level higher, up to a maximum of 5 maximum HP reduction and 5d8 + Int bonus healing at level 9.

Available at 3rd level. Operation. The doctor may spend 10 minutes bleeding a helpless patient, reducing its hp and max hp by 3d6. If it falls to 0 hp, it dies. If it survives, the doctor may cast Lesser Restoration on the patient.

Available at 5th level. Lobotomy. After a 10-minute procedure, the doctor may turn one intact humanoid corpse into a zombie. The zombie is loyal to the doctor indefinitely. The doctor may only control one lobotomized zombie at a time.

Available at 9th level. Transfusion. In a 10-minute procedure, the doctor drains all the blood from an intact humanoid corpse. The doctor may then cast Raise Dead with no material component on a different corpse within reach. There is a slight chance of failure (see below:)
Roll d20:
1: The resurrected body is possessed by the soul of the transfusion donor as if Magic Jar had been cast. This may not be immediately obvious.
2-19: Success!
20: The resurrected body is undead. If you’re feeling nice, consider giving it the Revenant template from Unearthed Arcana.

I designed the Red Doctor abilities so that the low-level ones are fairly benign, and they get creepier at higher level. Being able to raise a zombie, and being incentivized to “find” fresh corpses, make sense as capstone abilities in a world where knowledge corrupts.

In the right setting, though, this feat doesn’t have to represent only sinister, evil doctors. It can also represent the skills of a standard non-magical physician. After all, Renaissance doctors tried approximately this same stuff, except without the benefit of healing people, and with the additional tendency to poison people with mercury. And Renaissance folks (mostly) didn’t think doctors were evil.

My toddler’s campaign world

May 3rd, 2016

Since D&D is, let’s face it, a kids’ game, kids are really good at it. My two year old seems to be constructing a campaign world. Here are two locations that she recently detailed.

The Gracious City. I have no confidence that she knows what gracious means, but she likes how it sounds. I asked her what’s in the Gracious City and she said “horrible trees.” Again, not sure she knows what horrible means, but still, evocative.

It sounds to me like the Gracious City is an old elven city – no one else’s city name would be arrogant in that particular way – and it sounds like the city has fallen upon hard times. The elves are gone, and the City’s Rivendell-like buildings and towers are haunted by evil treants and blights. Decent adventure location, kid. Now stat up some encounters, please.

The North City. While the Gracious City is sort of a vanilla d&d hex, the North City is more of a campaign conceit.

First of all (announced my kid, after watching a bit of a Midsummer Night’s Dream production), angels are fairies’ babies. Whoa! Could it be that the feywild, rather than being a mere prime material shadow, is actually the progenitor, the life force from which everything else bloomed, including the astral plane, its gods, and its angels? That’s certainly a secret the gods would keep hush hush. Let’s call this the Garden Cosmology!

Second toddler-supplied fact: in the North City is a red door. Angels and fairies open it, go through, and close it behind them. The door leads to Mars.

What’s on Mars, I asked? My toddler answered (with some justifiable impatience) “angels and fairies.” And a blue door. And a gray door. And a beige door. What’s through these doors? One leads to “up up high in the North City,” one leads to “down down in the North City,” one to “up above the North City” etc.

53f9d8c1dee5adf6691537585c40a0fdThere’s so much to unpack here. First of all, the mention of Mars implies that this game world may be an alternate, future, or past Earth. Second, the name “the North City” suggests to me that cities are not that common: a mere direction is enough of an identifier for the city. Finally, based on the targets of the doors, the city is tall. Made of spires? or clouds? or maybe a giant pyramid?

Oddly, this world bears a strong resemblance to William Hope Hodgson’s 1912 novel The Night Land, which I’ve written about before. On future Earth, under a dimming sun, a few cities remain. They’re giant pyramids. Titanic monsters wait outside the cities.

Only my daughter’s reference to Mars, and the angels/fairies, remains unexplained. But The Night Land does include unexplained references to elves and time travel, so it’s not necessarily noncanonical.

So far this developing campaign world seems to be city-oriented. I’ll keep an ear open for any lore she drops about wilderness and dungeon locations.

Goblins and game theory

March 30th, 2016

In my game world, hobgoblins and bugbears are not a separate subspecies, but goblins who have been “promoted.” A goblin tribe has the power to elevate its members to hobgoblinhood or bugbeardom. Let me talk about how that ability, plus elements drawn from game theory, might naturally produce goblin-only tribes; goblin tribes ruled by hobgoblins; bugbear gangs; and a few powerful hobgoblin empires – in other words, enemies that can challenge PCs at different levels. In fact, the same goblin tribe might rise with the PCs from level 1 to name level, remaining a stubborn threat throughout.

Ok, so the rule is, any dozen goblins can cast a ritual that turns a thirteenth goblin into a different goblinoid (hobgoblin or bugbear). Any one of the dozen goblins can sabotage the ritual without revealing its identity. Only goblins have this power, not the other goblinoids.

Now every goblin tribe is in a prisoner’s dilemma.

Let’s take a tribe of all goblins. Each would like the power of a bugbear or hobgoblin, but no one wants to give rulership to another. Even a goblin chief has trouble finding a dozen goblins loyal enough to elevate it: at least one (but probably all) of any dozen will secretly ruin the ritual.

Of course, all the goblins would benefit if they just agreed to promote each other to hobgoblins or bugbears (except the unlucky last 12 goblins who don’t have enough compatriots to cast the ritual on them). But a goblin would benefit even MORE if it was promoted and others weren’t.

Thus, a tribe of goblins are in a Nash equilibrium (part of an economic game-theory model proposed by John Nash, the Beautiful Mind guy). No goblin wants to change the status quo for the better, because whoever makes the first move (by promoting someone else) is likely to benefit the least.

This goblin mutual distrust means that players will encounter lots of goblin-only tribes, suitable for first-level characters to beat up on.

However, when things get tough for the goblins, this changes.

For short-term threats, like an owlbear wandering nearby, goblins might convert a few of their number into bugbears. Bugbears are tough and sneaky, but unlike goblins, they’re not community- and lair-minded. At first, they might accept tribute in exchange for fighting the tribes’ enemies; but they’ll soon get bored of bullying their weak cousins and wander off to form their own bugbear clique – perhaps even hunting goblins of their original tribe – or to seek their fortunes as minions of mad wizards. That’s why bugbears are fairly rare as part of goblin tribes, but are often found as wandering wilderness monsters or level 2 dungeon encounters.

For long-term threats to a goblin tribe, raising a hobgoblin to rule the tribe looks pretty good compared to being enslaved by orcs or slaughtered by humans. So when goblins are under serious attack, a hobgoblin chief arises.

A tribe with a single hobgoblin is not stable. Hobgoblins are teamwork-oriented, so the first hobgoblin will probably demand a second hobgoblin, and so on. However, hobgoblins like to have someone to bully, so they’re likely to stop once they’ve gotten a nice little hobgoblin war band surrounded by goblin slaves: a feudal system, essentially.

The equilibrium of this configuration means that there are lots of goblin tribes with elite hobgoblin nobles, especially in areas where the PCs have been slaughtering goblins. So on day 2 of the Caves of Chaos, when the PCs return to finish clearing the goblin lair, they’ll find that their opposition just got stronger and more disciplined.

This dynamic is stable until the tribe begins to meet with success. Once the hobgoblins have lots of non-goblin slaves, they look at their goblin minions, not as servants, but as potential comrades in arms. They’ll expand their army by converting all their goblins to hobgoblins, except for the smattering of goblins needed to cast the ritual and a few bugbears to act as scouts.

That’s where you get your classic Roman-style hobgoblin armies with dreams of conquest – a good match for mid-level characters. PCs returning to the Caves of Chaos on day 3 may find that all the surviving goblins are now hobgoblins, and the kobolds and orcs are now their footsoldiers.

Of course, this “leveling up” of the goblin tribe relies on the PCs never doing the logical thing and slaughtering the whole tribe. But game theory suggests a plausible solution there too. The Nash equilibrium inspired the military doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

Let’s say that there’s a fourth type of goblinoid, whispered about in human villages, feared even by goblins, but rarely encountered: a mindless Tasmanian devil of wanton destruction which kills everyone it encounters, including the goblin tribe to which it once belonged. It can be created through the same ritual that promotes goblins to any other goblinoid.

In tribute to the Nash equilibrium which inspired it, let’s say the goblins call this monster “the Gnasher.” For stats, I suggest using a flesh golem. There are three reasons for this: 1) with its high HP and immunity to nonmagic weapons, a flesh golem is capable of slaughtering goblins and low-level PCs indiscriminately; 2) it’s got a rampage mechanic which describes how I want the creature to act all the time; and 3) it’s alphabetically close to goblin, so you only have to flip a few pages to keep track of monster stats for your apocalyptic goblin battle.

Goblins are not suicidal. They know that if they cast a ritual to create a Gnasher, they’re likely to be its first victims. But goblins are also vindictive. If they’re cornered in their lair by PCs bent on slaughter, the last 13 goblins will join hands and chant, and then, next round, one of those goblins will turn into something the PCs might not be able to handle.

As a side effect of this, here’s another encounter the PCs might stumble into. While exploring a forest or in a cave system, the PCs find some moldering goblin corpses, and then, further on, among goblin huts and fortifications, a reeking slaughter, like a goblin battle with no survivors. Right here, the PCs should probably decide to go back the way they came. If they continue, they’ll see a lone creature, like a big, blood-stained, grotesquely muscular, misshapen goblin, walking in circles and yammering and growling to itself. And then the monster will see the PCs, and charge.

vary your vampires

March 16th, 2016

With the Curse of Strahd D&D adventure released this week, there’s a chance that you might be fighting vampires in your next 5e game. Here’s some literary trivia that suggests a change to the vampire stat block.

I’m reading this vampire novel, Carmilla, by J Sheridan LeFanu. It was written two decades before Dracula, and it features a female vampire who turns not into a bat, like Dracula and the D&D vampire, but a cat.

That got me thinking: maybe we have vampire shape-changing abilities wrong. Maybe we’re taking Dracula’s bat form and assuming it’s universal to vampires — sort of like if Order of the Stick were our only fantasy reference and we assumed all wizards had raven familiars.

Let’s assume that vampires have varied animal forms. (Are there already rules like this in Vampire: the Masquerade?) From now on, for each vampire or vampire family, roll on the following table to determine the form of the vampire’s Shape Change ability and swarm-summoning ability. (To make this list, I looted the animal section of the monster manual, paying particular attention to wizard familiars and nocturnal creatures.)

Roll d20:
1 Bat
2 Blood hawk (naturally, how is this ever NOT a vampire form)
3 Cat
4 Flying snake
5 Frog (how Arnesonian!)
6 Giant centipede
7 Jackal
8 Mastiff
9 Owl
10 Poisonous snake
11 Rat
12 Raven
13 Scorpion
14 Spider
15 Wolf
16-20 roll twice more on this table (this is how the literary Dracula ended up with both a mastiff form and a bat form)

While you’re at it, surprise your players! Roll up a new animal form for Strahd himself. Or just look at the name of the setting and give him a raven.

In which I risk my life by revealing the mysteries of the guilds

March 3rd, 2016

The guild is an important part of medieval life that doesn’t translate well to d&d’s faux-medieval XPocracy (apart from the thieves and adventurers guilds). After all, what is gameable about, say, the glaziers’ guild?

One thing to remember is that there was no such thing as the ignorant country bumpkins’ guild. Medieval guilds were mostly composed of educated professionals. Scientists. Seekers after knowledge. In D&D terms: magic users.

Furthermore, medieval guilds were shrouded by layers of ritual mystery. Think of the esoteric ceremonies of the Masons. Now let’s D&D it up. Imagine that each guild’s closely guarded secret is actually of world-shattering importance. Everything about a campaign’s cosmology could be informed or subverted by some guild secret.

I’m running a guild-heavy city game right now, so I prepared this handy chart. For each guild, roll d6 to learn the unspeakable secret it guards. Every time you roll up a new set of guilds, your campaign will have new alliances, villains, threats, and planar secrets.

Alchemists guild. The alchemists make anything you can stir, from potions and poisons to beer and wine. They’re the comic relief of the guilds, since they’re always blowing up their own laboratories, but honestly, don’t wizards do that too? And the elders of the guild know secrets that are anything but comic.

What is their closely guarded mystery? Roll d6:
1 nitrogen fertilizer. Their secret agricultural compound could triple the civilized population, but they know that a higher population leads to more psionic energy which leads to visits from hungry Others.
2 Potion of inevitable success. A secret brew concocted from waters from the Lake of Illumination gives Fortune’s wheel just the push to spin its drinker to the top. Even a buffoon may lead conquering armies or rule kingdoms. Its effects wear off quite suddenly when the drinker’s ambition is achieved.
3 Gunpowder. The secrets of p 268 of the Fifth Edition DMG could transform warfare. The blacksmiths guild desperately wants to bury this secret.
4 Elixir of immortality. The guild has learned that old age can be bested, but at terrible sacrifice of innocent lives. A series of disappearances can be traced to surprisingly young guild elders.
5 By combining research with the jewelers guild, the alchemists are close to an economy-destroying breakthrough allowing them to turn lead into gold, silver into mithril, or gold into an even more marvelous metal, sungold.
6 Roll d6 twice more on this table.

Beggars guild. Besides beggars, the guild includes actors, musicians, prostitutes, and performers.

What is their closely guarded mystery? Roll d6:
1 Gateway glyphs. Beggars mark every public doorway with secret glyphs. The reader of this code knows secrets about each building’s inhabitant.
2 Ads. The beggars are close to a breakthrough in the sinister science of advertising, which makes the worse appear better, enriches the knave, and lets the few control the many.
3 Mechanical foes. There are those hidden among us, initiates of the jewelers guild, who have replaced their hearts with clockwork and have given up every emotion except greed. They are locked in an eternal war with the beggars guild.
4. Actors in high places. Many of the world’s rulers have been replaced with beggars guild duplicates. They will give patronage to their own.
5. Tribute game. The thieves guild demands yearly tribute of the beggars guild. The beggars guild thinks it is great fun to cheat them of the tribute in a different way each year.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

Blacksmith guild. This guild includes many adventurers and soldiers in its ranks. Besides smithing, they study personal combat and war tactics.

What is their closely guarded mystery? Roll d6:
1. Metallurgy. If they chose, the guild could use its metallurgical magic to arm legions with +1 armor and melee weapons, giant mecha, and animated swords.
2. Fallen devils. According to the devil that the smiths secretly worship, devils are not fallen angels. Rather, angels are devils who fell when they became toadies of the gods. The smiths are forging black metal rings which will “free” the angels.
3. Manual of Conquest. The last few conquerors of the world were guild members who understood the secret blacksmith book, the Manual of Conquest. There are chapters by many founders of bygone empires, including Dar the Shining, Timord the Conqueror and Vorik the Lion. The book has been stolen by the scriveners guild.
4. Glassteel. Members of the glazers guild and blacksmiths guild working together can produce glassteel, strong as steel, clear as glass, and light as mithril.
5. Fire walking. To Guild initiates, every fire is a doorway to every other fire.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

The guild of Carpenters and weavers. The practitioners of these two arts work under one guild to combine their efforts on ship-making, archery, and weaving.

What is their closely guarded mystery? Roll d6:
1 The clothes make the man. The weavers can imbue a suit of clothes with magic so that its wearer can take on the appearance and voice of anyone who previously wore those clothes. They are infiltrating the alchemists guild, looking for the secret of gunpowder so that their ships may rule the seas.
2 Men of war. There are plans on the High Carpenter’s desk for a new class of (flying?) ship called the Man of War. It can hold a thousand men and is virtually unsinkable (or the flying equivalent).
3. The seven winds. The corpses of the Wind Dukes of Aaqa are the sources of the 7 winds. If you survive a journey to one of the corpses, you can forever summon that wind. You can speed your own ships and hinder your rivals.
4 The Princess Ark. The guild has pooled its knowledge with the scriveners guild to produce a great ship, the Princess Ark, that can fly to the stars. The ship was lost on its maiden voyage. The guilds are building scout ships to explore the stars and find the Ark.
5 The Loom of Life. There is a huge loom in the Guildhall of the Winds. Cut a thread and someone, somewhere, will die. Initiates know what thread goes to what life.
6 Roll twice more on this table.

Glaziers guild. The glaziers don’t just make window panes: they grind telescope lenses, and peer through them, and learn much that is forbidden.

What is their closely guarded mystery? Roll d6:
1. Hostile takeover. One or more of the gods are dead and prayers are being answered by an alien entity with big plans. Step 1: going public.
2. Through the looking glass. A mirror can be made which traps people in a dimension unknown to cosmologists.
3. Secret whispers. Point your telescope at a certain empty point in the night and you will hear whispered nonsense rhymes. Whisper them in someone’s ear and they will die. Whisper them again in the corpses ear and it will live again but follow your commands…
4. Paranoia. The beggars guild inner circle are shapechangers from a distant star. They are replacing rulers and generals with their own.
5. The walls have eyes. To Guild initiates, every piece of glass is a window to every other piece of glass.
6. Roll twice more on this table.

was gary right about gold coin weight?

February 10th, 2016

In Gary Gygax D&D, coins weigh 1/10 of a pound. In WOTC D&D, coins weigh the more historically plausible 1/50 of a pound. Gary’s giant coins have been widely mocked as absurd dinner-plate coins. Imagine a pound of gold only being worth 10 GP! Imagine how big that coin must be!

But hold on. Let’s put aside copper and silver and concentrate on gold. Gold is heavy. Exactly how big would a 1/10-pound gold coin be?

Let’s take the largest widely-used American coin: the silver dollar. The Eisenhower dollar (which is copper/nickel) and its silver predecessors (like the Morgan dollar, which is 90% silver) are one and a half inches in diameter. The Morgan dollar weighed .058 of a pound. Gold is 1.84x as dense as silver. Multiply gold’s density by the silver coin’s weight and you get: 106/1000. In other words, a gold coin the size of an Eisenhower dollar would weigh a tenth of a pound – a little more even.

The silver dollar is a big coin, but it’s not dinner-plate-sized by any means. It fits in your pocket. It was legal tender and it was reasonably common. Even if it weighed twice as much as it did, it would still not have yanked your pants down by their pockets.

If you want to get a sense of how big a silver dollar, and thus a 1/10# D&D gold coin is, look at a poker chip. That’s about one and a half inches in diameter.

OK, all very well and good, but historical gold coins do weigh much less than a tenth of a pound. They tend to be thin little slivers, more like a US penny. Shouldn’t we match historical reality, in which gold coins tended to be about 1/50 of a pound?

holmes_basic_boxI say we should not. D&D economy really doesn’t line up with Earth history to begin with. For one thing, prices are about 10x too high. For another thing, every dragon is sleeping on a bed of gold, even though on Earth, the total gold mined before 1950 would fit in one Olympic swimming pool. Gold is clearly much more common in D&D than on it was in medieval Earth.

Accept that premise and a lot of problems go away. You don’t need to go to a silver standard to match Earth historical prices. Just accept that a pound of gold buys you a longsword; laborers earn a gold piece a day instead of a silver groat; even in a back country tavern, you don’t cause a riot by flashing gold; and for larger transactions, higher currency must be used, like platinum and gems. None of this is absurd. It’s only fantastical. It assumes that, for whatever reason, D&D worlds ended up with heavier elements than did Earth. In such a world, gold coins would be large and heavy, just as silver coins were large and heavy at the time of the Morgan silver dollar.

Of course, my weight calculations only hold true for gold and platinum. Silver coins of 1/10 pound would be bigger than an inch and a half, and copper coins would be bigger still. But that doesn’t really matter. Silver as a currency disappears from D&D at character level 2, and even first level parties disdain hoards of copper coins. It’s not worth the rules weight to assign them specific lighter weights. Just say that coins are 1/10 pounds and all your calculations will be easy.

fairyland and scale

February 2nd, 2016

The main property of everything in Fairyland, haunting beauty, is hard to get across at the game table. I’d prefer to double down on a more visceral property. Everything is too big (or maybe you are too small).

FeywildFlowers and mushrooms are six feet across. Bugs are the size of horses. (Giant bees and ants, with their neat orchards and farms and mighty queens, can be major fey political players.) Trees are redwood sized or larger. Cliffs and mountains brush the moon, which hangs huge and bright in the perennial dusk.

Narnian talking animals are one size bigger than usual: little animals like foxes and hedgehogs are halfling sized, deer are rideable, and predators are dire (size Large or larger).

Elves are taller in Fairyland, and taller again in their demesne. Your elf PC might stand a foot taller as soon as she steps through a fairy gate. An elf lord on his throne might be ten feet tall. Nevertheless, the whole fey court might fit on the branch of an massive, ancient tree.

Fomorians, the fey giants, should be a big deal in Fairyland politics. I’d also pepper the clouds liberally with cloud giants.

The only small things are the childlike common folk, from gnomes to sprites.

In a lot of ways, Fairyland is like a memory of what it’s like to be a kid: magic and wonder is heightened, you’re not sure what the rules are, time has no particular meaning, and everything is much bigger than you, especially those in power. And bad things lurk in the darkness.