Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Reconsidering a Holmesian Dungeon

As someone who regularly suffers from Gamer ADD, I am occasionally reminded about how many projects I have left fallow over the years. One such reminder came  yesterday when Rob Conley of Bat in the Attic Games posted a set of S&W compatible rules  as a prelude for a project he is working on. In contemplating all the various things I have not managed to finish, the one I am most disappointed with is my version of Averoigne and its megadungeon, the Chateau des Faussesflammes. One of the reasons for this was that I ran into a problem of how to stock and handle what I envisioned as a dynamic and constantly changing dungeon.

As I have mentioned many times before, historically, I am actually more of a war gamer than a role-player. Recently, I have spent more time at the gaming table playing board games than RPGs. As a consequence, I was inspired to look at my version of the Chateau as if it were a board game rather than an RPG dungeon. What I came up with is a rather intriguing idea and I wanted to see if it was scalable.

Here is my thinking: the mega-dungeon in Holmes strongly suggests the Mythic Underground that many bloggers over the years have described when re-reading older versions of D&D; however, as I mentioned in this post on Holmes on Traps, the biggest danger in this Holmesian Mythic Underground is wandering monsters. My conundrum for years has been how to marry the best ideas of classic dungeons that have factions with the Mythic Underground with the dynamism of a dungeon whose main threat is wandering monsters. My answer was to make all the monsters a kind of wandering monster by turning the dungeon into a kind of board game for the Referee.

Let's begin with a really big dungeon. This is from Dyson Logos and he calls it The Deep Halls:

I haven't counted carefully, but I estimate that this beauty has about 150 rooms. According to older iterations of the game, approximately one third of these rooms will have monster encounters or 50.

In order to make this work like a board game I need to have it look like a board game, so I added a hex-grid:

This grid provides almost 200 spaces. The idea here is to place tokens on this board that represent monster encounters. They exist on a grid so that they can move during the adventure from one hex to the next, with each hex being about 30 feet per side and thus easily moved through by just about every monster that might inhabit a dungeon. In order to give myself enough room to maneuver these tokens, I arbitrarily decided to place one token in about every four hexes:

This provides 45 monster encounters. This is close enough to the traditional 50 to leave it at that, or one could have five set-piece encounters that exist in specific rooms that never move. Now, here is where things get interesting. Forty-five divides nicely by 3 giving us the ability to divide the monster encounters into three different factions:

When stocking a dungeon this way, one really doesn't have to stock the dungeon at all. Sure, you have to make notes about room characteristics and various kinds of traps, but there really is no need to place any monsters at all (again, unless you are married to the idea of set-piece encounters and then you only have to do up to five). What you do need is three lists of 15 monster encounters representing the three factions and a wandering monster list.

So here is how it works:

Every time a wandering monster check is triggered (either by a loud noise like combat or simply time spent in the dungeon), roll your favorite type of die to check if a wander monster shows up. For the purposes of this example, let us use a d6:

  • On a '1' move one blue token one hex.
  • On a '2' move one red toke one hex.
  • On a '3' move one green token one hex.
  • On a '6' a wandering monster rolled up on the WMT appears in the hex the players are currently in.

Alternatively, a 1-3 indicates how many tokens to move one hex. Regardless, which token to move and where is entirely up to the whim of the Referee. For example, in the middle of the second row there are a blue and green token in the same room. I would most likely move those closer to each other at the first opportunity.

This leads us to one of the more interesting facets of this idea: when two tokens of different factions end up in the same hex, they get to fight. This leads to a noise encounter that the PCs get to investigate or ignore at their leisure. In the meantime, one your tokens comes off the board and you make a note about bodies being strewn about the floor.

Here is the part I personally like best: when the PCs enter a hex with a token or tokens, they get to have a monster encounter. At this point one of the 15 monster encounters can be randomly assigned to that token. In other words, every monster encounter is as much a surprise for you as it is for your players. If the players prevail, that encounter is marked off the list and the token is removed.

Once the players have wrecked havoc,  you have a very tangible and tactile way to restock the dungeon: place new tokens according to the way the dungeon currently looks. New factions can suddenly make their move to gain territory or one faction can bolster their territory as they have been left unscathed by the activity of your PCs. Or whatever.

While this may seem to be a bit of a headache at the table, I don't believe it to be overly complicated and it incentivizes wandering monster checks, something I know I am guilty of not doing enough (partly because nothing happens most of the time). Using this idea, something happens most of the time, even if the PCs are unawares.

What really attracts me to this idea, however, is the level of danger that gets placed on every wandering monster check. Not only could a monster get spawned from the WMT, but one of the regular monster encounters of the dungeon could come investigating the noise being made by the fighter trying to open that locked door.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

On Elves and Angels

In a post I made last week about the fey, a commenter mentioned a story about angels. According to the story, there are three types of angels:

  1. Normal angels whose job is to be a protector (exemplified my the Archangel Michael) and a messenger (exemplified by the Archangel Gabriel).
  2. Fallen angels who rebelled against God, also known as demons.
  3. Followers of Azazel who didn’t openly rebel against God, but stopped doing their job:

And it came to pass when the children of men had multiplied that in those days were born unto them beautiful and comely daughters. And the angels, the children of the heaven, saw and lusted after them, and said to one another: 'Come, let us choose us wives from among the children of men and beget us children.' — Enoch 6:1-3
It is the last group that was of interest, because these angels could be a stand-in for all kinds of things in an FRPG. One of the more intriguing possibilities is that these “neutral” angels and their offspring become what we know as elves.
And all the others together with them took unto themselves wives, and each chose for himself one, and they began to go in unto them and to defile themselves with them, and they taught them charms and enchantments, and the cutting of roots, and made them acquainted with plants. — Enoch 7:1
Note, that this story comes from the Book of Enoch, a Jewish work from sometime around 300-100 B.C. which is not accepted as part of the Canon of Scripture by the vast majority of Jews and Christians. For my part, I think this largely has to do with the depiction of the angels, who have come to be understood as being bodiless powers. While the Nephilim are mentioned in passing a couple of times in the bible and seem to corroborate what is spoken of in detail in the Book of Enoch, the word “Nephilim” is not something that can either be easily translated or understood. The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT from around 300 B.C.) translated the word as “giant” not angel or demon.

Since the angels are bodiless, they can’t really be going around having children; however, I haven’t been able to get the idea of elves-as-neutral-angels out of my head for the last several days. What would a bodiless power stripped of their powers look like?

And Enoch went and said: 'Azazel, thou shalt have no peace: a severe sentence has gone forth against thee to put thee in bonds: And thou shalt not have toleration nor request granted to thee, because of the unrighteousness which thou hast taught, and because of all the works of godlessness and unrighteousness and sin which thou hast shown to men.' Then I went and spoke to them all together, and they were all afraid, and fear and trembling seized them. And they besought me to draw up a petition for them that they might find forgiveness, and to read their petition in the presence of the Lord of heaven. For from thenceforward they could not speak (with Him) nor lift up their eyes to heaven for shame of their sins for which they had been condemned. — Enoch 13:1-6

In other words, they are cut off from heaven and cannot communicate with heaven, nor will any of their prayers be heard; however, they are condemned to be bound to earth until all their children kill each other, aka the Day of Judgment.

This leads to a very interesting proposition, especially given a world in which monsters are sin personified: what if the bodiless powers bound to earth (fallen and “neutral” angels) could enter into the bodies of those willing to house them? This would explain several very characteristic attributes of elves: the fact that they are long-lived, the fact that they seem not to really have much interest in the world of men, the fact that they are not affected by a ghoul’s touch and the fact that they were the only race in OD&D and Basic D&D that could “multi-class.”

In other words, all elves are dual personalities: the person who makes the deal with the “neutral” angel and the bodiless power themselves. This relationship cuts the person off from divine intervention but grants arcane power coupled with fighting prowess. Orcs could still be seen as twisted versions of elves, except that the person making the deal is likely cheated from having any say in how their body is being used.

This also puts a new spin on half-elves and half-orcs. These no longer need to be the children of a human and an elf/orc (and the strongly implied rape in the latter pairing). Rather, these are people from those communities that refuse to be possessed by a bodiless power.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Gamer ADD: A Map of the Haunted Keep

Haunted Keep Background

In the ancient days when the Shorsai Forest was part of great expanse of woods that made up the Forest Kingdoms, an elven queen of great renknown by the name of Mabh died a tragic death. With great pomp, she was entombed in a burial mound with some of her most prized possessions.

As the ages passed, the Great Forest receded and Shorsai Forest became part of the Wilderness. The legend of Queen Mabh passed into distant memory. With the coming of man came a desire to tame the Wilderness. The first settlers of the area built a keep upon a rise within a clearing in the middle of the Shorsai Forest. Little did they know that they were building on the burial mound of the long forgotten Queen Mabh.

For many years, the keep served its purpose well by keeping the forces of Chaos at bay. Save for strange dreams that sometimes haunted the inhabitants, the keep began to thrive. Things changed, however, when the keep was expanded. Rumors warned of a gathering army of humanoids to the north. Therefore, a tower was built to help protect the keep in case of a siege. Due to the movements of time and earth, one of the prized possessions of Queen Mabh had been displaced to the ground where the tower was built and the short sword Dawnbringer fell into the hands of men.

This greatly angered the spirit of Queen Mabh and she reached far and wide to find her brethren to take revenge on those who had stolen her prized sword. With dreams she pleaded with elven heroes to find the Siege Seed to destroy the keep’s walls and to kill every one inside.

Finally, an elf by the name of Ionhar answered the call and completed the task to find the Siege Seed. Raising an army he drove north out of the Forest Kingdoms and laid siege on the keep. While the bulk of Ionhar’s forces attacked the keep’s tower, a small force snuck behind to bury the Siege Seed at the base of the keep’s northwestern wall. A great tree sprang forth from the earth, tearing a huge hole the the keep’s defenses.

Before the elves could overrun the keep, however, the humans retreated to the tower, where they were able to seal its only entrance with a great stone. Unable to bypass the tower’s defenses, the elven offensive ground to a halt.

Enraged at the failure of the elven forces, the spirit of Queen Mabh turned to necromancy. She cast a spell that doomed her soul to undeath and enveloped the entire keep in a life-draining green flame. Elf and human alike were consumed. No-one has seen the Dawnbringer since that fateful day.

Since then, the keep lay in ruin and came to be known as the Haunted Keep due to the strange green glow that could sometimes be seen at night coming from the ruins. Whether the glow comes from Queen Mabh herself, the ghosts of the armies that once fought over the keep or if it is merely the trickery of the fey that have since come to make the Shorsai their home no one knows.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Gamer ADD: A Ghast at the Possibilities

As far as I am concerned, the mark of a really good monster folio are those little phrases that allow you to completely rethink another type of monster. As an example, the idea that hobgoblins hang out with carnivorous apes according to the MMI gives me permission to do this.

I took advantage of the Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day sale by Frog God Games and picked up Tome of Horrors 4 because, as I said yesterday, Tome of Horrors Complete is one of my all time favorite collections of monsters. The fourth installment of the series is less immediately useful because it errs towards the high to really high level spectrum of adventuring (there are more creatures with a CL18 than either CL A to 1 or CL 2 and there are over 30 creatures with a CL of 20+) and I do not care for the fact that all the illustrations are in color, but it does qualify as a really good creature catalogue because of a little blurb under the listing of the Banshee Queen:
Any male slain by a banshee queen’s magic rises to become a ghast in 1d4 rounds.
I have to be honest, I have never really used ghasts in my adventures. Once you get beyond the point where ghouls get used as the go-to-undead, there are so many more evocative creatures in the catalogue of undead than a beefed up ghoul. Why dip into that well again?

Given the fact that fey are playing a large role in my most recent case of Gamer ADD, I was attracted to the idea of a queen banshee, given that it is an undead fey. When confronted with the idea that the source of ghasts may very well be a queen banshee, I had to take another hard look at the ghast:
Ghasts are highly intelligent ghouls. Their charnel stench is so powerful that anyone nearby (about 10ft) must make a saving throw or suffer a –2 penalty on attack rolls.
Note that phrase “highly intelligent.” This is no mindless zombie hanging out in grave yards digging around for scraps. A ghast has the potential to be a master-mind, a main villain, the mover and shaker behind the scenes that pulls the strings of an entire campaign. Given the fact that ghasts reek to the point that anyone in the immediate vicinity is going to be sick, they would have to use subordinates and agents to do their bidding.

This begs the question: what would a highly intelligent undead that couldn’t walk around civilized society want out of undeath? I could easily imagine an undead version of Hannibal Lecter waxing poetic about the various gastronomical possibilities of elves versus humans, but what if a paladin or a cleric found themselves trapped in their own stinking corpse plagued by an insatiable hunger for human flesh? That phrase “highly intelligent” does not translate immediately into “slave of the banshee queen” or even “willing servant of the banshee queen.”

Imagine, for a moment, a former paladin who seeks to use his new lot in un-life to do what good he can, given the fact that he is a rotting corpse who needs to eat people. The idea of a cloaked and masked avenger wandering the streets at night putting fear in hearts of the criminal element has never so haunting, because he would be literally eating them.

Or imagine a someone unwillingly turned into a ghast who then spends his entire un-death trying to take revenge on those he thinks responsible: elves.

Or imagine a ghast pouring over necromantic tomes in a desperate quest to move up the ranks of undeath, so to speak.

I think I am going to have to include ghasts far more often in my campaigns, because the possibilities are endless…

Monday, May 8, 2017

Gamer ADD: In Need of Some Fey

In the wake of receiving the Swords & Wizardry Legion Packet, I have been hit pretty hard with Gamer ADD, so much so that I have persisted in trying to put together campaign ideas for the map provided with the SWLP despite the fact that the last couple of weeks have been brutally busy for yours truly.

Besides the issue of scale, the first issue I had to deal with was choosing which part of the map to focus on to build a campaign around. In my experience, an area of 4x6 five to seven-mile hexes is plenty to run a goodly amount of a campaign with. I decided to focus in on the village of Darnagal because of its proximity to several different evocative features on the map:

  • Shorsai Forest (which just screams fey to me)
  • Isle of the Blessed Serpent (which is a mid-high level adventure waiting to happen)
  • The Haunted Keep (which sounds like a great excuse to make the top levels of a mega-dungeon)
  • The Sacred Glade (which just solidifies the idea that fey are going to play a big role in the campaign)

In addition, The Great Salt Marsh and the Ruins of Varagost, though outside the 4x6 hex area I will originally focus on are close enough to suggest a high-level adventure area for later in the campaign once players start to get the itch to explore far and wide.

When I start a campaign, I generally like to make a few rules for myself so that I keep things focused and by delineating limits on what I will allow myself to do, I tend to be more creative with what little I am left with. Since this is campaign is inspired by S&W and Frog God Games, I decided to limit myself to the Tome of Horrors Complete, one of my favorite monster collections of all time. In terms of sheer inspiration (there are many campaigns I would run out that book if I could) I rate second only to the Fiend Folio and that is primarily because the Tome converts and updates a lot of the material in the FF to the OGL.

Since the area I have chosen evokes the fey so strongly, I decided to go through the Tome and collect data on all the various creatures therein that could arguably be called fey. Two things struck me:

  • The vast majority of fey creatures are neutral.
  • There was a pattern of powers that was reasonably consistent.

This gives rise to two thoughts:

  • The fey are not going to be either the protagonists or the antagonists of this campaign. The main difference between seelie and unseelie fey is whether or not they are willing to cooperate with humans. Regardless, their main goal is to protect their own. If a party is killed off by fey, it is because they did something to threaten the fey domain; however, the party could potentially go through an entire campaign without one real whiff of a fey presence as long as the fey interest is protected.
  • I am not a big fan of the way D&D and its clones categorize and portray the fey. By having both brownies and buckawn (which are described as being related to brownies) there is a strong implication that these two populations are separate entities, even if they are related. When I think of fey, I think of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream where the fey kingdom is portrayed as being a hodgepodge of all kinds of fey creatures. Since all of the various fey in the Tome of Horrors are quite similar in power and scope, I decided to boil them all down to a single monster entry.

Arthur Rackham's The Meeting of Oberon and Titania

Shorsai Fey
HD 1d6
AC 3[16]
Attack Weapon (1d3)
Save 16
Move 12 (+special, see below)
CL/XP 2/30
Special: see below

Shorsai Fey come in a wide variety, but all have the following abilities:

  • Magic Resistance 25%
  • Invisibility (self) at will
  • Detect Good/Evil at will
  • Illusion Magic (choose one of the following: Confusion, Mirror Image or Phantasmal Force) once per day
  • Light/Darkness once per day
  • ESP once per day
  • Poison Use (Seelie use White Moonberry Poison which induces sleep on a failed save while Unseelie like to use purple Moonberry Poison which does 1d8 damage on a failed save)
  • Each individual Shorsai Fey will have a special move that they can do in their favored environment which allows them a Move of 24. For example, a water fey would have a move of 24 in a river while a wood fey would have a move of 24 in forested areas.

To reiterate: these fey are what I like to call background noise. They will react to events in the world and may prove boon or bane to a party depending upon whether or not their activities are seen as a threat.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Question of Scale

In my last post, in which I gushed over the Swords & Wizardry Legion Pack (SWLP), I nitpicked about the scale of the map provided on the back of the folder that comes with the pack. I still maintain that 50 miles per hex is WAY too big, especially if this packet is intended for use as an introduction to FRPGs. Now, as an experienced Referee, I might want to erase all the villages and towns and then focus in on one 50 mile hex to make it my own, but such an exercise makes the map provided rather useless.

While still in full-on Gamer ADD mode because of this gorgeous little package, I stumbled across this map via the internet:

This, I believe, comes from the Necromancer Games adventure Shades of Gray designed for 3e. Note two things:

  1. It depicts part of the map provided with the SWLP.
  2. According to the scale of this map the distance between Darnagal and Potter's Field is about 50 miles.
According to the map provided with SWLP, the distance between these two towns/villages is around 6 hexes or 300 miles. That translates into travel times of just less than a week on the older map to a travel time of over a month on the SWLP map.

To put this in context, I looked up my old stomping ground on Google Maps and planned a trip from the Boston Convention Center in downtown Boston to Fenway Park. This morning, the fastest route was 7.7 miles. If we did to Boston what Frog God Games has done to their world, that distance would now be 46.2 miles. A trip of about 17 minutes is ballooned to a trip of over an hour. At that distance, the Boston Red Sox really aren't in Boston anymore.

I have no issue with Frog God Games trying to make their world much bigger than what it has been is the past, but not only does it make the map provided in the SWLP useless, it also radically changes the material previously provided by Necromancer Games and Frog God Games. If I ever wanted to run Shades of Gray, for example, I would either have to ditch the map from the SWLP or re-write significant portions of the adventure to fit the new scale.

Or, as I mentioned in my previous post, I can just drop the '0' from the '50' and use the map as it was originally designed.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Swords & Wizardry Legion

I got a very special surprise in the mail today. Michael Badolato was kind enough to send me the Swords & Wizardry Legion packet and it is Awesome! This thing is gorgeous and it makes me wish I were 9 years old again so that this could have been my first introduction to roleplaying. It is simple, elegant and just gorgeous to look at. You get two cards for each character class that has everything you need to know on them. It has two copies of S&W Light. It even has a small pad of graph paper. As a big fan of cartography, my favorite part is the map of The Gulf of Akados Region from Frog God Games' Lost Lands on the back of the folder. My Gamer ADD is in overdrive. This little packet is a goldmine of inspiration. Kudos to everyone involved!

I do, however, have one small complaint. Again, as a big fan of cartography, I take huge issue with the scale of the map of The Gulf of Akados Region. It declares that each hex is 50 miles! My first Lost Colonies campaign, which lasted about 3 years, took place largely in one 50 mile hex. This scale is grossly out of proportion.

To give some sense of context, the Gulf of Akados, which takes up about a third of the map, is larger than the Mediterranean Sea. Almost half again bigger. There are several Ruins on this map, giving potential Referees all kinds of opportunity to create dungeons and adventures of their own. Unfortunately, due to the scale of the map most of these ruins are between 150-200 miles away from the nearest town or village noted on the map. Swords & Wizardry movement rules state that a character can hike their base move in miles per day. Given the average burden of a typical 1st level character, that base move is most likely going to be 9. At nine miles per day, a party of adventurers would have to travel between 17 and 23 days in order to get to the ruins marked on this map.

In other words, as is, the map is useless. Fortunately, it is rather easy to erase that ‘0’ after the ‘5’ and reduce the travel time to 2 days and the size of the Gulf of Akados to about half the size of Lake Superior.

Other than that “typo” this is an incredibly cool little package.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day (Light Edition)

Recently, my eldest has shown interest in running an RPG game. Therefore, I pulled out Erik Tenkar's Swords & Wizardry Light and handed it over because at 4 pages it is a brilliant way to allow a new Referee the ability to get a real handle on all of the rules. After this, we decided on a campaign concept and we put together the following document together. She has successfully run two sessions so far and it has been a lot of fun. Therefore we thought we would share.

White Guard Mini-Campaign

For Swords & Wizardry Light

The file can be found here. Please note, this really hasn't been edited so if you happen to find anything that needs to be fixed I would greatly appreciate if you let me know in the comments. Thanks.

The concept follows the Magic School trope of fantasy literature and allows for PCs to go to magic school and graduate once they get past 3rd level.


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Christ is Risen!

No one need fear death; the Savior's death has freed us from it. While its captive He stifled it. He despoiled Hades as He descended into it; it was angered when it tasted His flesh. Foreseeing this, Isaiah proclaimed: "Hades," he said, "was angered when he met You below." It was angered because it was abolished. It was angered because it was mocked. It was angered because it was slain. It was angered because it was shackled. It received a body and encountered God. It took earth and came face to face with heaven. It took what it saw and fell by what it could not see. Death, where is your sting? Hades, where is your victory? Christ is risen and you are overthrown. — Paschal Homily of St. John Chrsysostom

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Random Map

Talysman over at The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms has been meditating on random maps. His most recent post posited a leximorphic method that quite intrigued me. So, in a fit of Gamer ADD, I grabbed my favorite set of RPG random tables, The Tome of Adventure Design, and set about trying Talysman's method.

The Sunken Halls of the Ape Brotherhood

The name of the dungeon rolled up as The Sunken Halls of the Ape Brotherhood. This suggested several things:
  1. There would be a number large halls in the dungeon.
  2. The dungeon would be partially submerged under water.
  3. The letters that suggested themselves for the leximorphic approach were A, P and E.
I decided that each letter area would have its own feel and feature:
  • The 'A' area is highly finished with tile ceilings, floors and walls. Its main feature is The Screaming Temple.
  • The 'P' area is rough hewn from rock. Its main feature is The Bizarre Ice Gateway.
  • The 'E' area is precisely excavated with smooth walls, floors and ceilings. Its main feature is The Lesser Throne of the Golem, which has already been looted of its valuables.
Here is the result of further randomness:

The dark blue indicates an area submerged in water. The darker the color, the deeper the water. The light blue areas indicate ice. The darker the color, the thinner the ice.

The Lesser Throne of the Golem is located in the left-most columned hall.
The Screaming Temple is the odd-shaped room with the square dais and statues.
The Bizarre Ice Gateway is the double doors in the right-most columned hall.

I'll leave the rest to you...

Monday, March 20, 2017

Happy St. Cuthbert's Day

It has been a rough 2017 for me and mine. Someone in the house has been sick continuously since January, thus I have not been a position to do a lot of stuff here. However, on this auspicious day for those of us who love this hobby, I'd like to give a bit of an update on some of things that have slowly but surely been taking shape:

  1. I've been piecing together a version of Moldvay's Basic as it might have looked with only MMII monsters available plus a few ideas thrown in for fun.
  2. More slowly is the adventure that would come with the MMII Basic. I am toying with idea of having them in one volume rather than two, but that depends on how motivated I get in terms of finishing the adventure.
  3. My oldest has been keen on trying her hand at being a Referee. I figure that Swords & Wizardry Light would be a great little system to cut her teeth on and we have been working on a mini-campaign that would cover levels 1-3. She and her friends are big fans of the school of magic trope in fantasy literature and S&WL has lent itself quite nicely to the concept. I am planning on compiling our ideas into a nice 16 page 5.5" x 8.5" booklet.
Hopefully these will be done and shared sooner rather than later, and that by publicly announcing them I will be even more motivated to get them finished.

May the intercessions of St. Cuthbert bring blessings to us all.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Killer Wabbits!

Yet of those that chew the cud or have the hoof cloven you shall not eat these: The camel, the hare, and the rock badger, because they chew the cud but do not part the hoof, are unclean for you. — Deuteronomy 14:7

Recently, this blog post about killer medieval rabbits was pointed out to me and Gamer ADD immediately kicked in. I wanted a PC class for this ASAP:

When I did a little on-line research, I found out there is, in fact, a 5e character race called Rabbitfolk. Unfortunately, they look like they just walked out of Wonderland (art by Tony DiTerlizzi):

All he is missing is a watch

I am after a race that looks like a humanoid version of General Woundwort from Watership Down:

As such, I decided to start from scratch and came up with the following race-as-class for Labyrinth Lord:


Requirements: CON 9
Prime Requisite: STR
Hit Dice: d6
Maximum Level: 14

Hyraxes* are a humanoid race that resemble man-sized, bipedal rabbits. Fierce warriors, xenophobic and highly territorial, they guard their wilderness domains with a level of violence most humans find shocking. Though their numbers are small, there are some hyraxes that do see value in cooperating with other races; however, they often find themselves ostracized from their own community and forced to become adventurers. This is the most common background of a hyrax PC.

Hyraxes are osteoderms, having a layer of bony scales beneath their thick hides. As a consequence, their base AC is 5 and any damage die from a non-magical attack is reduced by 1 (attacks from creatures with 5HD or more are considered to be magical for this purpose). This protection increases at higher levels. At 7th level their base AC is 3 and damage dice are reduced by 2. At 13th level their base AC is 1 and damage dice are reduced by 3. These bonuses may stack with magic and magic items (such as a Ring of Protection), but not armor (even magical armor). As a consequence, hyraxes never wear armor.

The base move for a Hyrax is 90’; however, they have the ability to jump 10’ either vertically or horizontally.

As protectors of their wilderness domains, hyraxes are excellent at identifying plants and animals on a roll of 1-3 on a d6. They also get a +2 to all reaction rolls with normal animals. In addition, they may take animals as henchmen.

Hyraxes fight and save as fighters, can use any weapon and may use shields (though some might find doing so a sign of cowardice). They speak their own dialect of Common.
Level…XP Requirement
*I realize that a hyrax is a real animal that is more closely related to the elephant than a rabbit, but not only does the name sound cool, but it is sometimes used in Scripture to mean coney.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Running a Sandbox Campaign: Explain Everything

Recently, the current campaign I am running achieved that quintessential D&D moment where every one is standing around the table, all eyes on a single die desperately trying to exert what little control they have on a situation they have no control over and waiting for that single die to drop revealing success or failure, life or death and the subsequent screams of joy or anguish.

Such moments don’t happen often, at least in my own experience and it got me thinking about what is necessary for such moments to occur. The underlying idea, to me, seems to be a simple axiom that I try to use as often as I can when playing the role of Referee: Explain Everything.

Now, by “Explain Everything” I do not mean telling the players that there is a giant trap door in the middle of the room they are about go in. Rather, I mean, explain to the players everything that they could reasonably know, then explain to them how I understand what they want their characters to do, especially if there are consequences for the various choices that they make and then explain to them exactly what each die roll actually means.

For example, in the campaign the players decided to ambush an ogre who had enslaved a neanderthal village. Next to his ad hoc throne was a cage full of children. When the characters came out of hiding to attack him, he grabbed one of the children and threatened to kill it should they continue their assault.

At this point I laid out the options of what could happen should the ogre win initiative, they win initiate, etc. and then asked each player what they wanted to do. Thus, that initiative roll had a meaning well beyond just determining who got to go first.

When the players decided to attack anyway, I explained each attack and their consequences: you need to roll ‘x’ in order to hit. If you hit, this is how much damage you could do. The ogre needs ‘x’ in order to make the saving throw. If he makes it, he will take ‘x’ amount of damage, etc.

Thus, as the situation builds, everyone knows exactly what every action and die roll means. Thus, when the last person takes their action and their success or failure means the life or death of an NPC, PC, etc. everyone is not only paying attention, but they know exactly which outcome means success or failure. Thus, when that die is cast and the number is revealed, everyone at the table is able to instantly know whether their hopes are dashed or wildly fulfilled.

I realize that there are times when keeping this kind of information hidden from the players can also bring its own kind of satisfaction, and I often use it in situations where PCs wouldn’t know certain kinds of information; however, I have found that this kind pleasure pails in comparison to the kind of wild celebrations or anguished screams of despair that result from pulling back the curtain to let players know exactly what they need in order to succeed or fail.

Imagine for a moment rolling a die. Which roll are you going to be more invested in: the one where you know that you need to roll high and then have to wait for a Referee’s adjudication or the roll where you know that you need a ’17’ to succeed? I dare say the experience of rolling the latter is far more palpably exciting/excruciating than the former.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Running a Sandbox Campaign: Why a Random Event Isn't Random

By its very nature, a sandbox campaign has a lot of randomness. For me, this is one of its charms. Not only do I get to be surprised as a Referee by what happens in the world, but I am challenged every time I allow a random table to determine what happens next. One of the key principles that I adhere to when running a sandbox campaign is that nothing is random despite my wide and varied use of random tables and events.

This may sound like a contradiction (or a statement of faith) but it actually isn’t. Though the origin of an event or an encounter or a treasure might be a random result, its actual existence in the world must have a rational explanation. In other words, I am always asking the question ‘Why?’ Why are there lizardmen in this part of the jungle? Why is there a dragon here when before there wasn’t? Why are neanderthals exploring a lost temple that never belonged to them?

By continuously asking the question ‘Why?’ I am forcing myself to accept the un-randomness of random events and seeing these things not as something that a die-roll told me, but as part of the larger story and framework of my campaign world.

This is why, in my prepping for a sandbox campaign, I use broad strokes and various nebulous factions and background noise: they all give me a framework in which to fill in details with my questions of ‘Why?’

For example: as I mentioned in my last post, a die roll led to the adventure seed of a portal suddenly showing up in Akhmed’s house when he rolled a ‘6’ on a d6. After such a long time, why wasn’t his house done? Something catastrophic must have happened. What event in the campaign world could have caused this? The players had just recently travelled to a major Illithid city where they managed to wreck havoc and shatter a giant machine which let them dial in various portals to various worlds. This, then, could result in various rips in time and space around my Lost Colonies map. Why not in Akhmed’s house?

This places what was a silly random event into a much larger story arc that affects the entire campaign world. Should players start exploring this rip in time and space, various hints and clues could then allow them to figure out that the origin of this rip was, in fact, there own doing. Unfortunately, that never happened with the players in question, but I do have a solid background for why this portal exists in the first place.

It also opens up a framework from which I can start explaining the un-randmoness of other random events in my campaign. Various factions in my Lost Colonies campaign are aware of these rips in time and space. Each has had a different reaction to them. As a consequence, I can start explaining the existence of certain random encounters as consequences of these factions interacting with portals. Again, this ties everything together and leads players to gain more information about this major event in the campaign world and all of its consequences.

Thus, random events actually make my sandbox campaigns better, because I am forced to ask a series of questions which seek to understand exactly why a random event isn’t random.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Running a Sandbox Campaign: Player Expectation

A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts about Prepping a Sandbox Campaign. I have also mentioned that I am currently running a 5e campaign ostensibly set in my Lost Colonies campaign world; however, due to the various choices by the players, the bulk of the campaign is actually taking place on a brand new map that I have never run before. The experience has reminded me of some of the fundamental assumptions that I make when running a sandbox campaign and I thought I’d write some of these down and share them.

Player Expectation

As you may have noted in my series on Prepping a Sandbox Campaign, I don’t do a whole lot of detail. Most of the things I prepare are broad brush strokes so that I have enough information that I can wing it if necessary, but not so much that I have wasted a whole bunch of time on something my players have no interest in. This gives me a lot of freedom to shape the campaign to fit my players.

This reality and point of view became very important when I started my most recent campaign. My players are all young and have little or no experience with pencil & paper RPGs. If I imposed a bunch of my own expectations for how this campaign was going to be, I wasn’t likely to succeed in showing my players just how cool RPGs can be.

Therefore, I carefully listened to them when we created characters. I made sure I had an idea of what each person expected their characters to able to do. Some of these are far-off goals for when their characters are much higher level. As a consequence, I knew that some of these expectations were not going to be fulfilled in the short-term; however, I could tease them so that they knew that what they wanted was possible in the long run. Listening to my players and their expectations don’t stop at character creation, though.

One of the adventure locations that I had in place for my new campaign was Akhmed’s old house. For those who don’t know, Akhmed was a long-time PC in my last Lost Colonies campaign who played a central role in developing several key characteristics of the world: Bane Weapons, Lithic Elves and the fact that dwarves are neither male nor female.

At one point during the campaign, Akhmed had hired some Bronze Dwarves to build him an underground home in Headwaters. It was my standard practice to have long-term projects like this take one or more sessions. When a players asked, I would have them roll a d6. On a ‘1’ the project was finished. Each time a player rolled (each session that went by) I would subtract one or more from the roll (depending on the scale of the project). Akhmed had been rolling for several weeks on his project, but never seeing the end. When it was time for the project to be finished, I had him roll and it came out a ‘6.’ On a whim, I informed him that the dwarves had found something that scared them and they boarded up the house and refused to work anymore. It was an adventure seed, because it gave me the ability to place a rip it time and space in his almost completed home that could potentially be something the party explored. For a variety of reasons, that seed never played out in my last campaign. In this campaign, however, it has been the center of my player’s attention.

When I first conceived of the idea of a portal, I had in mind the Portals of Torsh by Rudy Kraft and published by Judges Guild. I had taken part of the provided map, and hashed out some of the broader ideas in much the same way I did in my series on Prepping a Sandbox Campaign. It didn’t go much farther than that, even when my players started poking around (literally).

When my players discovered the portal, I described that it looked like the Aurora Borealis. I also described that it changed color, doing so to let my players know that times was passing as they argued with each other about what to do next. The color change, however, caught their imaginations. They started poking the phenomena. So, I went with it and had the thing change color any time it was poked.

As the campaign progressed, the players started hypothesizing that each color represented a different destination. Since I wasn’t married to the idea that the portal led only to one place, I decided to go with it and began making up different end-points for each color. The players then decided to see if they could get more colors by poking more at the thing. I indulged the idea, and began rolling dice to see if they would get any other result. The dice said yes, and the number of colors and destinations went from one to three to five. Subsequently, this portal to many places has become a key factor in aiding the party on the quest they have all decided to undertake. In other words, I allowed their expectations for my campaign world to shape the world and the campaign itself.

One could quibble with how I allowed player expectation to enter into the game, but I believe it is important for two reasons:

  1. It subtly invests the players in the campaign world and can give a sense of accomplishment even in the face of failure. Even if the party is driven away by a superior force of monsters, the object/place is out of reach, there is no treasure or a character dies, the players can still walk away knowing that their hypothesis was at least partially correct. Such success invites the players to make further guesses at how the world works and what is in it. When such guesses start to be at least partially correct more often than not, it encourages further exploration and further guesses. The players begin to talk about the game outside the game and the campaign begins to have a life of its own.
  2. It provides a certain amount of surprise for me. One of the things I love most about a sandbox style of campaign is that it provides me with the unexpected. I never know which direction my players are going to go or what puzzle they become determined to solve or how they are going to go about doing just about anything. If I also allow player expectations to color how I respond to such choices, it forces me to be surprised by my own world. For example, I never expected the portal to go anywhere but to a lost temple on another world. I never expected it to be a key locale in a strategy to imprison an ancient dragon. Such are the wonders of allowing player expectation to color a campaign.

I would argue that the sandbox campaign is uniquely able to accomplish fulfilling player expectation because by its very nature it must be flexible and flexibility is key in allowing player expectation to shape a campaign.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Meditating on Vancian Magic

The tomes which held Turjan’s sorcery lay on the long table of black steel or were thrust helter-skelter into shelves. These were volumes compiled by many wizards of the past, untidy folios collected by the Sage, leather-bound librams setting forth the syllables of a hundred powerful spells, so cogent that Turjan’s brain could know but four at a time.

Turjan found a musty portfolio, turned the heavy pages to the spell the Sage had shown him, the Call to the Violent Cloud. He stared down at the characters and they burned with an urgent power, pressing off the page as if frantic to leave the dark solitude of the book.

Turjan closed the book, forcing the spell back into oblivion. He robed himself with a short cape, tucked a blade into his belt, fitted the amulet holding Laccodel’s Rune to his wrist. Then he sat down and from a journal chose the spells he would take with him. What dangers he might meet he could not know, so he selected three spells of general application: the Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandal’s Mantle of Stealth, and the Spell of the Slow Hour.

— Turjan of Miir, Jack Vance

I have always really liked the idea of Vancian magic, but have never been sold on how D&D handles it. Don’t get me wrong, from a purely mechanical point of view, D&D does a good job of simulating the way Jack Vance describes how Turian of Miir uses magic. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the feel. If someone had never read Jack Vance and had no idea of how he describes the spell as an almost living thing that frantically tries to leap off the page of a spell book, there is nothing in D&D that shows players that this is what the mechanic of memorizing spells is supposed to represent.

My other issue with spell casters in D&D is that I am someone who much prefers the utility spell over the combat spell; however, D&D almost dictates that a magic-user will always take Sleep over Read Languages. On an average dungeon delve, a player can almost be guaranteed to be able to use a combat spell, but that utility spell may or may not ever be useful. I find this boring, in a way.

To be honest, when I play a spell caster, it is almost always a cleric or a bard because I can get away with having utility spells more often because these classes can pull their weight in a fight sans spells. I have only ever played a straight-up magic-user once and a straight-up illusionist once. I much preferred the latter experience because of the sheer frustration about having spells like Enlarge in my spell book and having really good ways to use it, but having to go through the whole “I gotta rest, re-memorize spells and come back tomorrow” only to have the party try some other way to solve the problem. At least with the Illusionist, the very nature of illusion magic requires creativity and problem solving skills with every spell cast. I found it much more satisfying to take out a pack of gnolls with Phantasmal Force by “moving” a pit and getting them to fall in than I ever was shooting lightning bolts or fire balls.

When I got into the nitty-gritty of the classes in 5e, I really got excited bout the potential of the the Warlock as a utility/problem solving kind of spell caster. They have enough combat punch with Eldritch Blast to justify using utility spells. Couple that with the Pact Boon Book of Shadows and the ability to learn some Cantrips off any spell list and the potential to collect and use ritual spells from any spell list and you’ve got a spell caster I’d love to try and play some day.

Unfortunately, whereas the Warlock does a good job of making utility spells justifiable and does a good job of making magic feel dangerous, it largely abandons the Vancian model of magic. Therefore, in terms of trying to make a BX magic-user class that does Vancian magic “right,” the Warlock is inspirational, but not exactly what I am looking for.

I recently managed to get my hands on a second edition copy of Runequest. I have always wanted to love Runequest, but my experience of it was always tainted by the Avalon Hill edition, which is just badly written. I could never get my head around that magic system. The second edition, though, is a transitional version that bridges its OD&D roots and the Chaosium BRP system it would become. Here is a version of Runequest I finally get and its magic system is something I finally understand. Unfortunately, it, too, turns away from the Vancian model; however, it presents with a mechanic that makes magic feel really dangerous and could be coupled with a Vancian model. Certain types of spell casters capture spirits and bind them into items in order to help them cast spells. The danger is in the combat to capture the spirit: if the spirit wins, the caster is possessed and the PC becomes an NPC.

This got me thinking about how to incorporate this level of danger into a magic-user class while maintaining a Vancian model and allowing players fuller access to the utility spells that litter the spell lists. Normally, the limiting factors of spell use in FRPGs are one or more of the following:

  • memorization
  • number of spells known
  • power/mana points
  • class level

Of these, the only one that is expressly Vancian is memorization. Therefore, if I am to move towards a magic user that satisfies my desires for an arcane spell caster like the Warlock does but remain true to the idea of Vancian magic, there needs to be a different limiting factor than one presented.

If one assumes that arcane spells are more of a living thing — a kind of semi-sentient energy being — and that spell books and arcane magic are a way of coaxing these beings to do what a spell caster wants, then there is a limiting factor available that is already suggested by the game: money.

The idea here is similar to the way scrolls work: the magic-user spends gold and time on getting the materials necessary to have a spell “in waiting” ready to cast without having to memorize it. Normally, this is relatively expensive (100gp and a day per spell level, for example) and, with some exceptions like Holmes, not an option for 1st level characters.

My thinking here is to couple the gold/time with spells known (as per INT in Holmes) as the primary limiting factor for magic-users. If they would be allowed to bind spells to disposable objects (like runes) for a relatively low price, then they could go into an adventure stocked up with all manner of spells. It would also incentivize adventuring as a primary occupation of magic-users. Right now, I am positing 10gp and about an hour for a 1st level spell. This cost would go up exponentially with spell levels, adding a zero for each level.Thus, a 6th level spell would require 1,000,000 gp worth of materials to bind.

There would also be an option for binding spells permanently to a magic-user. It would work like this: make a saving throw vs. magic and add the magic-user’s CHA bonus and subtract the spell level. If successful, the spell can be cast at-will by the magic-user. Failure, however, means that the magic-user has been possessed by the spell itself and is now a Chaotic spell-casting monster that will be hunted down and killed by Civilization.

The risk involved in binding spells this way could be mitigated by having other magic-users aid in the binding: they get to add their CHA bonuses to the roll. This, then, places a kind of cultural limiting factor on the practice. Whereas a Wizard’s Guild would have little issue binding a Detect Magic spell to a fellow magic-user, they might have something to say about a magic-user who was interested in binding a Lightning Bolt spell. This also implies that there would be magic-users out there that would seek alternative ways to mitigate these bindings in order to gain power. The whole idea of a magic-user just got a whole lot more dangerous: imagine an adventure hook where the Wizard’s Guild has put a bounty on the head of that magic-user who successfully bound his Lightning Bolt spell…

This way, I get my Warlock (bound utility spells) and my Vancian magic (prepared “burn” spells) all in the same class. Thoughts?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Sorcerer Class for BX/LL

This is a class I created for BX/LL using the Custom Class rules from the ACKS Player’s Companion (which is one of my top five OSR purchases ever). I don’t have any intention of using it in any of my campaigns, although I do like the idea of the class. Rather, this was created in order to give me a reference point for re-imagining Vancian magic and the mechanics behind a BX/LL magic-user, which will be a later post. The Sorcerer works more as a utility spell caster than a combat spell caster.


Requirements: None
Prime Requisite: CHA
Hit Dice: 1d4
Max Level: 14
Armor Allowed: any; no shields
Weapons Allowed: bows, crossbows, daggers, pole arms, quarterstaff

Sorcerers are natural spell casters who do not memorize spells in the way that magic-users do. Rather, they have a limited number of spells that they can cast with rituals. These rituals take 1 turn and may be used at various intervals depending upon the level of the spell:

  • 1st: at will
  • 2nd: 1/hour
  • 3rd: once per 8 hours
  • 4th: 1/day
  • 5th: 1/week
  • 6th: 1/month

Sorcerers know only a limited number of spells, as shown on the following table:
Level…Spells Known per Spell Level
These spells may be chosen by the player, but once chosen they cannot be changed.
Level Progression
Sorcerers fight and save as Thieves.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Why I Don't Like Most Modern Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Or, Why D&D Rocks

So, my last post generated quite a bit of dialogue, all of which I found really interesting and it got me thinking. I don’t watch a lot of American-made TV shows and I have been to see a movie in a movie theater maybe three times in the last decade and barley remember the last time I either wasn’t disappointed or wanted to go back and see the movie I had just seen again. Part of it is that much of the entertainment business in the U.S. (and the English-speaking world) holds me in contempt for my religious views and that contempt is shoved in my face frequently enough that I don’t readily commit a lot of my entertainment dollar or time to their product.

However, I also think that the entire industry suffers from the very same problem that the show The Magicians does: at its core is a postmodern, post-Christian and post-religious world-view. As long as our story-tellers are dedicated to this view of life, the universe and everything then they are incapable of telling good stories.

Let me explain: as did the ancient Greeks, I categorize every story as either a comedy or a tragedy. In other words, the hero succeeds or the hero fails. Comedy or tragedy alone, however, do not make a good, compelling story because comedy and tragedy are simply about how the hero succeeds or fails, not why. The best heroes and villains are broken. Their journey towards success or failure depends upon why they are able to transcend that brokenness or why they cannot.

For example, one of the best movie trilogies to come out in the last decade or so, as far as I am concerned, is the Kung-fu Panda series. In each movie we are presented with a flawed hero (Po) who is a clumsy, nerdy, out-of-shape orphan who does not know who he is. The trilogy is his journey of overcoming his flaws, his preconceptions and his circumstance to become the Dragon Warrior. The why in all of this has to do with love, sacrifice, humility and the ability to understand that each of us does, in fact, have a role larger than ourselves.

The trilogy also presents us with three flawed villains who are the hero of their own story. Each of them has a reason for their villainy, a reason that is relatable and understandable. Should the audience find themselves in the villain’s shoes, they could easily make the same choices.

At the climax of each movie, Po tells each villain how to win. In each case, their own ego and burning desire for revenge prevent them from seeing the truth about who they are and the victory that is within reach.

At the heart of all of this is a world-view where the divine exists. Po overcomes his shortcomings because there is something greater in the world that he can tap into and be transformed by. The villains all fail because they do not have the humility to see the divine in themselves to be transformed. It is their very insistence on doing everything on their own without the divine that spells their doom.

In a world without the divine, Po cannot transcend his flaws. He is doomed to be a clumsy, nerdy, out-of-shape orphan that has no chance of defeating the villains. Without the transformative force of the divine, Po makes a completely unbelievable hero. If Po is to succeed in a world without the divine, he must simply be bigger, badder and better than the villains he faces. There is no transformation. There is no real why. The hero simply succeeds because that is what heroes do.

For an example of this, look no further than Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. Rey has no flaws. She does not grow. She has no need to transform in order to overcome the challenges and villainy that are placed before her. Before anyone starts complaining that the Force is a type of divinity and she uses the Force in the movie, compare the hero’s journey of Luke Skywalker to Rey. Skywalker was a loser at the beginning of the movie who had to learn about the Force and how to trust in it and allow the Force to flow through him. When he tries to do things on his own, he fails. When he finally internalizes his trust in the Force, he succeeds. Rey never has to do any of that. No one teaches her anything. She just knows. The Force is reduced to being part of why she is bigger, badder and better than the villains she gets to overpower.

There are various ways that post-modern story tellers try to overcome this inherent flaw. They construct these massive mysteries as distractions (who are Rey’s parents? why did Luke run away? what happened to the republic and the empire? who are the First Order? etc.) or make use of cliffhangers or surprises (which character won’t survive this week/this movie?). I won’t deny that these devices can be entertaining; however, once the surprise wears off and the mystery becomes less mysterious there really is no meat or heart to the story.

The timeless stories we tell are timeless because they are transformative. They show us that we can be the hero of our story and that we can be transformed and overcome our own flaws. As a kid who was a loser and a nerd I can totally identify with Po and Luke. I can be like them. I can trust in the divine and through learning about myself and my place in the larger world I can be transformed into something beyond my own expectations and hopes. In contrast, I can’t identify with Rey at all, nor can I ever be like her. She’s a superwoman who can do no wrong. There is no mechanism by which I can be like her.

This is why I love RPGs, especially D&D in all its various iterations. By its very nature, D&D defies a postmodern, post-Christian and post-religious world-view. Not only is the divine assumed because of divine magic and clerics, but every character begins as a loser who must learn to cooperate with others using their own special skills and abilities in order to find out their place in the larger story of the world. The better they get at this, the more they are transformed. They get to go from being 1st level nobodies who are one goblin hit away from being worm food to being 9th level Lords who cleanse the Wilderness of monsters and now protect the land from a stronghold they built.

This is also why I think D&D became so popular and has survived so long. It taps into the transformative, timeless tales human beings have told since the beginning of time. It allows us to be that hero and to find out why we succeed or fail.