Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Review of Tower of the Stargazer

What's this? A post potentially useful to someone else? Yes, in fact! I know, I know; you come here to listen to useless prattling. But not today!

If it's any comfort, I'm getting to this either two or six years late, far after everyone else has bothered themselves about it.

So at least I'm late to the party, as usual. Around these parts we call that 'fashionable delay,' or, 'the reason nobody invites me to parties anymore.'

One note: I'm not clear on how covered this thing is under the OGL or any other license, so I won't be giving any quotations or the like. Better safe than sorry, even in this tiny corner of the backwoods Internet.

Why you might care about this review

Tower of the Stargazer is an introductory module for LotFP written explicitly not only for beginning characters but beginning DMs. I am a beginning DM - sort of. I 'ran' a long-running GURPS Fantasy 'campaign' for several years during high school, but I only had one 'player' and it was almost exclusively over the phone. I've run D&D a handful of times based on pre-made modules, but I can count the number of dungeons I've ever created on one hand, and the number of rooms each had on two. So if you want a beginning DM's perspective on something made for beginning DMs, you've come to the right place.

Overview and First Impressions

Just in case you've been hiding in the Underdark these past few years, Tower of the Stargazer takes place at a wizard's tower. According to Raggi's pre-script, it's his attempt to show people who want to run LotFP what kind of 'weird' Raggi has in mind for that game system. It's also, as mentioned above, written as a playable example of 'How to Write (and Run) a Dungeon'.

The central conceit is that the PCs are exploring a wizard's tower, with the twist that that wizard is still alive and trapped inside. It's pretty stripped down: there are no wandering monsters, and very few monsters at all. Instead it's a series of traps designed to only punish those who stick their noses where they don't belong.

The first thing I noticed when I picked this up is that the booklet is small. The pages are about half the size of a standard 8.5"x11" sheet, and there are 30 pages. No Temple of Elemental Evil here; it even beats out Keep on the Borderlands for brevity.

In addition, the inside is filled with grey boxes that contain advice on running, constructing, and interpreting both the module and further dungeons, meaning that the actual 'playable content' is about half as much as you would expect. That's not a bad thing, since the advice is more than half the point. It is, however, something to be aware of if you're thinking of picking this up.

Tower of the Stargazer is written for LotFP, which means it's compatible with other D&D retroclones with a minimum of fuss. Further, the only specifically LotFP-centric bit are the Armor values, which are easily converted, and the use of silver instead of gold as the basic currency.

The Good

A lot of the advice was helpful to me personally, either by sparking new ideas/reminders for my own creation, or calling out areas for personalization, or explaining the thought process behind including some particular piece of the adventure. There's one especially helpful aside about patterns in the dungeon 'architecture' - the purposes of rooms and whatnot. Others include advice on thinking outside the box (regarding what an 'encounter' or a 'trap' are) and a reminder to engage in cooperative creation by sticking unexplained red herrings into your work.

Beyond the advice, this is an imminently runnable adventure. I haven't played it, sadly, but it's definitely making its way into my game. It manages showcase the weird without necessarily imposing itself on your world, and is easy to place into practically any sort of game (so long as that game involves wizards and towers). It also pretty much immediately teaches players to be careful in the dungeon and not take things at face value, a useful lesson for beginners. Finally, it just looks and feels fun.

The adventure as written almost certainly will leave the PCs with a powerful, insane wizard out for their blood. The DM can control when this happens, and if this kind of long-term consequence isn't your bag, you can either ignore it or write it out. (Raggi's clear that the wizard will escape eventually, but this could be well after all the PCs are dead if you like. Or it could be tomorrow.) In any case, I like the idea of choices having consequences, and long-term enemies are definitely consequential.

The maps are all on the back two pages. They're well-drawn, and their placement makes them easy to use.

The Bad

As mentioned above, this module uses no random encounters, which puts the onus purely on the DM - rather than the dice - to provide a sense of urgency. In several places the DM is reminded to be tracking light sources and other resources, but this can be difficult to remember at the table or something which your players dislike.

Several of the traps are rather deadly. I'm of the opinion that characters who mess with them have it coming, considering just how much effort goes into setting off some of them. (Most of the 'traps' are more "messing with stuff in a wizard's tower," instead of, "specifically in place to discourage looters.") That said, you might disagree.

Finally, and here's the big one: as written it would be very easy in two places for the module to end in an effective TPK. One of these would be more than deserved; the other seems a bit like an oversight.

The maps again. Because the booklet is small and the maps are put all on the same two pages (the tower has 7 small levels), things can get a little dense, especially if you're looking for individual specific details. (This is a small problem, only barely worth mentioning.)

Also, the top two levels of the tower are bigger than the other above-ground levels. This isn't called out in any explicit way, and might lead a DM who's not paying as close attention as he might to mis-describe either the inside or outside of the tower.

The Ugly

There are a few places where Raggi gets overly moralistic in the advice boxes. This grates a little, not least because it sounds like he's taking himself too seriously. Really, chill out a bit. It's a game about killing things and taking their stuff. That doesn't mean we need a lecture about war crimes*.

LotFP is a silver-based system, so all the prices are given in terms of sp. It's an easy conversion to make for gold-based systems, but it drove home to me why I don't want to switch to a silver basis. 'sp' just looks uglier than 'gp' typographically. 'gp' maintains an almost-symmetry, whereas 'sp' just looks lopsided and asymmetric. It's not quite as bad capitalized: SP vs. GP. But still.

Finally, Raggi's most useful comment (to me) about dungeon design involves how the last three rooms screwed over the PCs and why. He points out (wisely) that good dungeon design involves patterns like this, though they're hard to find unless you know how to look, and hard to build.

...and that's where he leaves it. I want more information! How do I analyze modules to see this sort of thing in action elsewhere? How can I apply it to designs other than just for screwing the PCs over? Is there some framework I can use in my dungeon design to make sure these patterns remain both subtle and present, so the players can pick up on them and use them to guide decisions, but have to work at it? TELL ME! DON'T LEAVE ME HANGING, RAGGI!

I'm not going to advise you to pick this up or not. That's your decision based on the above. However, I will say that I enjoyed reading it, and I think I'll enjoy running it. It was definitely worth the $12 I spent to pick it up at the FLGS. If you've found the above convincing, you can also get it from the LotFP online store.

How's it with GURPS?

Pretty easy to run, I would think. There are practically no monsters involved, and most (all?) of the traps operate on the player-decision layer rather than the mechanical layer. (You do this, then this, then this, and then you're screwed - no save.) On the other hand, what monsters there are would need beefing up significantly to go up against your typical 250pt DF party, not least because they're one-on-many encounters. Of especial note is the trapped wizard himself: in order to keep the original feel of a 13th level wizard vs. a 1st level party, you'd need to bump him up to....lots of points.

The other thing you'd need to change would be the last room, which relies on impassible force barriers. A DF wizard with the right spells could trivialize these pretty easily. It's a simple fix (magic resistant materials or a mana-drained area) that would make sense in context (it's the treasure vault).

Over-all I give this a 4/5 on my Completely Objective Critera Scale (hereafter in this briefing referred to as COCS - why are you laughing? This is Serious Business!)

Thursday, December 1, 2016

House Rules 3: treasure, XP, play, and that sort of thing

You might actually want to read this one! But probably not, in all honesty. I'm not really breaking new ground here. I'm mostly just following people like Jeff Rients and Zak and those guys at Ten Foot Polemic and the Hill Cantons and probably a good few others to boot.


Studded leather doesn't exist. Leather is AC 7.

Torches are good for setting fire to things, blinding yourself with an open flame, and making lots of smoke. If people insist on using them in dungeons they light an area of 20' radius and you'll probably constantly be blinding your companions and dripping pitch everywhere and coughing on the smoke. Bring a lantern.

Plate armor is expensive, rare, and custom-made. The price listed in the book is the price for getting a found set re-fitted to you. It must roughly fit you already (no resizing dwarfplate to fit your human fighter), you have to find someone who works with the stuff, and wait about a month. Getting a new set for yourself costs about 300gp and takes 1d4 months to complete.

Weapons all do 1d6. Using a two-handed weapon allows you to roll twice and take the higher result. Using a weapon in your off hand gives you +1 to hit.

Using a silver holy symbol (or one otherwise upgraded) gives you a +1 to your Turn Undead roll.

We're using my simplified encumbrance rules.

Helmets come with all armor, unless you're a halfling. If you're unarmored and wear a helmet, it won't change your AC but might help you out in specific situations (like not causing you to take extra damage from a falling rock trap).

Treasure and XP

Coins are 50/lb. They're still big, but not absurd. This makes a copper piece roughly the size of a £2 piece, a silver piece slightly larger than a quarter, and a gold piece between a dime and a nickel. Assuming they're pure. They're usually not, which would make them somewhat bigger or smaller (but still weigh the same).

Treasure liberated from the dungeon or wilds is worth 1xp per gp shared equally with the party. Magical treasure does not give XP.

Further, some activities in town are also worth XP. Carousing is worth 1XP per gp spent up to the maximum. Other frivolous spending is worth 0.75XP per gp spent up to the maximum, and 0.5XP per gp spent afterward. All expenditures must be from treasure; reinvesting after staking a wildcatter who makes good on his claim might be a good idea, but it doesn't earn you XP.

Carousing: In order to carouse, roll d6x100gp. (This will be larger in well-connected places, and smaller in dinky backwater villages.) This is how much you spend. If you don't have enough, you can borrow from other PCs. If nobody's willing to spot you, you end up indebted to some local of the DM's choosing. Thieves may choose to take +1 to this roll.

Further, roll a Wisdom check. If you succeed, everything's fine - you managed to keep work and play separated and didn't wake up next to anyone you didn't intend to. If you fail, you roll on the Carousing Mishaps table stolen shamelessly from Jeff Rients. (I tried to improve it, but really: can you?)
Carousing Mishaps
1) Make a fool of yourself in public. Gain no XP. Roll Charisma check or gain reputation in this town as a drunken lout.
2) Involved in random brawl. Roll Strength check or start adventure d3 hit points short.
3) Minor misunderstanding with local authorities. Roll Charisma check. Success indicates a fine of 2d6 x 25gp. Failure or (inability to pay fine) indicates d6 days in the pokey.
4) Romantic entanglement. Roll Wisdom check to avoid nuptials. Otherwise 1-3 scorned lover, 4-6 angered parents.
5) Gambling losses. Roll the dice as if you caroused again to see how much you lose. (No additional XP for the second carousing roll.)
6) Gain local reputation as the life of a party. Unless a Charisma check is failed, all future carousing in this burg costs double due to barflies and other parasites.
7) Insult local person of rank. A successful Charisma check indicates the personage is amenable to some sort of apology and reparations.
8) You wake up in a barn with no memory of how you got there and no clothes. Your stuff is: Roll 1d6 1-3 buried in the cowbyre 4 carried off by thieves 5 impounded by the authorities 6 nowhere to be found
9) New tattoo. 1-3 it’s actually pretty cool 4 it’s lame 5 it could have been badass, but something is goofed up or misspelled 6 it says something insulting, crude or stupid in an unknown language.
10) Beaten and robbed. Lose all your personal effects and reduced to half hit points.
11) Gambling binge. Lose all your gold, gems, jewelry. Roll Wisdom check for each magic item in your possession. Failure indicates it’s gone.
12) Hangover from hell. First day of adventuring is at -2 to-hit and saves. Casters must roll Int check with each spell to avoid mishap.
13) Target of lewd advances turns out to be a witch. Save versus polymorph or you’re literally a swine.
14) One of us! One of us! You’re not sure how it happened, but you’ve been initiated into some sort of secret society or weird cult. Did you really make out with an emu of was that just the drugs? Roll Int check to remember the signs and passes.
15) Invest all your spare cash (50% chance all gems and jewelry, too) in some smooth-tongued merchant’s scheme. 1-4 it’s bogus 5 it’s bogus and Johnny Law thinks you’re in on it 6 actual money making opportunity returns d% profits in 3d4 months.
16) Wake up stark naked in a random local temple. 1-3 the clerics are majorly pissed off 4-6 they smile and thank you for stopping by.
17) Major misunderstanding with local authorities. Imprisoned until fines and bribes totaling d6 x 1,000gp paid. All weapons, armor, and magic items confiscated.
18) Despite your best efforts, you fall head over heels for your latest dalliance. 75% chance your beloved is already married.
19) When in a drunken stupor you asked your god(s) to get you out of some stupid mess. Turns out they heard you! Now as repayment for saving your sorry ass, you’re under the effects of a quest spell.
20) The roof! The roof! The roof is on fire! Accidentally start a conflagration. Roll d6 twice. 1-2 burn down your favorite inn 3-4 some other den of ill repute is reduced to ash 5-6 a big chunk of town goes up in smoke. 1-2 no one knows it was you 3-4 your fellow carousers know you did it 5 someone else knows, perhaps a blackmailer 6 everybody knows. 

Frivolous Spending: This includes all spending that doesn't specifically help you be an adventurer. Donating to the local temple, handing out money to beggars, commissioning a portrait, having your armor engraved, and purchasing real estate in town all count. Restocking supplies, upgrading your weapons, and spending gp on rumours do not.

Further, money spent in the 0.5XP range is reflected in the prosperity of the settlement. Drop enough into the local economy and you'll get people moving in, more market opportunities, etc.

XP from Monsters
Monsters are worth a flat 50XP per HD. Monsters of <1HD are worth 10XP.

Heroic Sendoff
When an adventurer dies and the party is unable (or unwilling!) to have them raised from the dead, a PC or retainer (see below) may opt to give the corpse a Heroic Sendoff. This requires at least 24 hours and something cool like a bigass funeral pyre, the raising of a burial mound, or a funeral ship floated down the river. The corpse must be armed and armored for combat, as appropriate to the class of the character. Each party member may donate up to 100gp times the level of the stiff as additional grave goods, the amount being spent is converted to bonus XP for the donor. Each party member may also donate one magic item to the grave. Scrolls, potions, and other one-shot items net a bonus of 250xp, while more permanent items get you 1,000xp or more. Magic items that would have been unusable by the deceased do not count.

Player Roles
Certain roles taken on by the players accrue a 5% bonus to XP for their characters. These include, but are not necessarily limited to:
  • Cartographer. The person who actually draws the party map. It is not necessary that this player's character be the party mapper.
  • Chronicler. The person who writes up session reports. These need not be terribly in-depth, but should give someone who missed a session a good idea of what important things happened
  • Snack-bringer. Self-explanatory
  • Other roles as I think of them or as they are invented around the table.

Once per session, the players will decide who was MVP for that session. This person gets a 5% bonus or 100XP, whichever is greater.

Exporation is also worth XP. Here are some guidelines. These are per individual involved, but will only be given out once. If it's your first time, but not the first time, too bad.
  • New hex discovered: 20
  • New hex explored: 50
  • New town, village, landmark, or site discovered: 100
  • First time a dungeon is entered: 100
  • Alternate dungeon entry found: 100

Other exploration awards may be added to this list or given in play at the DM's discretion.

Gameplay and Miscellaneous

Shields Shall be Splintered!
This old Trollsmyth beauty. For a magical shield, roll 1d6. If you roll at or under the plus value, it doesn't shatter. Otherwise it does.

Retainers, Henchmen, and Hirelings
Here's the difference, laid out plain.

Retainers are limited by your CHA score. They gain half a share in all XP, and the standard agreement is half a share in treasure plus expenses. Expenses include room and board, plus any equipment replacement or upgrades the retainer may require. (New armor or weapons, a mount, etc.) Retainers typically come with their own starting equipment. Retainers must be lower level than the PC hiring them. Yes, this means you can only start hiring a retainer at 2nd level. Further, retainers are the only sort of follower who has or gains class levels.

Henchmen are mercenary sorts who have hired on for pay to help explore a dungeon or local dangerous wilderness. For dungeon exploration, typical rates are 20gp per diem plus all expenses, though rates may be lower for less-dangerous jobs (e.g. guard the caravan while we go exploring). Henchmen typically come with their own arms and armor (usually along the lines of leather and club). If a henchman survives long enough, he may become a retainer.

Hirelings are non-combat day-laborers. Linkboys, porters, drovers, lackeys, and that sort. Hirelings do not count as skilled labor; if you want to hire a cartographer or a locksmith look elsewhere. Hirelings do not engage in combat or other dangerous pursuits if they can at all help it, and will revolt or abandon the expedition if forced into dangerous situations. A typical agreement for dungeon exploration includes 1gp per diem plus room and board.

Good Help is Hard to Find
Hirelings may be found in pretty much any centre of civilization from the smallest hamlet on up for short-term work. For long-term work, find a town or offer more. If actual numbers are needed, roll 1d10x20 for a village, 1d10x200 for a town, and so forth.

Henchmen are harder to find, but still potentially available even in wide spots in the road. For villages, roll 1d6. For a town, roll 1d6x10, and so forth.

Retainers are hard to find, since people with class levels are rare. They are effectively unavailable in villages, whereas you can find 1d2 in a town, 1d2x10 in a city, and so forth.

Extensive advertising (costing 25gp) will double the number of followers to be found, as will doubling the offered remuneration.

Sancho Panza to my Don Quixote
In Labyrinth Lord, retainers make a Loyalty Check at the end of every adventurer/foray and never return if they fail. However, the player whose character has retainers may decide upon one who will not do so. He still makes a Loyalty check, but if he fails, instead of outright leaving, he requires something more of the PC. This may be a pay raise, better equipment, some time off, or help with something (getting out of debt to the local crime boss, finding a cure for his sick mother, rescuing his brother from bandits, and so forth). If the PC acquiesces to the demands, the retainer will stay.

Planning for the future
A PC may bank wealth and up to one magic item for inheritance. If the PC dies, his heir inherits this money, -10% in straoge and security fees.

Bob is dead, long live Bob!
If a character dies, the player has several options for making a new character.
  1. Roll up another one. Starts at level 1 with 0 xp. Can enter play any time, even in a dungeon. The DM will work it in.
  2. Discover an heir. The heir will only be able to join once the party returns to civilization, but will be entitled to anything put away as an inheritance.
  3. Promote a retainer. A retainer of that PC may now be played as a PC with his current experience and equipment.
Dungeons is Dangerous!
At the end of every session the party must end up back in a safe place. This is not necessarily a town, though all towns count. It could be a base camp, or a caravan, or an idyllic spot in the woods, or even certain seldom-visited portions of the dungeon. If the party fails to make it to a safe spot before the end of the session, make a save vs death. If you succeed, you escape unharmed. Otherwise, roll 1d20 on the table below shamelessly stolen from Jeff Rients:

Triple Secret Random Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom (d20)

1. You lucky dog! You manage to somehow escape the dark forces of the dungeon. You return to civilization, naked and half-delirious.
2. Waitaminute, Lefty’s not right handed! Situation appears to be #1, but you’ve been replaced by a shapeshifting badguy.
3. Maimed. You escape but suffer the effects of a random critical hit. Also, 50% of your stuff is gone, randomly determined.
4. Alas, you are no more. If any comrades escape they are able to bring your remains and your stuff back to civilization.
5. Pining for the fjords. If any comrades escape they are able to bring your remains back to civilization, but your stuff is lost.
6. Dead as a doornail. The general location of your body is known to any surviving comrades.
7. Your stuff has become part of a monster’s hoard and your body part of a monster’s supper.
8. That is an ex-character. The location of your body is unknown to all.
9. Bought the farm. Your body and possessions irretrievable due to dragon fire, ooze acid, disintegrator beam, etc.
10. Also dead. Your body is irretrievable due to dragon fire, ooze acid, disintegrator beam, etc. but your stuff is still around for some other jerk to nab at a later date.
11. Held for ransom by seedy humans. A member of the Thieves Guild can arrange release for 1,000gp per character level. 1 in 6 chance the money disappears.
12. Captured by monsters. Escaping comrades know the level you were captured on and the type of monster holding you captive.
13. Captured by monsters. Escaping comrades know the level you were captured on, but not the type of monster involved.
14. Captured by monsters. Escaping comrades know the type of monster involved, but not what level to search.
15. Captured by monsters. Unseen monsters spirit you away to an unknown location.
16. A fate worse than death. Drafted into the ranks of the monsters. Roll d6: 1-2 undead, 3 lycanthrope, 4 charmed, 5 polymorphed, 6 other.
17. You and your stuff are sacrificed to the loathsome Frog Gods in order to gate in d6 Croaking Demons that are added to the dungeon key.
18. A gorgon or somesuch has petrified you. Escaping characters know what level to search for your statue.
19. Lost in the dungeon. GM sets your location each session. Re-enter play if the party finds you.
20. Opportunity for betrayal. Pick one other character who got away safe. Roll 1d6, 1-4 he takes your place and has to roll on this chart while you escape, 5-6 you both suffer the fate rolled by your victim.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

House Rules 2: Spells

Mostly durations, really. I seriously suggest you skip this one; it's just going out here because it needs a home somewhere and I like to keep stuff all in the same place. But hey, have some Otus to lighten up the night.


Cleric Spells

Cure Critical Wounds and its reverse heal/deal 3d6+3 damage.

Detect Evil is reversible.

Dispel Evil is reversible (though good luck finding an application).

Earthquake has effects that are largely to the DM's discretion, with the described situations to be used as guidelines.

Insect Plague might very well work underground. It all depends on the local insect population. Also, 'insect' should not be taken in its technical meaning. Bug Swarm sounds stupid, though.

Know Alignment is reversible, and protects the subject from Know Alignment and similar means of alignment-scrying for the duration.

Lower Water functions like the MU spell of that name.

Part Water functions like the MU spell of that name, and is 5th level.

Protection from Evil and Protection from Evil 10' radius can be cast on an object.

Raise Dead requires a CON check to succeed (multiple tries are allowed, 1/day). Further, if successful, the raised individual's CON score is permanently reduced by 2. Casting Raise Dead (though not Ray of Death) requires reagants costing 1,000gp.

Resurrection requires reagants costing 10,000gp. Destruction does not.

Symbol is permanent until triggered.

MU/Elf Spells

Bigby's spells are all put on notice: you may have your levels reduced in a coming installment, because you truly suck. 8th level to hit someone for 1d6? Really?

Crushing Hand cannot be attacked by the opponent it's currently crushing, except with special biology or the like, at the DM's discretion.

Glass Like Steel is 5th level.

Grasping Hand cannot be attacked by creatures it successfully immobilizes, except with special biology or the like, at the DM's discretion.

Invisibility is reversible, though it does not always work on things that are natively invisible, e.g. an Invisible Stalker.

Irresistible Dance has a range of 30' and can affect all creatures in a 20' radius. Country dances need groups. Further, dancing is not always 'in place', but can take the affected creatures all around the spell area, depending on the dance.

Lightning will bounce, rather than just stop at a barrier it doesn't break through.

Maze has a duration measured in Turns and Hours, instead of Rounds and Turns.

Meteor Swarm uses a d8 instead of a d4.

Reincarnate uses a custom Super Secret Gonzo Reincarnation Table instead of the one in the book. Also, monsters (and talking badgers especially) totally can gain in levels.

Reverse Gravity is reversible, and requires anyone in the area of effect to make a save vs spells or fall prone and be unable to do anything that round. If the save is made, the creature may move at half speed and attack at -2 to hit.

Stone to Flesh can definitely be cast on objects that were not originally the subject of a Flesh to Stone spell. Boulder-sized meatballs are to be encouraged.

Symbol is permanent until triggered.

Teleport can send you low without instant death. 'Low' on the table works as 'high', but below the target. This might not mean in the ground! Smart wizards build raised teleportation platforms at home.

Time Stop lasts for 1d4 rounds.

Wish and Limited Wish can't simply be prepared and cast daily in a spellbook. If you know either spell, talk to the DM about uses.


What? You're still here?

Go kill some monsters and take their stuff already!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

So you ransack a wizard's laboratory and find a bunch of 'potions'... or: wizards don't use GHS

One of my other hobbies is rockets; specifically, the history and eccentricities of liquid-fueled rockets. (Don't worry, all you solid afficianados - I appreciate a tonne of PSPC just as much as the next guy.)

I don't remember how, exactly, but this got crossed the other day with thinking about D&D and potions.

D&D has potion mixing and potion tasting charts. Often they do nothing, or create a poison, or mix effects, or whatever. In any case, it seems like the common thing to do with strange bottles of weird liquids recovered from a wizard's study is to try them out. I imagine the conversation going like this:

DM: You've slain the basilisk standing guard out front, and you open the door to a crowded laboratory. Bottles, flasks, and retorts line the walls and teeter precariously on a large wooden table, covered with illegible notes and scratches. Everything is covered in dust.
Player: Cool! I look through and see if there's anything that looks valuable! Are there any potions?
DM: You grab a whole bunch of bottles and stuff them into your knapsack, but there are too many to fit all of them, so you have to leave the lion's share behind-
Player: Oh, we're definitely coming back here, with a caravan!
DM: Right, but for now you have to leave some behind.
Player: OK, OK. Are any of them potions?
DM: You don't know. None of them have readable labels. Some of them have no labels at all.
Player: Fine, how can we test them?
DM: Lots of ways. The same way you test anything, really. It's not like you're carrying a Potion Testing Kit in your backpack - are you?
Player: No. Huh. Okay...potions are meant to be drunk right? I drink one, and see what it does!
DM: Are you sure? It might have hostile effects, and you'll have used it up regardless of what it does.
Player: Okay, okay...I got it. I'll uncork it and try a little taste. That should work, right? I mean, even if it's poison, it'll only be a little bit.

The thing that struck me is that ransacking the wizard's laboratory is one of the few actual touchstones we have with real life. Arcane alchemy captures a sense of wonder and strangeness that doesn't have much place out here in Paper & Paychecks, but one thing we do have is strange arcane chymical laboratories with truly strange and wonderful things on the shelves outside normal human experience.

However, in real life, most of these things aren't exactly meant for human consumption. In real life, wizards have rocket fuel on their shelves.

The thing about these strange and wonderful chemicals is they require careful handling. Some of them are so reactive that uncorking the bottle might kill you, if you're careless about it. Almost all of them are so reactive that yes, a tiny sip is a very bad idea.

What's a thousand words worth when you can have some examples?

High Test Peroxide

Peroxide's normal, right? I have some under the bathroom sink right now! Sure, but that stuff's at 5% strength. At 40% the stuff starts getting interesting. At 70% it's a rocket monopropellant - meaning it's so reactive (in the presence of lots of catalysts) by itself that it'll violently explode.

Here's an example

I was unable to find an example of someone reacting HTP with meat, but you can extrapolate from what happens when you pour your household stuff onto an open cut what'll happen - except those bubbles will be strong enough to become an explosion.

HTP should be stored in an opaque bottle in a sealed place, else the light and heat will cause it to slowly degrade. Or quickly.

Why a wizard wants it: You mean your wizards need excuses to play with explosives? Fine. HTP can easily also be used to spark other reactions, and probably has a pivotal role in the distillation of Bloom of Giant's Eye (a solid, metallic substance that's one of the primary 'less dangerous' sources of small amounts of orichalcum, since it only involves harvesting the eyes of storm giants).

Fuming Nitric Acid

(Also all sorts of other nitric substances)

I don't really need to say much about this, do I? It's nitric acid; it's an acid. But concentrations powerful enough to be used as rocket fuels exist and should exist in a wizard's lab. (It's also useful for other stuff.)

Two 'common' variations are called White Fuming Nitric Acid (or WFNA) and Red Fuming Nitric Acid) or RFNA. These things are so nasty they're usually mixed with a 'inactivating agent' to keep them from eating away the bottle you want to store them in.

(Skip to 4:42 if you don't care about the rest.)

Why a wizard wants it: Fuming Nitric Acid is an essential tool for the distillation of just about anything. In the real world, nitric acid is an industrial chemical for a reason: it's too damn useful. Same thing in fantasy; fuming nitric acid is probably an essential reagant in many, many reactions that eventually lead to those Potions of Gnome Control that litter your campaign world. There's a reason not just anyone becomes an alchemist, and most wizards are crazy.


Hydrazine is an odorless, colorless chemical that to the eye and touch seems just like water. It's also pretty stable on its own, but when mixed with oxidizers (like the nitric acid shown above, or many of its byproducts) will violently explode.

In fact, the explosion is so violent that hydrazine is still used in rockets today. The Soyuz rocket that sends astronauts to the ISS runs on hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide (one of the byproducts of a nitric acid reaction in some cases). Careful jostling it around with other potions; if a flask breaks your backpack may explode!

However, we're interested in a taste test. Unfortunately for adventurers, its reactivity is outmatched by its toxicity. A mouthful or even a sip may very well kill you.

Case Study of Hydrazine Poisoning

In a 1965 correspondence from F. James Reid to the British Medical Journal, the effects of accidental hydrazine ingestion can be seen.
A young English sailor had been drinking beer during the afternoon before being placed on duty in the evening. He was considered to be fit for duty and competent until the accident. While working in his ship's engine room, the young sailor ingestion between a mouthful and a cupful of concentrated Hydrazine believing it was water.
  • Hydrazine, greatly diluted, was used on board the ship to prevent corrosion in the ship's boilers by seawater.
Immediately upon drinking the chemical, the sailor vomited and returned to the deck to report to his superior officer at 11:30pm. After having been given a raw egg and milk, he vomited once more and collapsed, unconscious onto the floor.
Upon admission in a West African Hospital at midnight he was flushed, afebrile, unconscious, continent, and vomiting. His pupils were dilated, central and reacted to light; however, there were no chemical burns on his lips or mouth and he was able to swallow. At this time the respiratory and central nervous systems were normal upon clinical examination.
In response to the accident, the stomach was washed out with warm water which was partially siphoned and vomited back. He was given intramuscular chloroquine sulphate due to the prevalence of malaria in the region; cyanocobalamin, because the chemical was believed to have a cyanide-like effect; and ascorbic acid all intravenously with dextrose, dextrose-saline, and Hartmann's solution. These chemicals were given in all three liters over a period of 16 hours. The patient then passed 600ml of alkaline urine via a catheter, with the condition of his bladder at that time remaining unknown.
Twelve hours after the ingestion of the hydrazine, his condition remained unchanged with the exception that vomiting had ceased and the pupils were smaller and divergent to the right. Two episodes of violence requiring restraint by four strong African nurses also occurred.
Sixteen hours after ingestion, the patient was more flaccid and once again violent; it was decided to send him to the U.K. by air. 33 hours after the accident, the patient was flown out; however, once reaching France, the pilot of the aircraft refused to accept responsibility of the patient as his respiration became irregular and shallow.
48 hours after the accident the patient was admitted to a Paris hospital. His condition upon arrival was described as comatose and convulsive. He was intubated under anesthesia and given mechanically assisted respiration for the next ten hours; he was also given 10% dextrose and vitamin B.
The patient improved hour by hour, though the main concern was for his neurological state. His psyche, memory, voluntary motor skills, and higher functions were normal. However, he had ataxia even with his eyes open, a lateral nystagmus to the right, and a loss of vibration sense. He was unable to write, though he could draw. There was paresthesia of all four limbs at the extremities and he was unable to reproduce one hand movement imposed upon the other. Severe hypoesthesia of the hand (especially the right hand), in distribution of the radial nerve ensued. E.E.G. results were within normal limits and tendon reflexes were normal. Fortunately, the ataxia was improving to the point that the sailor would able to travel unescorted by air to England, only two weeks after leaving Africa.
  • The final condition of the young man is not known.

With all that in mind, I recommend the use of a new table:

Sipping random bottles from a wizard's laboratory table: (roll 1d6)
  1. The stuff explodes in your mouth. Save vs. poison or die messily. If you pass, take 1d4 damage.
  2. Horrible poison. Save vs. poison or die.
  3. Nefarious poison. No immediate effect, but you will die in 1d4 days and start feeling ill in 12 hours. No save.
  4. Hyper-volatile! Uncorking the flask causes it to react with air. Save vs. wands or have your hand blown off, taking 1d4 damage, and everyone nearby save vs. paralysis or get splashed. Those splashed take 1d4 damage.
  5. No effect. It's inert, I guess.
  6. Huh, this might actually be meant for human consumption. Roll on another chart to determine what potion it is. (Don't forget to include lamp oil and 'normal' poisons.)

Don't swig random chemicals. Get an expert, or test them with objects other than your body.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Alternatives to Death: Cripples & Crutches

At 0 or fewer HP, you are effectively dead. You are completely irrelevant for a combat, except
as a tripping hazard. Exact effects can be established if they matter; you might be unconscious, screaming in pain holding your guts in, or whatever.

If you take any more damage, see rules for replacement PCs.

After combat, roll 1d6 and subtract your current negative hp. So if you are at exactly 0 HP, roll 1d6. If you are at -4 HP, roll 1d6-4. This is the number of turns it will take you to die without help.

If you are still alive, you can be bandaged or otherwise aided. This does not restore any HP, and you remain completely disabled, but you will not die so long as you do not take more damage and are given more comprehensive medical care soon. (For each day you remain this way, make a CON check, with penalties as decided by the DM.)

If you recover from this state, roll 1d20 on the table below:

Cripples & Crutches Wound Table

1: Lingering death. Sucks to be you. You will die in 3d4 weeks. But maybe it can be remedied if your friends go find The Hermit in the Swamp...
If you somehow recover, roll twice more, ignoring any result of a 1 or 2.

2: Permanently bedridden or otherwise disabled. If this is somehow remedied, roll twice more on this chart and ignore a 1 or 2.

3: Your close brush with death leaves you horribly scarred. Feel free to make up something truly gruesome at the DM's discretion. Permanent -2d4 CHA

4: Slightly less horrible scarring. Maybe it's all mental this time? -1d4 CHA

5: Permanent injury to a limb. Roll 1d4:
  1. Left Leg
  2. Right Leg
  3. Left Arm
  4. Right Arm
If a leg, you've picked up a limp. Reduce move by 1/4 base value. If an arm, you've developed restricted range of motion or palsy. -1 DEX, occasional other penalties at DM discretion.

If you roll a result that this character is already suffering from, instead treat it as #8 below.

6: Loss of (roll 1d4):
  1. 1d3 fingers. -1 to hit; -2d6 to all Thief skills that involve manual dexterity; other situational penalties at DM discretion. If you lose more than 5 fingers, treat as losing a hand (see below).
  2. 1d3 toes. Situational penalties to do with balance or sneaking at DM discretion. If you lose more than 5 toes, treat as losing a foot (see below).
  3. Left eye. -1 CHA, -2 to hit with missile weapons. On the plus side, you can get an eyepatch without being a poser.
  4. Right eye. As left eye, but the other side.
If you roll an eye you've already lost, you lose the other. If you lose both, you're blind! Learning to play the piano could make you famous.

7: Lose an extremity. Roll 1d4:
  1. Left foot. Half base move.
  2. Right foot. Half base move. Lose both and you can only crawl (effective 0' move).
  3. Left hand. Can only use 1-handed weapons or other 1-handed objects.
  4. Right hand. As left hand, above.
A simple prosthetic foot can halve the move penalty (to 3/4 move). Penalties (and modifiers) are cumulative.
A hook hand is an inadequate replacement for the real thing, but it does act as a dagger and gives you +1 to reaction rolls with pirates and other ne'er-do-wells. More exotic attachments can be obtained at the DM's discretion.

8: Lose a limb. Roll 1d4:
  1. Left leg. Cannot stand and you can only crawl (effective 0' move).
  2. Right leg. Same as above.
  3. Left arm. Cannot use two hands or a shield; furthermore, things like backpacks, armor, and the like require modifications that cost 10% extra or they will cause various annoyances. Further, if using JDIMS, you can carry one fewer Large Item.
  4. Right arm. Same as left arm.
If you lose both arms, you cannot hold or use any items except in your teeth; you cannot attack or cast spells. Prosthetics arms might look cool, but are non-functional except to make clothing and armor easier to wear. Prosthetic legs (peg legs) will restore half move, or 1/4 move for both.

9: A wound that just won't heal. -1d4 CON (refigure HP). Subtract 1 from save vs poison, disease, and other things that would be harder to resist with an open wound.

10: A wound that just won't heal. -2d4 CON (refigure HP) Subtract 2 from save vs poison, disease, and other things that would be harder to resist with an open wound. Further, before each session roll 1d6: on a 1, the wound is acting up: you're horrible pain that makes you (additional) -4 to everything if you can be bothered to get out of bed.

11: Horrible scarring. But it looks awesome! +1 CHA

12: Got off scot free, you lucky dog! No long term effects.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Labyrinth Lord / Desolate North House Rules Part 1a: Thieves

As promised last time, I'm showing my re-work of LL's Thief class. This is all based heavily on the write-up already in Hill Cantons and inspired by Unfrozen Caveman Dice Chucker (I refuse to accept the new name).


Requirements: None
Prime Req: DEX
Hit Dice: d4
Maximum Level: None

Note that a Thief can be of any alignment. In addition to any bonus languages for intelligence, the thief also knows Thieves' Cant, an argot of Common used by ne'er-do-wells to discuss nefarious proceedings.

9th level hideout shenanigans are still possible as per LL.

At 11th level, a Thief's backstab does triple damage.

Thief Skills

Instead of advancing along a percentage table with level, thieves are awarded Bonus Skill Levels. These bonus skill levels can be assigned into any skill the thief chooses.

 Starting Thief Skills
Scale Sheer Surfaces:5, max 12
Pick Pockets:2, max 15
Find/Remove Traps:2, max 12
Pick Locks:3, max 12
Hear Noise:4, max 11
Move Silently:2, max 13
Hide in Shadows:2, max 13
Read Languages (at Level 4):0, max 13
Read Scrolls (at Level 9):5, max 12

In order to succeed at a skill, the Thief rolls a d10 trying to roll below the skill level.

Double 12: Every time you roll a 12, roll again. A double 12 is always a failure, regardless of skill level.

Thief Skill Definitions

Scale Sheer Surfaces: This is not just 'climbing walls', but scaling sheer surfaces, viz. things that a normal person would just say, "That's impossible." Examples include the sides of skyscrapers, windy overhangs with few to no handholds, etc. However, some surfaces might still be outside the thief's ability at the DM's discretion.
Pick Pockets: As per LL, except for each level the target is above the thief subtract 1 from the skill.
Find/Remove Traps: Also works with Secret Doors and other such. Note that the DM will still require a description of your activities, and decide success, failure, and difficulty based on this. This is not preternatural, and is in fact a thing all adventurers do; thieves are just better at it.
Pick Locks: As per LL.
Hear Noise: Not just any old noise, but preternatural hearing - noises you wouldn't otherwise be able to hear. Picking up whispered conversations through keyholes, hearing footsteps far away by putting your ear to the ground, that kind of thing.
Hide in Shadows: Anyone can hide, but it takes a thief to hide in shadows. Area must be shadowy and dim, and you cannot hide in shadows while being watched. (If the thief fails the check, it is assumed he is still being stealthy - though maybe not with success.)
Move Silently: Anyone can move quietly, but it takes a thief to move silently. Thief must not be wearing or carrying anything noisy (e.g. clinking bottles, non-magical armor heavier than leather), and there are certain environments that either give a penalty to the roll or may make it impossible (e.g. nightingaled floors, wading through water). If the thief fails the check, it is assumed he is still being stealthy - though maybe not with success.

Thief Level Advancement
Hit Dice (1d4)
Bonus Skill Levels
+1 hp
+2 hp
+3 hp
+4 hp
+5 hp
+6 hp
+7 hp
+8 hp
+9 hp
+10 hp


I'm thinking of completely removing Find/Remove Traps in favor of just giving Thieves a flat 3 in 6 to notice secrets and traps when looking, and a note saying they're likely to be better at removing them than other characters. That skill in particular bothers me for all the reasons it's bothered other people more experienced and eloquent than I.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Labyrinth Lord / Desolate North House Rules Part 1: Character Creation and Classes

Inspired by a lot of people, including +Jeff Rients, +Peter V. Dell'Orto, and +Chris Kutalik, and
others. I'll try to include links to relevant posts/articles/whatever when I can, but if I forget or can't find it, that shouldn't be taken to mean I'm claiming to be the original author of the idea.

3d6 In Order. Few Exceptions.
The only exception here is noted by LL, where it points out you can trade 2 points down for 1 point up, with restrictions. Those restrictions are still in place. Further, you can only do this if doing so would allow you to play a class you wouldn't otherwise qualify for, not just to get your Prime Requisite into XP bonus territory.

Bonus Languages:
High INT score gives bonus languages as noted. However, these languages do not have to be chosen at creation. Instead, whenever a new language is encountered, the player may choose to roll a D6; on a result of 1-3, the character happens to know that language as a Bonus Language.

Languages can also be learned in play through other means.


New classes: None yet. But I might add some (like Battle Nuns).

I'd love to make clerics start with no spells at level 1, but that sounds exactly like the kind of modification to make players not familiar with the OSR grumble.

Clerics must be either Lawful or Chaotic. Lawful Clerics are Clerics of the Church (more on religion in the Desolate North later) and must be male. Players are encouraged to create sects or brotherhoods or orders to which their clerics belong.

Some Clerical sects (even within the Church) may have different weapon limitations.

Clerics are the only class to automatically know an 'alignment language' - which is the language of their religious proceedings. (In the Church, it's a Latin-analogue.) Well-educated monsters may or may not know an appropriate alignment language.

Clerics may create scrolls as per Holmes: usually 100gp and 1 week per spell level.


Clarification: a dwarf hiring folks for the stronghold can hire dwarves for any job, though it may be hard to find a dwarven spellcaster. However, they cannot hire any other races as mercenaries or soldiers.


Elves have no souls. This means they are immune to spells that directly inflict death or act on the soul; e.g. Ray of Death, Disintegrate or Trap the Soul, but not Prismatic Sphere. However, they cannot be brought back from the dead, either.

Elves can cast spells while using weapons, shields, and armor.

Elves do not have spellbooks. Instead, they gain (and can cast per day) spells as on the below table:

Elf Spell Progression
Spell Level
Level 1 2 3 4
1 1 0 0 0
2 1 0 0 0
3 2 0 0 0
4 2 0 0 0
5 2 1 0 0
6 2 1 0 0
7 2 2 0 0
8 2 2 1 0
9 2 2 2 0
10 2 2 2 1

Spells gained are usually randomly determined, though there may be exceptions.

Elves may create scrolls as per Holmes: usually 100gp and 1 week per spell level.

Fighters with DEX 16 or higher may Parry, sacrificing 1 attack per round to give themselves -2 AC.

Fighters get +1 to their hit dice at 1st level, so a 1st level fighter is 1+1 HD.

Whenever a fighter kills a foe with a melee attack, he may immediately melee attack another foe in range. Each new attack is at a cumulative -1 to hit.

Fighters start gaining bonus attacks at 10th level instead of 15th.

At 4th level, any time a Fighter rolls a natural 20 to hit, it hits automatically and rolls max damage. Note that no other class gets critical hits.

At 8th level, a Fighter's damage dice explode. The max damage from a critical hit counts for this purpose.

Halflings may only carry 1 Large Item, and it counts as two. (See house rules for encumbrance here.)

Halflings are universally bald, and they have a parietal eye. Whenever their heads are uncovered, they receive a +1 to saving throws from threats from above at the DM's discretion. When forced to wear headgear they feel distinctly uncomfortable.

Magic Users:
A Magic User starts play with 2 1st-level and 1 2nd-level spell in his spell-book. All other spells must be gained in play. (Not a change, just a note.) One of those spells is Read Magic; the other two are randomly determined. (Not everyone gets Sleep and Web.)

Magic Users may create scrolls as per Holmes: usually 100gp and 1 week per spell level.

Thieves effectively get a complete re-write, based on the alternate thief skill rules from the Hill Cantons and then further modified by Timrod. More detail follows in another post; it's too big to throw here.