best of the joesky tax

April 29th, 2015 by paul

The Joesky Tax was a cool OSR idea: for every blog rant, you are invited to create some D&D game content. But how well does it work? When someone is coming down from an impassioned rant, how good are they at taking a left turn into creativity?

A few months ago I googled "joesky tax" and looked at the top 50 results. I made a note of my favorites, and I actually managed to use a few in games. Here are the first dozen of the 25 or so entries I saved for future use. Blogs tend to disappear over time, so I figured I'd preserve these against disappearance. Already some of these original posts are gone.

Save Vs Poison, apologizing for "uncharitable thoughts:"

This is an old-school-deadly cursed ring, but it unfolds its creepiness slowly so a smart player has plenty of time to look for a cure. Here's the horrifying endgame:

A small, irregularly shaped ring made of what appears to be purplish chitin. It does not radiate magic. If worn, the character feels a brief stinging sensation, after which he can detect magic at will. In addition, he gains infravision as a dwarf, and if he already possesses infravision, the range is doubled.
If removed, the ring will crumble to dust. If left on, it crumbles after 1d3 days, although the wearer will find that his powers remain.

After 3d4 days, the wearer can comprehend languages.
After another 2d4 days, the character has ESP, which functions up to three times per day. At this point, strange dreams of bizarre planes and distant planets begin to trouble him.
After another 1d4 days, the character gains 1d4 points of Intelligence. One axis of his alignment changes randomly, at the DM's discretion. The character becomes ill-tempered and has frequent headaches.
Finally, after a final 1d3 days, the character dies as a purple, centipede-like creature emerges from his head in the dead of night and slips away. After 2d6 days of gorging itself on the latent psychic energies of nearby creatures, it curls up into a ring-like shape and enters a torpor.

pipemaze.com, ranting about printers:

Thirty things that can happen in the dark. The original post is gone. Here are the two that made note of for my own use, and one that I won't use but that amuses me nonetheless:

2. A light too dim to have been seen by torchlight is visible in the distance.
8. Your most-certainly-unmagical weapon begins to glow.
27. Something eats a retainer's eyes, and departs.

James Mishler, apologizing for answering one of those game surveys, came up with 10 dungeon features. My two favorites:

6. The yawning carved mouth, complete with eyes and nose and ears, that leads into the corridor is normally quite unremarkable, but when an elf or half-elf passes beneath it, the large nose twitches and sneezes, exploding a gross amount of snot that acts as per a web spell centered under the nose of the face. The thunderous sneeze also has a 3 in 6 chance of attracting wandering monsters.
10. The holder of this small magical box can, with a successful bare-handed melee attack, attempt to take out the heart of a human, demi-human, or humanoid victim. The victim must make a save versus Magic; if the save fails, the holder rips out their heart, though they do not die. The heart is then placed in the box, and the one whose heart has been stolen is under the effect of a charm person spell. The holder of the heart can tell where the victim is and what they are thinking whenever the heart is held, and with concentration can mentally communicate with the victim at any distance. The holder of the heart can kill the victim any time by simply crushing the heart or otherwise destroying the heart. While he is missing his heart, the victim gains a +4 bonus to save against all mind-effecting spells cast by anyone other than the holder of the heart. The heart can later be placed back in the victim with no physical harm done. These boxes are usually found in groups of 1d6; there is a 1 in 6 chance per box that it already holds a heart.

This blog is private now.

Game Over is a) responding angrily to someone else and b) musing on the fundamental nature of RPGs.

I usually find both of these exercise tiresome but, even without the Joesky tax, this is a pretty convincing post (D&D is not player vs DM, it's player vs. system with DM as matchmaker).

The North Star is a rapier forged from meteoric iron by a Celestial wizard. Besides just hitting things, it acts as a compass (put it on the ground, it'll always spin to point north), an aid to divination (while you're carrying it, you don't need to speak or move your hands to cast Divination/Heavens/other future-seeing magic), and it also unsettles fairies, demons, and anything else that has trouble with cold iron.

In D&D terms, it can Turn fairies and demons (possibly of Type lower than the bearer's level) as if they were undead; in Warhammer FRP, it causes fear in daemons, dryads and suchlike, even if they'd ordinarily be immune.

I used the North Star sword in a D&D space game. It's especially well suited because the PCS CAN FLY TO THE NORTH STAR and now have a pretty compelling DM hint to do so. What's there? It must have world significance, because navigating by the North Star is a common and symbolic act, and such acts have power in D&D. Sea captains are essentially worshipping whatever entity lives at the North Star.

The players didn't make it to the North Star, which was a relief, because I couldn't figure out what was there.

Legacy of the Bieth, apologizing for nothing in particular: an encounter table.

1 Herd Animal
2 Wolfpack
3 Frost Giant
4 Sabertooth Tiger
5 Mammoth
6 Remorhaz (Polar Wurm)
7 Berserkers/Nomads
8 Arctic Owlbear
9 Frost Walkers
10 Neanderthals
11 Forest Spirits
12 Nehwon Behemoth
13 Invisible Manta Fliers
14 Ice Gnomes
15 Snow Trolls
16 The Snake Demon from the LotFP Cover
17 Frost Elves
18 White Sybil
19 Yeti Cultists
20 Lost Caravan

Again, I used this in my space game, as the random encounter table for the solar system's frozen planet. The highly capitalist players ended up convincing the (3) frost giants, in exchange for the totally novel gift of fire, to farm (6) remorhaz to supply exotic meat.

Connor Uber on g+:

JOESKY TAX FOR MY EARLIER POST OF FRUSTRATION

The Segmented Worm
HD: variable. divisible by 3 is usually good.
AC: Up to 3HD=as leather+shield, Up to 6HD=Chain+Shield, over 6HD=Plate+Shield
Attacks/Damage: 2 Mouths, 1d8 per 3 HD (but see below)

Ok, so when you have this monster set up, roll it's HD and arrange them as rolled in a line. the actual dice, yes. This represents the Segmented Worm. Smaller HP on the HD are thinner parts of the Worm. You should describe this. When the worm takes HP damage, ask where the character is aiming for. This thing is big by the way, not purplewormfuckitseatingmehuge though. So, when it takes enough damage on one part, remove that HD, that part is severed and dead. The worm always has a mouth at both ends, even if the end is severed.
Fun part: if a non-end piece is killed, the worm splits into 2 (or more) worms. Move the parts of the worm (remember i said dice line!) away from each other and track the 2 seperate worms, increasing if the PCs keep splitting it. A single lone segment only has one attack and rolls around like a pinball.

IF YOUR PLAYERS ARE BEING UNIMAGINATIVE OR LAZY DOUCHES THEN ROLL RANDOMLY FOR WHAT ONES THEY HIT.

Dyson muses about the abuses of the OSR.

Blood Charm

When activated, the wearer immediately takes 10 points of damage (which can be cured or healed normally). Any time thereafter (while the charm is still activated), the wearer can regain those hit points from the charm with a thought. If the charm is deactivated with the hit points still in it, they are lost.

I like this, but how do the players know its power? why don't they just say, it bit me, and throw it away? I decided to have it switch from red/white to show whether it's charged, and have it engraved with the message, "pay the price, then ask for the reward". Then I forgot to give it as treasure.

Gregor of Red Moose Games just says he's overdue on his joesky tax.

He has illustrations and full 3e-style stat blocks, which you should look up if you want to use the monsters. I'm copying the descriptions, which are pretty cool:

The Etherfish
The Etherfish look like flying, translucent folds of gelatinous flesh, pulsating with alien colours. From the mass protrude a number of tentacles. The Etherfish haunt a parallel dimension and occasionally break through where the barrier is thin. They always move to kill, with unknown motivations.

Hollow men
Hollow men resemble normal humans, with porcelain skin, except they're empty inside. Hollow men can sniff out gold and other treasures and will attempt to attack, subdue and the rob anyone carrying such valuables. Once they lay their hands on the treasure, they will proceed to eat it. A defeated Hollow man will often shatter like a cross between a pinata and a piggy bank.

Crystal spider
These spiders are the size of large dogs. Their bodies look like large crystals and the bodies of their falling victims are covered in crystalline formations, in which their young incubate.

I populated my solar system's Venus equivalent with all these creatures, plus giant sentient trees, plus sea monsters with mile-long necks. My players found the planet eerie and disturbing and will not return, not for all the gold in the hollow men.

Middenmurk says he doesn't like censorship.

Reinhardt, a Pure White Fox as old as the hills who sleeps constantly in a sack, can usually be relied upon to know the way (1-3 on d6).

This is such a great treasure! It has a fun non-combat utility and it has personality that transcends its function.

Chris of Vaults of Nagoh is paying the tax for answering a Zak questionnaire.

Spell: Deliquescent Transition (Wiz2)
Caster's body, clothing and held items melt into a varicoloured fleshy ooze. In this form the caster may squeeze through any non-air/watertight space at 1/2 normal speed. Yes, they can climb walls and ventilation pipes. 1 Round to dissolve flesh, 1 round to travel, 1 to reform. While in ooze form caster is AC 9[10], no Dex bonus.
Additional complication: encountered dungeon oozes think the caster has a purty mouth.

(yeah, like a potion of gaseous form, only less so.)

D&D With Porn Stars, complaining about slut shaming:

Zak overproduces here: he produces a "dull and ordinary" village with 9 quirks and a frozen dungeon with 9 keyed encounters. In other words, enough material for at least a session.

Here's one of my favorite town details:

The village elders, who secretly consult a yellow-eyed child of 6 before making any decisions. They believe the child to be a young lamia (it crawled up the cliff toward an elder one day). Their decisions are unremarkable

I think it's a great detail that the mystical kid is kind of a mediocre administrator. But the thing I'll actually use is the major dungeon enemy in the ice dungeon:

Mad Moroschka [a gorgon], who roams the halls, fearing to look into the faces of her reflections, believing them to be her sisters. She pleads with the reflections of her own feet, begging to be set free, all the while tormented by the tamarins. Her (usually lowered) gaze turns living tissue to ice.

I seriously feel like a fool that I never thought of a medusa that turns people into other stuff than stone. It's a great way to revitalize a tired monster.

1d30 is bugged by wordpress.

The Diamond Sniffer of Dumathoin
Appearance: Hollow silver nose designed to be worn over your own nose. It's bulbous and its nostrils flare imperiously.

Function: When pressed to your face it grabs onto your nose and settles over it. You can breathe normally. You now smell various gems and metals the same way you would have normally smelled pleasant or obnoxious odors. You can tell the difference between metals, even ones coated or alloyed, to within 1% of metal content if you get a good noseful.

(more rules on 1d30's site)

I gave this as a treasure in a game: there was a lot of prospecting that day.

The XP Experience, apologizing for previous posts maybe?

You have a Knife or Dagger, a Melee Weapon of your choice, and a Backpack. If you have any faith in any God or Godling, you may have an appropriate Holy Idol. You also start with 1d10+CHA sp in cash.

Roll 1d30 on this table until you get the same result twice or the table instructs you to do otherwise.

1. Shield or Helmet (+1 AC) or a Cloak
2. Leather Armor (+2 AC) or a Cloak
3. Studded Leather/Ring Mail Armor (AC +3), Leather Armor, or a Cloak and roll 1d20+10 for all further rolls on this table
4. Scale Mail (AC +4), Leather Armor or a Cloak and roll 1d20+10 for all further rolls on this table
5. Chain Mail (AC +5), Leather Armor, or a Cloak and roll 1d20+10 for all further rolls on this table
6. Banded Mail/Splint Mail (AC +6), Leather Armor, or a Cloak and roll 1d20+10 for all further rolls on this table
7. Plate Mail (AC +7), Leather Armor, or a Cloak and roll 1d20+10 for all further rolls on this table
8. Light Crossbow w/ 2d6 Bolts
9. Roll under CHA on 1d20. If you fail, take any one thing and continue rolling; if you succeed, choose a number of things off this list equal to the difference by which you succeeded on the roll then stop.
10. Mirror or 10' Pole
11. 100gp or or Thieves' Tools
12. 2d8 Torches and 3d8 Tindertwigs
13. Rope (50 feet)
14. Grappling Hook
15. Bedroll
16. 1d4 hand fulls of Caltrops or 10' Chain
17. Melee Weapon +1 of your choice, it may be throwable
18. Short Bow w/2d12 Arrows or Sling w/ 2d12 Bullets
19. Lantern with 2d4 Flasks of Oil, and Flint and Steel
20. 2d8 days Rations
21. Hammer and 2d6 Door Spikes
22. Wineskin (full of Wine or Water)
23. Crowbar or Sledge Hammer
24. 1 Small Black Cylinder of the Unknown or 1d3 hand fulls of Dust of Petrification
25. Je'zail or Isib'hamu (flint or wheel lock rifle or pistol) w/ enough Powder and Shot to fire 2d6 rounds
26. 1d3 pinches of Powdered Ogre Tusk (+1d4 STR for 1d6 rds, then make CON save or suffer 1d6 HP)
27. 1d4 Healing Poultices (heal 1d6, or allow a poison or disease save, requires 1d6 turns to take effect)
28. Golden Signet Ring of unknown value with little secret compartment
29. 1d8 Thunderstones or 1d6 Heatstones
30. Piece of Jewelry worth 1d6x50 gp

That's about half of the Joesky-tax ideas that I harvested for my own use. I'll follow up soon with the other half. Overall grade: pretty high-quality items, spells, and monsters here. If these ideas were actually generated as apologies for ranting, then the rants are amply paid for and the Joesky tax is doing its job.

underdark hex crawl chart

April 21st, 2015 by paul

I devised a 5e random hex crawl chart that tracks weather, monsters, survival checks, and all sorts of stuff, all on a d12 table. I already shared my hills encounter chart; here's one that I used in my recent Underdark campaign, in case you want to try a cave crawl (spelunk?).

As a reminder, you can make your own chart for any terrain; for each entry, keep the part in bold and write a new location-appropriate encounter.

1: Plot advancing creature: In my game, this slot is filled by an evil cherub messenger of a sinister angel.
2: Intelligent creature: A drow party traveling with recently-captured slaves, in a spiked, spider-drawn cart, towards the nearest drow trading city. The drow will attack and enslave weak groups, or bargain with strong groups.
3: Unintelligent creature: A wandering behir. This monster is among the toughest on this particular random chart, and in my game, it nearly wiped out the PCs. The nearly-dead sorcerer, in a hail mary pass, managed to Polymorph the behir into a chicken. In 5e, Polymorph is a Concentration spell that ends when the creature dies. That meant that the PCs had a limited time dispose of a weaponized chicken, which they did to good effect, taking out a bunch of drow and trolls along the way.
4: Ambush creature: Green slime often surprises the victim, as do umber hulks. What about the two together? An agonized umber hulk, slowly being dissolved by green slime, lurks around a corner, trying to scrape off the slime but just moving it around its body. If it hears PCs approaching, it will attack with a suicidal fervor fueled by rage and pain. In combat, its attacks might infect the PCs.
5: Beneficial creature: Scouts for an army of deep gnomes, methodically mapping the tunnels. They'll lead friendly PCs to High Commander Vilkrieg, commander of the Loose Gemstones Free Army, who's looking for a path that will let him surprise-attack the local drow settlement.
6: Weather: Torches flicker blue. Those with Detect Magic sense eldritch weirdness. The long straight tunnels of the underdark give way to dungeon-style branching corridors and wooden doors, some in the process of budding, as if the dungeon were growing like a plant. The party has discovered a pocket of the chaotic, half-mindless gas that, coral-like, leaves behind the strange dungeons of the Mythic Underworld.
7. Lair: Drow checkpoint: The tunnel is guarded by one elite and two regular warriors; another elite warrior, two regular warriors, and a wizard are relaxing in a fortified suite of rooms built into the side of the tunnel. There are two portcullises that can be dropped across the tunnel. The drow try to trap intruders between the portcullises and use Darkness and missile attacks to confound them.
8. Survival Check or Hazard: Sinkhole. Dex save or fall through a weak floor into an east-west purple worm tube. Following the tube eastward will lead through a forgotten dwarven tomb; westward will lead to the purple worm.
9. Path Choice: The tunnel branches. From around the curve of the left side, you hear an echoing argument about directions in Elvish. The noise is from a kenku in a cage; bones litter the floor. If it sees the PCs, the kenku will declare, in elvish, "It's a trap!" Intelligent giant spiders descend and attack the PCs, declaring, "Our Kenku is developing a sense of humor. He must be punished."
10. Beneficial location: Old dwarf palace lit by 2d10 sunstones (worth 1d6x100 GP each). The stones glow. Any stone worth 600 GP glows brightly enough to act as sunlight for all purposes, frying vampires, granting disadvantage to drow, and damaging drow equipment.
11. Ruin: A vast chasm, dotted with lights below. The chasm is a mile deep. At the bottom, terrified goblins tend bonfires amid the ruins of an ancient city. When the fires go out, they're preyed upon by an underdark monster who uses illusion to disguise as one of the goblins - but the illusion only fools darkvision, not natural light.
12. Tracks: Green slime footprints lead to encounter 4 (and let you potentially surprise the umber hulk).

dragons are pirates

April 9th, 2015 by paul

In D&D, when you want to evoke a mythic treasure hoard, you speak of dragon treasure. Apart from royal treasuries, those are probably the world's biggest accumulations of wealth.

In the real world, for the same effect, you speak of pirate treasure.

Awesome D&D pirates should probably have as much treasure as dragons, right? Considering that most D&D campaigns are basically Beowulf on land and the Spanish Main at sea? In fact, OD&D and AD&D did have special, rich treasure types for pirates, along with treasure map rules. Awesome! (Was 3e the first edition to drop the ball? Were pirates even mentioned in the core 3e books?)

How do pirates get so rich? They attack rich merchant ships and steal their stuff all day. That'll do the trick.

dpA harder question: how do dragons get so rich? Smaug moved into a dwarven royal treasury. But surely some dragons accumulate treasure and add it to their hoard the hard way.

I think we have to think of dragons as land pirates. They spend a lot of time looking for humanoid merchants, and then they steal their stuff. This sort of changes default dragon behavior. Dragons aren't untamed isolationists in the wilds: they're robber barons in the borderlands. They're deeply concerned with the human economy: they track trade routes and estimate the riches of towns. They probably all employ spies. They don't relish a hard fight anymore than pirates do. They probably avoid bands of adventurers in the wilderness, just as pirates avoid military vessels, unless the adventurers are guarding a caravan.

With their long lifespans, the older evil dragons might think of themselves as stewards or gardeners of civilization. They don't want civilization wiped out. They want it to prosper and circulate wealth, just shy of the point where it's strong enough to fight off dragons. In fact, dragons are probably a force that keeps D&D stagnant at its late medieval tech level. Are you developing anti-aircraft, or a tenth-level spell? Expect a dragon attack. Are you planning to ride with your hordes through the civilized lands, making mountains of skulls and ushering in a dark age? Expect a dragon attack, this time in defense of civilization.

One more question: How the heck do dragons accumulate piles of coins? For a dragon with huge claws, a coin on the ground is just as inaccessible as if it had been dropped from a pirate ship into the ocean. Dragons do have opposable claws, though, so they can presumably pick up sacks, treasure chests, and even wagons, and carry them off to their lairs.

Hey, I have an idea for surviving a dragon raid with your life: Hold up a bag of gold and say this: "Our caravan has 10 bags of coins. Let us live and you can have all ten. Or attack us, in which case I'll dump these coins on the ground. You can slaughter us all and still get 9 bags of treasure, but good luck picking up these 500 loose gold coins from the underbrush."

what divination spells are being used on the PCs?

March 23rd, 2015 by paul

Let's say the PCs have pissed someone off. Believe it or not, it happens sometimes. What consequences should they expect? Once the PCs get out of Dodge, are they completely safe from Dodge law enforcement? Or are their pursuers given an arbitrary level of omniscience (pursuers catch up to the PCs whenever the DM feels like things are getting slow)?

Let's figure out some predictable consequences based on the might of the offended cities/countries/organizations. Assign each organization a level, 1-20, using the guidelines below. Here are the 5e divination/law enforcement spells that might be routinely available to each organization.

Local tier (level 1-4): Towns, baronies, local thieves guilds, low-level casters, monsters with caster minions.
Locate Object (level 2): Pretty much the only way to find a thief in this tier is cast Locate Object on the stolen item. With a range of 1000 feet, though, it will take a while to catch a thief even in a small town.
Tier Analysis: If you're a petty outlaw, you're pretty safe, magically speaking. Just hide the stuff more than a mile away from town and it will never be magically found.

Regional tier (level 5-10): City-states or small countries, duchies, crime syndicates, big merchant houses, noble families, drow houses.
Clairvoyance (level 3): Its range is a mile, and it's pretty much a room-by-room search, so its uses are limited to surveillance of known suspects.
Sending (level 3): You can't locate someone with Sending, but you can send them threatening messages or offer them deals. If your pursuers' highest spell level is 3, prepare to be mildly irritated by daily telepathic threats. It's basically all they can do to you.
Divination (level 4): Ask a question about something to happen within 7 days. It's hard to see the utility of this spell for catching enemies, and the answers are cryptic anyway.
Locate Creature (level 4): Like Locate Object, it only works within 1000 ft.
Commune (level 5): At level 5, divination spells start to get more useful. Commune lets you ask three yes/no questions, so you can use it to play a really slow game of 20 questions about the target.
Contact other plane (level 5): Like Commune, but five questions, and it's way too dangerous to use every day (chances of death or insanity with every casting). Sensible NPCs probably won't use this spell much.
Dream (level 5): You can't locate an enemy but you can threaten them, do psychic damage, and prevent them from resting. You might be able to kill them at a distance without ever finding them.
Scrying (level 5): Almost certainly the spell of choice for hunters of PCs. The PC gets a saving throw, with a bonus if the caster doesn't personally know the target, and a penalty if the caster has physical evidence (like fingernail clippings). Organizations should have CSI-like crime squads to track down such evidence. Even if the target makes the save, the spell is repeatable every day. On a success, the caster can see the target's surroundings (for 10 minutes) but doesn't necessarily know the global location.
Tier Analysis: PCs who upset regional authorities can expect regular angry Sendings and Dreams, and daily scry attempts which will eventually succeed unless the PCs take countermeasures. The PCs should avoid recognizable surroundings like the Eiffel Tower. Scrying gives the DM a new problem: exactly when do the enemies try to tune in? while the PCs are discussing their plans, or while they are mutely trudging through anonymous forest? Here's a DM trick: set a phone alert for, say, an hour into the game session. When it goes off, that's when the enemies try to scry.

Major tier (level 11-16): Major countries, major religions, major campaign villains, major worldwide organizations.
Conjure elemental (level 6): This is a level 5 spell, but cast at level 6, it can summon an Invisible Stalker. The Stalker automatically knows the direction and distance to the target. Even without the stalkers' assassination abilities, that's bad news for fugitives. And a new stalker can be summoned every day.
Teleport (level 7): Finding the fugitive is all well and good, but Teleport or Tree Stride (level 6) let you go out and get them.
Tier Analysis: Compared to the regional tier, major-tier organizations are slightly better at finding you, and way better at taking you out. Between Invisible Stalker and scry-and-die teleport tactics, you can't escape - except by going to another plane of existence.

World-spanning tier (level 17-20): Global or planar empires, demon princes, Sauron-level villains.
Gate (level 9): Costs 5000 GP per casting, but it's worth it. If the caster knows the targets' names, and they're on a different plane, it will summon them (unless they're in the demesne of a deity or similar creature). Combine this spell with Plane Shift (level 7) to guarantee that you're on a different plane of existence from your target.
Tier Analysis: Gate takes away fugitives' extraplanar bolt holes. Only the gods can hide them from 9th-level casters.

three zany D&D kickstarters and why I’m backing them

March 18th, 2015 by paul

I love D&D kickstarters; right now I'm backing three. One question I try to ask myself is "will I use this in a game?" The answer for all three is "yes, but not necessarily as intended."

city_originalOK, first, the project with the most obvious D&D utility: Stefan Pokorny's city Dungeon Tiles. How precious! A set of little D&D dollhouses to complement my love of city-based D&D adventure. This has everything I need for urban set-piece battles: adorable Tudor houses, guardhouses with battlements, and, as stretch goals, minis missing from my lineup: commoners, city guards, and ratlings.

I have a lot of Dwarven Forge stuff, which is weird, because it doesn't actually go very well with my DMing play style. I rarely do high-prep set-pieces: I mostly wing it based on the whims of the PCs. I probably won't construct an intricate diorama of a lovingly-detailed city location, because I don't want to force the PCs to use it. But if a fight does break out in a tavern, city street, or village square, I'd like to be able to plop down a couple of nice-looking houses and give the battle some character.

And I'd like some ratling minis.

Dwarven Forge stuff is expensive. For people who would rather drop $25 instead of $250 on D&D, Rob Schwalb's Shadow of the Demon Lord might be a better choice.

GMXFlyer-200x300Given that I'll probably be playing D&D 5e for the foreseeable future, what does a new RPG offer me? I like a lot of Schwalb's previous design work, including A Song of Ice and Fire RPG and, well, D&D 5e. Shadow of the Demon Lord looks like it will have a lot of stuff to mine for a D&D game. It's got the post-apocalpyse dial turned way up, which I like. And from the descriptions of the spells, the gross-out and body-horror value is pretty high too. That's less appealing to me as a core part of D&D, but there is a place for it.

I love spells-as-treasure. Maybe the "make a dude's nuts explode" spell is too silly for a core D&D spell, but it might be a plausible find in an evil wizard's spellbook - and maybe some warped PC will actually transcribe it. In my game, one of the players has a half-deciphered book of evil rituals. Hopefully I'll get to see some more Shadow of the Demon Lord spells before the other half is deciphered.

rocketbookMy final kickstarter is ostensibly non-D&D: it's a "cloud-integrated" paper notebook. What does that mean, besides the fact that the "cloud" buzzword is now officially overused?

Basically, what it means is that when you take a cellphone photo of a notebook doodle, it will automatically resize it, color-correct it, un-perspective it, and upload/post/email it to a location of your choice.

Why does this scream D&D to me? Because the notebook page has a dot grid. It's essentially graph paper. I doodle a lot of maps and other D&D sketches during meetings. I wouldn't mind being able to one-click post them, or one-click email them to my D&D group, instead of bringing the notebook home, scanning it, fiddling with it in Photoshop, etc.

The other goofy, fun feature: if you microwave the notebook, the ink disappears and you can use it again. Future technology!

some underdark geomorphs

March 9th, 2015 by paul

underdarkMy game has found its way into the Underdark. To prepare for the PCs' big battle against the drow - and to create quick locations for future random encounters - I made 12 Underdark geomorphs. Download 'em!

My geomorph map pieces are slightly non-standard: they're rectangular, 8x10 inches. Square geomorphs allow for more facings for each piece, but the Underdark is different from a regular dungeon in that it has a grain. Tunnels don't spiral off randomly in every direction: they tend to be long straight paths with the occasional branch or turn. My Underdark geomorphs have very few dead ends along their long axis, and relatively few side tunnels along the short axis.

By the way, the Post-it in the picture is a spider-drawn war chariot.

5e DMG: page 250 as a complete mass combat system

February 26th, 2015 by paul

The 5e DMG has a short section on "handling mobs:" it has a chart for approximating, out of a group of attacking monsters, how many monsters hit.

It's pretty simple: subtract attacker's hit bonus from the target's AC. Cross-index that number on the chart. If the number is 1-5, all the attackers hit; if it's 6-12, 1/2 of them hit; etc., up to 1 in 20 of the attackers hitting on a 20.

I ran a big set-piece battle yesterday: 8 mid-level PCs and 10 gnomes against 20+ drow and other assorted creatures, including a drow spider chariot and a sinister angel. With a wizard and a sorcerer PC and two drow wizards, all slinging fireballs, the mob attacks weren't much of a factor. With all those fireballs, what I COULD have used was rules for mob saving throws.

If I'd thought about it, I'd have realized that the same chart can be used for saving throws. Instead of subtracting attack bonus from AC, subtract saving throw bonus from DC, and use the chart as normal. For instance, a fireball save DC of 15, minus the drow dex save (+2) is 13, which, according to the chart, means that 1/3 of the drow succeed on their saving throw (and probably survive with 1 or 2 HP left).

In fact, this same chart can be used for ability/skill checks (how many orcs managed to climb the wall? DC minus skill bonus) or any other d20 roll.

To me, it seems this is all you need to run fairly simple battles with dozens or hundreds of creatures per side. The amount of HP tracking is not excessive: for instance, in this unit of 50 ogres, 24 have 15 damage and the other 25 have 30 damage. (For ease of bookkeeping, assume that melee attacks always target the most-damaged creature.)

You might also care about the base size of big units. I assumed that a close-packed formation of 10 Medium troops took up the size of one Large creature. I'd say that 25 troops are Huge and 50 are Gargantuan.

If we do any bigger-scale battles, I might find other rules that I need (after all, the Chain Mail rules are much longer than this blog post) but right now, this is looking pretty good for running big D&D skirmishes.

a random encounter chart that reminds you of the 5e hex crawl, wandering monsters, weather, navigation, and surprise rules

February 12th, 2015 by paul

Running a by-the-book 5e hex crawl takes practice. There are a lot of fiddly rules on different pages: you have to skip back and forth between the sections on weather, wandering monsters, getting lost, and random hex contents.

I've been running hex crawls lately and I've boiled down the relevant rules (for me) into a single random encounter chart. Based on the current location/terrain type, the DM fills specific encounters into the chart, Mad Libs-style. The chart does the heavy lifting for determining weather events, chances to get lost, monsters both in their lair and out, surprise, and landscape features.

This chart also reminds me to run a good mix of encounter types: some monsters are friendly! sometimes you run into an inexplicable mystery of the ancient world! Many "encounters" don't lead to combat! (Of the 12 slots on this table, you only need about 5 potential combats.) With a relatively small and varied number of possible encounters, you can design a bunch that you really want to run, instead of lots of "2d6 goblins" filler. The DM, at least, should be excited to roll on the random encounter table. Here's my encounter chart template as a PDF.

Checking for encounters: Roll d6 four times a day: morning travel, afternoon travel, first night watch, second night watch. Any roll of 6 means that you roll on the encounter chart. (Or use the official 5e rule: roll 20, encounter on 18-20. Pretty much the same odds, but I like the traditional d6.)

Rolling on the encounter chart: Roll d12 on this chart while traveling, or d6 while stationary (for instance, while resting). The chart is organized so that stationary encounters can't sneak up on you while you're not moving.

1: Plot advancing creature: This means different things in different campaigns. If you're running a campaign about the rise of Tiamat, you might populate this slot with dragons or Tiamat cultists. In my open-ended game where the characters are pursuing their own goals, I fill this slot with people or groups related to characters, like the drow assassin that's chasing the noble. If you're running a totally plotless hex crawl, fill this slot with a high-level monster (it potentially advances the story by killing the party!)

2: Intelligent creature: Any locale-appropriate group or creature with tool-using intelligence or higher. At night, if the characters hide their camp and don't light a fire, treat this roll as no encounter (unless your intelligent monsters has darkvision or a sharp sense of smell). That's the advantage the PCs get for not lighting a fire.

3: Unintelligent creature: Beasts or unintelligent monsters. Most beasts shy away from fire. If the characters are resting and have a campfire lit, treat this roll as no encounter (unless they're fearless or fire-based beasts). That's the advantage the PCs get for lighting a fire.

4: Ambush creature: Use stealthy creatures or creatures with special movement modes (flying, burrowing, climbing, swimming, incorporeal). All of these creatures can typically take the party by surprise, so check for surprise against the party's Perception (rules for perception while traveling: PHB 182). If the PCs are currently using a special movement mode, populate this slot entirely with matching creatures (flying PCs may ignore almost all other encounters, but a 4 is always another flying creature.)

5: Beneficial creature: There are actually a few good monsters in D&D, along with friendly adventurers, kobold bands looking for a new king, and suspicious traders with valuable information to sell. You could roll d4 on this chart to find out what kind of beneficial encounter this is.

6: Weather: If you make the standard 4 random encounter checks per day, you have about an 8% to 12% daily chance to hit bad weather. (The DMG weather chart gives a 15% daily chance of heavy precipitation. Of course, this is probably lower in practice because few DMs roll on the weather chart every day.) Feel free to use any place- and season-appropriate weather that challenges or inconveniences the characters in some way, or use the official weather rules in the DMG p. 109. Possible weather inconveniences: while exposed to the weather, you can't benefit from a long rest; low visibility forces a Survival check to avoid becoming lost; fords and valleys are flooded.

7. Lair: Locale-appropriate bad guys (or beasts) live here. Usually lairs are where creatures keep their treasure. This could also be a dungeon entrance. No matter the level of the PCs, I make 1 in 6 lairs contain monsters with more than 10 HD/level/CR. Alert PCs shouldn't run into a cave without scouting first.

8. Survival Check or Hazard: The rules for getting lost (DMG 105) are vague: a Survival check is made "when you decide it's appropriate." Consider this encounter slot a reminder. Characters might get lost because of detours, low visibility, or hazards. Hazards include rockslides, quicksand, etc, all detailed in the DMG p. 110.

9. Path Choice: Take a forest shortcut? Ford the river or caulk the wagon? The tradeoff might be apparent (safe path vs. quick path), or a Survival check, or good reasoning, might be needed to reveal which choice is best.

10. Beneficial location: Typically, this means a friendly settlement or homestead (1 in 6 chance of being bigger than a village). Random settlement rules are on DMG 112. In the uncharted wilds, this might instead mean a treasure or natural resource, or a magic resource like a stand of healing herbs or a teleportation circle, or (valuable late in the day) a defensible place to camp.

11. Ruin: One cool thing about the 5e assumptions is that ruins seem to be about as common as civilized spots. A ruin might be a lair or the entrance to a dungeon, but it might just be an abandoned village or castle, an ancient monument (DMG 108), or a weird locale (DMG 109) that hints at lost history beyond the scope of the adventure.

12. Tracks: It's cool when the PCs gather information that lets them make informed decisions about their surroundings. Roll d12 on this table; there are tracks, noises, glimpses, or other signs that lead to (or let the PCs avoid) that encounter or location.

OK, so much for the chart explanation. Now here's an example chart that I've made for my campaign, and some blank ones in case you want to print them up and use them.

ENCOUNTER CHART FOR THE WILD HILLS:
1: Plot advancing creature: Depends on the group. Let's say a monk who's challenging the monk PC to duel for an available position in the heirarchy: someone murdered the Grand Master of Flowers.
2: Intelligent creature: A paladin from a well-known paladin order. He tells the PCs that he has fought through Hell and returned with a book of devil truenames, and he is fleeing from a pack of vengeful devils. He will accept any help: fight his pursuers (encounter 5); escort him to his destination, which is a holy priory; take his book from him for safekeeping; etc. He is actually a blackguard and he is on his way to sell the book to a devil in a ruined priory.
3: Unintelligent creature: Ghosts of an extinct dwarf clan. They snipe at the party with their ghostly flintlock rifles; from their ancient dwarven curses, it appears that they think the PCs are goblins. They are nearly mindless and cannot be reasoned with. When down to 1/2 HP, each starts retreating to a jumble of bones and treasure in a valley about a mile away. If the bones are blessed, the ghosts will rest.
4: Ambush creature: Hungry wyvern family; will try to fly off with the first PC casualty. Target horses preferentially.
5: Beneficial creature: A troop of paladins searching for the blackguard who stole their book of devil truenames. They will bless and heal friendly PCs and will offer a reward for the book's return.
6: Weather: Unseasonal snowstorm which follows and surrounds a pack of 7 ravenous winter wolves. Under moonlight, the wolves turn into 7 cursed and miserably cold brothers.
7. Lair: A small tribe of sheep-raising ogres, unusually well-supplied with wool kilts, led by Queen Morag, a relatively industrious and intelligent ogre. If the party seems too powerful to kill, she'll offer to hire out her warriors as mercenaries (100 GP a day or best offer).
8. Survival Check or Hazard: A miles-wide area of canyons and plateaus. It's easy to get lost or hit a dead end in the canyons, while staying on the plateaus requires crossing the occasional abyss.
9. Path Choice: Entrance to a long tunnel which leads in the general direction of the PCs' travel, but descends. Various side passages lead back to the surface while the main tunnel goes to the underdark.
10. Beneficial location: An empty tower with ominous gargoyles up top. They're actually non-animate stone gargoyles. However all the wood floors are rotten and will collapse under more than #500 weight (characters get saves to avoid falling). The top floor (unless it's damaged) has a weather-stained permanent summoning circle which can be activated to summon an imp who will answer one question per day: the imp can cast Scry to try to answer the question. Before answering each question, the imp will demand the answer to a personal question about the asker's life.
11. Ruin: A sloping round tower, three hundred feet tall, completely solid (no inside space). An outside spiral staircase leads to a thirty-foot-wide platform on top, protected by battlements. On the platform are the signs of many old campfires. This is a safe place to camp (except in lightning storms). The bottom of the tower has a gnawed appearance because local peasants have removed stones for their building projects.
12. Tracks: An unseasonal path of quickly-melting snow which leads to encounter 6.

Here's a blank encounter chart PDF for you to fill out.

the always and never rule

January 28th, 2015 by paul

If I were writing the D&D rulebook I'd make a Rule Negative One, right before Rule Zero ("The DM always has the authority to change the rules").

The always and never rule:

In this book, the words "always" and "never" have a special meaning. Whenever you see these words, mentally add "with at least one interesting exception, to be determined by the players and DM."

This rule always applies.

Then I'd make sure to use the words "always" and "never" a lot. I'd throw in tons of restrictions. Demons, drow, and orcs are always evil. Paladins are always lawful good. Dwarves are never wizards. Skeletons are always mindless. Under a Zone of Truth spell, you can never lie. Halflings can never resist a pie.

cursed items turn into regular items

January 12th, 2015 by paul

OK, you know all those brutal old-school cursed items? Bowl of watery death, rug of smothering, etc? i always hated them, but I think I came up with a twist that allows me to use them in good conscience.

Every cursed item, when its curse is thwarted, becomes a useful magic item for the user who mastered it.

For me, this suddenly transforms "evil DM" items into "interesting treasure" items. Cursed items are kind of like intelligent items: if you prove stronger, they can be useful tools. But instead of making a contested ego check, you conquer the item by succeeding at some task that's specific to the curse.

I'll use examples from 3e for cut and paste convenience, but every edition has pretty much the same list of gotcha items.

Broom of Animated Attack: This item is indistinguishable in appearance from a normal broom. It is identical to a broom of flying by all tests short of attempted use.

If a command is spoken, the broom does a loop-the-loop with its hopeful rider, dumping him on his head from 1d4+5 feet off the ground (no falling damage, since the fall is less than 10 feet). The broom then attacks the victim, swatting the face with the straw or twig end and beating him with the handle end.

What I'd add to this: the rider can make difficult Ride checks to stay aboard the broom. Several successes will "break" the broom. From then on, it will be an exceptionally loyal Broom of Flying for this user, but will act as a Broom of Animated Attack for all other riders.

I'd further posit that one of the items needed to create a Broom of Flying is "the soul of a steed." Brooms of Animated Attack are imbued with the souls of unbroken steeds, or of nightmares.

Bag of Devouring
This bag appears to be an ordinary sack. Detection for magical properties makes it seem as if it were a bag of holding. The sack is, however, a lure used by an extradimensional creature—in fact, one of its feeding orifices.

Any substance of animal or vegetable nature is subject to "swallowing" if thrust within the bag. The bag of devouring is 90% likely to ignore any initial intrusion, but any time thereafter that it senses living flesh within (such as if someone reaches into the bag to pull something out), it is 60% likely to close around the offending member and attempt to draw the whole victim in. The bag has a +8 bonus on grapple checks made to pull someone in. [...] Creatures drawn within are consumed in 1 round.

OK, this bag is really good at grappling, and it devours people in 1 round? What if the proposed victim is a better grappler? Instead of automatically devouring an engulfed victim, it must beat the victim in a wrestling match. Otherwise, the extradimensional creature is tamed, and the "victim" climbs out of a brand new bag of holding.

Cloak of Poisonousness
This cloak is usually made of a woolen material, although it can be made of leather. A detect poison spell can reveal the presence of poison impregnated in the cloak’s fabric. The garment can be handled without harm, but as soon as it is actually donned the wearer is killed instantly unless she succeeds on a DC 28 Fortitude save.

A wearer who succeeds on the Fortitude check now has an immunity to this particular poison and gets a nice Cloak of Resistance - and a potential assassination tool. ("You look cold. Take my cloak.")

-2 Sword, Cursed
This longsword performs well against targets in practice, but when used against an opponent in combat, it causes its wielder to take a -2 penalty on attack rolls.

All damage dealt is also reduced by 2 points, but never below a minimum of 1 point of damage on any successful hit. After one week in a character’s possession, the sword always forces that character to employ it rather than another weapon. The sword’s owner automatically draws it and fights with it even when she meant to draw or ready some other weapon. The sword can be gotten rid of only by means of limited wish, wish, or miracle.

-1 and -2 items are tough because they don't force a single moment of conflict; they just make you worse at stuff over a long period. Therefore, you should have to spend a significant amount of time winning the item over. Here are a couple of possibilities.

  • Why is the -2 sword trying to fight you? Maybe it has a quest it wants accomplished. Instead of declaring an attack, let it choose the target; given its choice of target, it might turn out to be +2 against the enemies of its creator. Ask it to point towards a place where you can do it a service.
  • Embrace the challenge of using the sword as your primary weapon, serving out a period of trial to prove your worthiness. Score three critical hits with the cursed sword, or strike the killing blow on a dragon, and it might suddenly become a +2 sword.
  • Here's a simple one: have someone cast Remove Curse on the sword, and then pick it up again. It's now +2.

    Armor of Arrow Attraction
    Magical analysis indicates that this armor is a normal suit of +3 full plate. However, the armor is cursed. It works normally with regard to melee attacks but actually serves to attract ranged weapons. The wearer takes a -15 penalty to AC against any attack by a ranged weapon. The true nature of the armor does not reveal itself until the character is fired upon in earnest.

    I actually think you need to be killed by missile fire in full Borimir fashion, or at least be dropped to the brink of death, to tame this armor. Once you're resurrected or healed, the armor will become normal +3 armor for you. However, if you ever clean your bloodstains from the armor, the curse re-exerts itself.