encounters on the strangest sea

November 15th, 2016

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
–Emily Dickinson

I hate to tell you, readers, but we’re adrift on the Strangest Sea. While waiting for the thing with feathers to show up, I’ve put together an encounter guide for the Strangest Sea’s wonders and perils.

This d20 chart is not for regular nautical travel. It is for the seas beyond the sea, where reality begins to dissolve. It is intended for high level play. The Strangest Sea might be a distant ocean, or it might actually be in the Astral Plane or the Plane of Water.

Standard nautical encounters, with, like, normal sharks, might be possible on the Strangest Sea, but few such encounters are detailed here.

Roll d20:

1. Huge Exotic monster. Roll d8 for type: 1. Water dragons. (White dragon stats but made of water, like water weirds) 2. Kraken (or cthulhoid tentacle beast with same stats). 3. Submarine. 4. Wading or canoeing Brobdingnagian (use Empyrean stats). 5. Sea tunneler (purple worm stats, leaves glass-walled tunnels in the sea, can swallow one-masted ships) 6. falling star (lands like a fireball, then fights like a balor) 7. living whirlpool 8. The Elder Shark (presaged by the sea turning to blood. Tarrasque stats but submerges after one round of attacks)

2. Storm. Roll d8 for type: 1. lightning. 2. fire. 3. cold. 4. acid. 5. poison. 6. exotic storm like polymorph rain or teleport whirlpool. 7-8. conventional storm. Visible coming from a random direction so you can steer to avoid it. Energy storms are like normal storms but the ship and everyone on deck takes d10 elemental damage per hour. Exotic storms have weird bespoke effects up to the DM.

3. Ichor sea. Patch of poisonous water d20x10 miles wide. At the center is something monstrous and bleeding.

4. The Floating Land. A continent whose position cannot be mapped. Possibly it’s the Isle of Dread.

5. Sinister island. Ruled by a single badass monster (roc, cyclops, dragon, sphinx, etc) Roll d8. 1-4: normal island. 5: on turtle’s back. 6: Levitating. 7: Iceberg. 8: Coral.

6. Pirates! 50% chance of treasure map. Roll d8 for type: 1-2: common humanoid race. 3: githyanki. 4: Sahaguin. 5: Undead. 6: Eagle warriors (stats of harpies, look like Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon). 7: Marids in musketeer hats. 8: Flip monster manual to random page.

7. Doomed city of Ys. Floating metropolis that is prophesied to sink when traitors open the water gates. The water equivalent of the City of Brass.

8. Sea of Mountainous Waves. Waves 20 miles across and 5 miles high. Smooth sailing up to the peak, followed by a terrifying whitewater plunge. Settlements surf in the crests of the waves, monsters wait in the troughs.

9. Mirror fog. Inside the fog, sea creatures fly and ghost ships sail upside down under the water, like reflections. 1 in 6 chance of accidentally sailing into the Realm of Death.

10. creature migration. These can be seen at a distance and might just be window dressing if the players stay away. Roll d12 for type: 1: pod of whales. 2: convoy of ships. 3: Herd of foam-footed horses or pegasi. 4: School of giant sky jellyfish. 5: Merfolk. 6: Cloud Giants on flying horses. 7: Balloon and airship fleet. 8: Huge glowing bubbles. 9: water elementals. 10: Herd of dragon turtles. 11-12: The thing with feathers. Following it will lead you to your destination, or to safety

11. Strange current. Zone of: (roll d8 for type). 1: Weightlessness: big floating water droplets hover over the sea, only metal has weight. 2: Forgetfulness. 3: Flammable objects burn harmlessly 4: Sinking (into emerald airy water) 5: Strong current that determines your course, roll again on this table for its destination 6: Sky: The sun and moon are abnormally close. 7: Boiling. 8: Exotic: Come up with something weird off the top of your head.

12. Maze. Roll d8 for type: 1: sargasso. 2: wind and currents. 3: coral. 4: shoals. 5: walls of fire. 6: cliffs. 7: watery caves under a mountain island. 8: floating strips of water roads like a freeway. In the center of the maze is a: (roll again on this table)

13. Golden sea. Archipelago in calm golden waters. Islands are filled with ruins, treasures, and dangers from a bygone age. Roll d10 for inhabitants: 1: stone age folk. 2: nightmare horrors. 3: unfamiliar humanlike race. 4: yuan-ti. 5: ghouls. 6: angels. 7: shedu. 8: couatl. 9: monks. 10: animated objects.

14. Strange-colored water. Water is drinkable and confers the benefits of a specific potion.

15. Rainbow. Ships can sail up it to a cloud giant dominion.

16. End of the world. At the end of the world may be: (roll d6) 1: a wall. 2: waterfall into space. 3: further travel possible into astral or another plane. 4: the solid blue bowl of the sky. 5: a blank realm where you can create new pieces of the world with your thoughts. 6: the strangest land

17. Increasing danger. A sea of increasingly extreme conditions, with a thematic and dangerous location at the center. Roll d6 for type: 1: cold. 2: heat. 3: storm. 4: beauty. 5: wreckage. 6: night.

18. The crystal sea. The water is so clear you can see the ocean floor and all the monsters and mer-cities below, and they can see you.

19. Terrain. The water changes into some other form of terrain but you can still sail over it. Encounters are by terrain type. Roll d6 for type: 1: desert. 2: lava. 3: stars. 4: inhabited land. 5: vast graveyard. 6: tower or cyclone that reaches to the sky.

20. Treasure! 75% chance of a guardian. Roll d6 for treasure type. 1: Island of gem-fruit trees. 2: golden ship. 3: pirate treasure. 4: giant pearl clams. 5: roc nest. 6: angel armory.

d&d is anti-medieval

November 2nd, 2016

You can be forgiven for thinking that OD&D is a medieval European fantasy game. After all, Gary Gygax himself says so. He describes the original D&D books as “Rules for Fantastic Medieval War Games” (on the cover) and “rules [for] designing your own fantastic-medieval campaign” (in the introduction). However, in the game itself, there’s precious little to suggest feudalism, Europe, chivalry, a post-imperial dark age, or even the existence of a monarchy at all. Apart from the technology suggested by the weapon list, it could just as well be a simulation of the professional meritocracy of Byzantium, or the city-state sovereignty of Barsoomian Mars. (There’s more explicit textual support in OD&D for Mars than there is for fantasy medieval Europe.) But neither of these strike the mark. OD&D’s cultural details suggest a society original to Gygax – nonsensical as a medieval fantasy, but coherent and striking as an American fantasy of empowerment and upward mobility. It’s an armor-clad repudiation of medieval feudalism, like Twain’s Connecticut Yankee.

It’s not feudal

The way you advance in a feudal society is to win glory in battle for your overlord. Then he grants you land, which is the main form of wealth. Unless you’re a peasant. Then you can never advance at all.

That’s not at all what happens in D&D. There is no overlord to grant you land. Land, instead of being a form of wealth, is completely free! (“At any time a player/character wishes he may select a portion of land (or a city lot) upon which to build his castle, tower, or whatever. The following illustrations are noted with the appropriate cost in Gold Pieces.”) The cost of building a structure is merely the a la carte cost of all its architectural elements. It costs nothing at all to acquire the land to build on, even inside a city.

Wealth in D&D is primarily in the form of coinage and jewels, not land and cattle, making the D&D economy more modern than medieval. Some have suggested that D&D takes place in a time of exploration and renaissance when coinage, and the middle class, is eclipsing the power of the nobility. I’ll go further. There is no sign that there is any nobility to eclipse, even a waning one.

If you build a castle in the “wilderness”, you have to clear the area of monsters for 20 miles around. You then gain control of a handful of villages within this area. You don’t have to compete against any other ruler or pay taxes to any overlord for these villages! This omission seems significant, since Gygax will always gleefully mention any relevant obstacle if it exists.

The people who live in villages are called either “villagers” or “inhabitants”, not “peasants,” “commoners” or “serfs.” They pay you taxes. If you piss off the villagers, the DM is encouraged to annoy you with “angry villagers”, “city watch”, “militia”, or “a Conan type.” Notable in its absence is any local form of knighthood, gentry, nobility, or ruling class to oppose you.

There are no knights

The word knight doesn’t even appear in OD&D. But there is one group of people who act distinctly knight-like. The wilderness contains castles, ruled by fighters, magic-users, or clerics. The fighters will challenge players to a joust (using Chainmail rules), taking the loser’s armor and offering hospitality to the winner. This has a sort of Arthurian chivalry to it, but Pendragon it is not. Gygax carefully avoids calling these folks “knights.” They’re fighting-men, with retainers (monstrous and human) and armies, looking very like the ones players can acquire. Furthermore, castle-owning fighting men are just as rare as castle-owning magic-users and clerics. The Outdoor Survival game board, which forms the default OD&D map, has a land area of 25,000 miles, half the size of England. There are about six castle-owning fighting-men in that area. In other words, castles of the wilderness aren’t dominated by an analogue of a knightly order, leavened by a few fantastic spellcasters. It looks, rather, as if they were built by a small handful of adventurers, appearing in roughly the class proportions of a typical adventuring party. (Fighters are, if anything, under-represented.)

There are no vassals

Let’s talk about how you gain followers. Gary says, “It is likely that players will be desirous of acquiring a regular entourage of various character types, monsters, and an army of some form.” In a truly medieval game, there’s a model for that: people swear themselves to your service in exchange for your protection. You raise an army by requiring service from peasants who live on your land. In other words, you gain vassals. D&D ignores this model, replacing it with one in which you pay retainers and specialists by the month. Loyalty is bought with a mixture of cash and charisma. You can hire armies, too, from Light Foot to Heavy Horsemen. (No knights.)

There are no kings

There’s no evidence of a monarchy. You never have to declare fealty to anyone. While you can create a barony, there is no way to level up and become a duke or King. There are no rules for controlling territory more than a day’s ride from your castle. In the hostile emptiness of OD&D’s wilderness, power doesn’t travel well.

The only mention of kings in the little brown books is in the descriptions of humanoid monsters, e.g. in a goblin lair “the ‘goblin king'” will be found. (Gygax quotes the term “goblin king”.) It seems unlikely that the term implies a crown, a system of divine right, inheritance laws, etc. Since a goblin king leads a single lair of 40-400 goblins, he’s probably just the local boss, just like the less evocatively named “leader/protector type” who rules every 30-300 orcs.

There is no lost empire

There certainly seems to be a power vacuum in the world of OD&D, ready for the player/characters to exploit. What used to fill that vacuum?

There’s no evidence for (or against) the idea that OD&D takes place in a dark age after a fallen Roman Empire analogue or during the death throes of a feudal kingdom. Sure, someone built those “huge ruined piles” under which lie the dungeons. But based on the treasures to be found there, the dungeon builders were part of a coinage economy just like the current one. There hasn’t even been significant inflation or deflation since the dungeons were built. The richest dungeon treasure hoard, on level 13 and deeper, averages out to about 10,000 GP in coin. That’s as much as a baron can earn from a year’s worth of taxes: not an insignificant sum to sock away in a dungeon, but not kingly or imperial either. This doesn’t suggest that dungeons are relics of a far richer past. It seems rather that things used to be like they are right now.

There are few European details

The monster descriptions of “men”, “elves”, and “dwarves” don’t suggest that the game is set in a European culture. The types of “men” are Bandits, Berserkers, Brigands, Dervishes, Nomads, Buccaneers, Pirates, Cave Men, and (perhaps) Mermen. Berserkers are a little Nordic in flavor, but are balanced out by Dervishes and Nomads from the “desert or steppes”.

The government suggested by the player’s “barony” is almost completely a-cultural. A player builds a stronghold, and then they can extort money from the surrounding people. This is the structure of every non-nomadic human society. The only European element is the technology level of your stronghold: it has merlons, barbicans, etc.

The D&D weapon list has a medieval feel to it, but partly that’s just because that’s what we’re expecting to find. In fact, it’s a sort of survey of (mostly) pre-gunpowder weapons. Most of the weapons and armor appear in ancient Europe and in Asia as well as in medieval Europe. Partial exceptions: Composite bows are mostly non-European, while longbows are associated with Europe. The halberd is basically a Renaissance weapon, and the two-handed sword appears in medieval Europe, India, and Japan, but not the ancient world. No one knows what “plate mail” is supposed to be.

If not medieval, what?

All over, the D&D rules seem to be explicitly eschewing a medieval, feudal model in favor of a cash-based economy, a nonexistent or powerless government, and a social-classless society in a sparsely inhabited, unforgiving world.

If the OD&D rules suggest any government at all, it is a meritocracy, or more precisely, a levelocracy. Creatures with more XP and hit dice rule lower-level ones, from settled barons and goblin kings to wandering bandits and nomads. This is not only non-medieval, it is anti-feudalistic and anti-aristocratic. Level requirements for baronies are at odds with the hereditary gloss added to D&D in nearly every subsequent setting.

OD&D also exhibits an obsession with money-gathering for its own sake that is suggestive of mercantilism or capitalism.

D&D is not “fantastic-medieval.” It’s not even “fantastic renaissance” or “fantastic-post-apocalyptic.” It’s “fantastic American history.”

How did Gygax set out to write a fantastic-medieval game and end up writing an American one?

OD&D is meant to be setting-free. The game’s referee is to create his or her own campaign, ranging in milieu from the “prehistoric to the imagined future” (with emphasis on the medieval, especially for beginners). In the later 1e Dungeon Masters Guide, Gygax further explains, “There are dozens of possible government forms, each of which will have varying social classes, ranks, or castes. Which sort you choose for your milieu is strictly your own prerogative. While this game is loosely based on Feudal European technology, history and myth, it also contains elements from the Ancient Period, parts of more modern myth, and the mythos of many authors as well. Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European.”

But it is very difficult to write a document with no cultural assumptions at all. Gygax consciously excluded the trappings of a medieval society, and filled that vacuum with “real life” American details. Gygax wrote D&D in a country where, 100 years before, frontier land was considered free for the taking. (19th century propaganda depicted the land’s original Native American inhabitants as inimical savages, like orcs). At the same period, the success of America’s industrialist “robber barons” taught the country that birth and family weren’t the keys to American power; the American keys were self-reliance, ability, and the ruthless accumulation of money.

While it’s possible that D&D’s modern details slipped into the game unobserved,
Gygax may have been quite aware of his game’s implicit setting. After all, his original pre-publication Greyhawk campaign drew heavily from his own American experience. It took place on a United States map, with Greyhawk at Chicago, and Dyvers at Milwaukee. His buddy Don Kaye’s Greyhawk character, Murlynd, was a gunslinger from Boot Hill. I think it’s quite likely that Gygax intentionally gave his game a New World spin.

220px-gygax83greyhawkboxcoverIntentional or not, OD&D represents a milestone in American fantasy – and maybe the last un-muddled example of the genre it inspired. Most of D&D’s thousands of imitators, in game and fiction, preserve the game’s democratic bones (cash economy, guns for hire, rags to riches stories) while overlaying a medieval-European skin. The combination is not fortunate. Gygaxian levelocracy, where a villager can rise to become a baron or a “Conan type”, is fundamentally incompatible with the European fantasy typified by Lord of the Rings, in which no fellowship can alter the fact that Sam is by birth a servant, Frodo a gentleman, Strider a king, and Gandalf a wizard.

OD&D’s American strain of fantasy didn’t even last within TSR. In 1980, Gygax himself reworked the World of Greyhawk into what looks, from its cover, like a supplement about Arthurian Knights.

But it’s worth taking a step back from the medieval-fantasy cliches that overran later D&D publications, and playing the original, more coherent setting: A swords-and-sorcery world, empty of government, where anyone can pick up a sword, become a hero, and live the American dream.

xposted here

i’m developing mobile games

October 17th, 2016

My buddy Maarten and I are starting a new venture: we’re making mobile games.

I’ve shared my little web games with you before, like Dungeon Robber and Quest for the Crown. Now we’re pretty close to finishing our first real game.

Paleo: Hunt and Gather is a turn based strategy game. It’s the survival game that takes place 100,000 years before, say, Civilization or Age of Empires, in a time in which rocks are the hot new technology. We’re looking for beta tester sign ups, so if “killing a wooly mammoth” is on your bucket list, sign up here.

Also: a mobile version of Dungeon Robber is on our list of upcoming projects. Keep an eye on our game development blog. I’ll cross post big announcements here.

Running a Dragon Chess Tournament

October 4th, 2016

Last year, I ran a Dragon Chess Tournament in my D&D 5e game, and it was a lot of fun. The event was a huge tournament that attracted people and powerful monsters from across the land to compete for fabulous treasures. I created an abstract system to simulate several days of play in the tournament, culminating in an epic final match. The rules I used are below:

Dragon Chess Tournament

Premise: A Dragon Chess Tournament is being hosted in the Crystal City, an ancient Metropolis of crystal spires whose best days are behind it. Hundreds of challengers have journeyed across the lands to compete for the grand prize, a mysterious and valuable treasure.

What is Dragon Chess?

Structure of Tournament:

  • 500 GP Entry Fee
  • 8 Rounds of Swiss Pairings
  • 1 Point for a Win
  • ½ Point for a Draw
  • Only players with greater than 6 points at the end of 8 rounds proceed to the Top 8 Finals.
  • Top 8 is single elimination (with the top players paired against the bottom players)

Prize Payout:

  • 5+ Points: Roll on Individual Challenge 11-16 (pg 136)
  • 5th-8th Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 0-4
  • 3rd and 4th Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 5-10
  • 2nd Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 11-16
  • 1st Place: Roll on Treasure Hoard Challenge 17+

GamePlay:

Read the rest of this entry »

45 vampire weaknesses

September 28th, 2016

I’ve suggested before that the D&D vampire is too literal an adaptation of Dracula: sure, maybe Dracula’s animal form is a bat, but other vampires might turn into cats, frogs, or other creatures.

Gus at dungeon of signs suggests (among other vampire heresies) that vampire weaknesses should also be more varied than the monster manual suggests:

Likewise all [vampires] have a weakness to certain mundane things, though what exactly can harm their mortal form, or expel and extinguish their corrupted souls varies greatly: sunlight, salt, silver, cold iron, cats, living wood or blessed implements are all fairly common, though some [vampires] have contrived to have more obscure weaknesses.

I agree with this approach. I’ve made a d100 chart for vampire weaknesses.

I included the classic Bram Stoker weaknesses like garlic, plus a few dozen other common objects, creatures, and activities. The purpose of this chart is to turn vampires from a solve-once “puzzle species” into a series of “puzzle monsters,” each of which must be solved individually.

I want each vampire to be defeatable with a little investigation, so the weaknesses have to be advertised in some way. Many of the vampire weaknesses here are common items: a pale Old World noble might excite comment by recoiling from pepper or white clothes, which will be a good tell. Furthermore, every vampire is obsessed with its weakness. A vampire who fears songbirds might have an empty bird cage in its lair. One who hates lutes music might own a dozen unstrung lutes, or frequently proclaim its love of bardic music.

To populate the weakness table, I drew inspiration from the 5e trinkets table. It would be cool if some of that useless crap turned out to be a lifesaver against a vampire.

Vampire rules change: the Vampire Weakness trait is amended as follows. Sunlight hypersensitivity and stake to the heart are retained. Forbiddance and Harmed by running water are removed. Roll on the following chart to determine a new weakness. The sight/sound/smell of the weakness causes the vampire to act as if Turned. Furthermore, contact with the weakness (or being within 5 feet of the source of a sound or smell) does 20 acid damage and prevents shape change and regeneration until the end of the vampire’s next turn.

Note: this table can also be used for fairies, devils and other rules-bound creatures.

Vampire weaknesses: roll d100

1-2: Silver
3-4: Gold
5-6: Horseshoes
7-8: Needles
9-10: Mirrors
11-12: Clocks
13-14: Stained glass
15-16: Dolls
17-18: Feathers
19-20: Combs
21-22: Pearls
23-24: Oak wood
25-26: Bread
27-28: Garlic
29-30: Salt
31-32: Pepper
33-34: The inside of a house into which the vampire was not invited
35-36: The scent of flowers
37-38: Tobacco smoke
39-40: Green flame
41-42: Cooked meat
43-44: Wine
45-46: Milk
47-48: Running water
49-50: Any water
51-52: Fey creatures
53-54: Mummies and mummified things
55-56: Old people
57-58: Dirty people
59-60: White clothes
61-62: A children’s rhyme
63-64: Music from a specific musical instrument
65-66: Being mocked for a particular feature
67-68: An ancient language
69-70: Its own name, or the name of someone from its past
71-72: The face of its victims
73-74: Cats
75-76: Children
77-78: Bare feet
79-80: Songbirds
81-82: Roosters
83-84: Skulls
85-86: The queen of hearts, the red dragon, or another playing card
87-88: True love
89-90: Extracted teeth
91-100: Roll twice more on this table. If you roll the same result multiple times, the vampire is even more obsessed with this item, and contact damage increases by 20.

There are twelve storm giants

September 1st, 2016

One of the coolest things in the 1e Monster Manual is in the description of the Type V demon:

Each type VI demon has its own name. (Balor is a type VI demon of the
largest size.) Six are known to exist.

When you kill a type VI demon, you’re not just plucking a prize from the DM’s infinite monster grab bag. You are writing the history of the campaign world. That gives Balor and his five cousins a gravitas that justifies their good stats. (On the angelic side, according to the Monster Manual 2, “there are at least 24 solars.”)

As a DM, I’m inspired to think about and name the other five Type-V demons, and guess at their relationships with each other. Each demon can be written large in the campaign.

What other top-end monsters deserve this treatment? Ancient dragons, perhaps, but I get the feeling that they are so solitary that there’s always one more than anyone knows about, so there’s no point of keeping track.

Storm giants, though, merit further examination. They need to be fixed anyway. As a monster species, they have a problem that they sort of share a bailiwick with, and overshadow, cloud giants. Storm giants were a relatively late addition to OD&D: cloud giants were king in the original game, and storm giants were added in the Greyhawk supplement, maybe to keep up with player power inflation.

The other giants each rule over a particular terrain type. Storm giants are not purely sea giants and not purely cloud dwellers – neither fish nor fowl – but 90% of the time they share cloud giant terrain, breathing over their shoulders.

What if they’re not a superfluous giant species but the cloud giant royal family, somewhere between kings and gods? Like Balor and its ilk, we’ll fix the number of storm giants at some manageable number. Let’s say 12 to match the Olympian pantheon. Throw in some siblings and marriages, or just reskin some other family epic: the Greek gods, the Skywalkers, the Lannisters, or perhaps borrow from King Lear, the Shakespearean inspiration for Storm King’s Thunder.

As the aforementioned fictions suggest, a limited cast of related characters gives room for soap opera. A dash of soap opera gives emotional resonance to what could otherwise be merely sound and fury, signifying nothing. Fantasy is a good place for family drama writ large. And nothing is writ larger than the biggest of the giants.

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.”

illo2-acereraksvault

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.

illo3-annotatedacererak

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.