Tuesday, February 7, 2017

You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all different

Just dropping a quick note here to point out what you all already know: this blog's update schedule has taken a mortal blow.

But don't worry. It's just at exactly 0 HP, and in my games that means that with quick attention, it can recover, given time. And I'm reliably told that, while the party didn't bring a cleric, Lubo the linkboy (a scruffy ne'er-do-well sort they picked up in one of their favorite seedy dives in the docks district) did a stint as an assistant to a street surgeon with unsavory tendencies, so he knows the ins and outs of bandaging up sucking chest wounds.

To translate: grad school is kicking my butt, so I'm devoting a lot of time to that. This blog, and D&D in general, have taken a back seat to getting my work done and advancing my academic career. Which means I'm no longer even going to pretend to myself that I plan on the Tue/Thurs regularity this place briefly enjoyed.

However, that doesn't mean we're done here. I still have the Desolate North to flesh out, and I have plenty of backlog posts. A shame, really; some of them are on a bit of a time limit, like a couple play reports. (*ssshh, don't tell anyone, that was supposed to be a surprise!) But needs must, and necessity is the mother of invention, and peasants are full of sayings, and I come from peasant stock.

I might update irregularly throughout the semester. This space might go completely silent until some time in May, or maybe even later. But I do plan to be back, eventually. So throw this on your RSS feed, if you care.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Mapping doors

Doors are driving me a bit batty.

I should explain.

Architecturally, one of the things old-school dungeon mapping has gotten right, I tend to think almost by accident, is the ten-foot square. That is, judging by real-life dungeons like Diocletian's dungeon, in order to support large open rooms in an underground complex made of stone, walls need to be about ten feet thick.

This is a happy bit of synchronicity that I would like to re-enforce in my games (at least for dungeon-sections that are 'naturally' constructed).

(Also, yes, I may be giving our good Gaming Fathers too little credit. I'm sure those more skilled in ludiarchaeology will correct me if so.)

I've quickly run into problems with this little scheme, of the door variety.

Doors in Diocletian's palace sit in the middle of the thickness of the wall. Which means they sit in the middle of a ten-foot section.Which means that a lot of doors on a lot of classic maps don't work.

The Caves of Chaos, as if you don't recognize them. Click to embiggen.
For example, check out the crypt area of the Caves of Chaos, up in the northwestern corner of the map. Impressively, a lot of the doors work, but there are a few that don't. Now, that said, not every wall needs to be 10' thick in order for the structure to hold itself up. Especially here, where it isn't supporting a large complex of rooms on top of itself.

Aside from the compatibility of pre-drawn maps, however, there's the question of how to draw my own. For doors, I see three options:
  1. Make the door take up an entire square of its own.
  2. Create little 'stub-outs' or alcoves for holding the doors, as a measure to accomodate the door setting.
  3. Ignore the problem entirely.
Option #1 is surprisingly attractive. The thing about doorways that take you through a 10' section of wall is that, while the door is certainly recessed, it nevertheless still feels like a straight section of wall while you're standing in the room, rather than standing out as a break in the plumb of the wall. Making the door take up the whole square it's in preserves that feeling on the map, and gets rid of any temptation I have to say something like, "It's a twenty-by-twenty room, except there's a five-foot recess at the southwestern corner leading west," which will get old after a while if I'm just describing doorways.

That said, it does have one huge drawback at least, and that is communicating proper mapping protocols to the players. Honestly, it's not that big of a deal; we're all adults and I could just explain they should generally draw doors as taking up the entire square because that's what I'm doing, but then we get into a discussion of why, and I come of as a pedantic ass looking to save a bit of verisimilitude nobody else cares about and we waste five minutes talking about doors instead of running from monsters so they don't take our stuff.

Another, maybe bigger drawback is that, since practically no published map has ever done this (though I believe I have seen one or two), I sharpen my compatibility issues.

Option #2 is the one I've de facto gone for. It's fairly prevalent, actually; you see it all over the place on the B2 map above. But it, too, has its problems; primarily the opposites of option #1. Rooms stop looking like simple shapes and start looking like 'simple shape but's. Plus there's the fact that having doors on the sides of corridors is hard to accomodate, though looking at the map above (room 56 in particular) I see an elegant solution.

Option #3 has its attractions. This is meant to be a fun game about monsters, dungeons, and treasure, not an archaeological hobby horse. If it's keeping me from mapping, forget the problem and just put things on graph paper.

That said, I can't quite bring myself to do this completely. It's good advice up to a point, but having governing rules for the architecture of your dungeon can be helpful, too, in getting you past that stage of infinite possibility when presented with a blank section, and in helping you as a DM to understand this place you've just drawn and therefore present it in a more cohesive, enjoyable way.

As an example of what I mean, even thinking about this problem in the first place brings up the question of the thickness of any given wall segment. This in turn has led to me contemplating how the players will move through the dungeon. If a section of wall is 10' thick, then it's effectively impassible without high-level magicks. Yes, you could set a team of men at it with pickaxes and shovels and be through in a few hours, but really you're just wasting time and effort. However, if a section of wall is only about a foot thick, then suddenly it opens up tactical options. You can maybe hear into the next room. You can even maybe enter through the thin spot, with some preparation (though it probably won't be quiet). You're more likely to find secret doors or passages or features there because it takes less architectural faffing about to put something useful in.

More difficult than you might think to find the proper place for in your dungeon.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A bit of housekeeping

Happy New Year!

I'm going to use the fact that time is arbitrarily (though conveniently) marked in the Gregorian calendar in such a way that this time appears special to noodle on about this blog for a bit.

I seem to have continued writing decently regularly, much to my surprise. I think part of the reason is the start of grad school; despite having significantly less time to think about these kinds of things, now I'm also on a schedule and exposed to new people. Gaming is a social activity, after all, so meeting new people could easily get the gaming juices flowing. Maybe it also has something to do with the Tuesday-Thursday schedule (that evolved from my class schedule), which is much more manageable than the absurdly over-ambitious daily or semi-daily thing I first tried for when I started this blog.

I'm hopeful that my regular posting will still continue into the new year. After all, I still have a lot of work to do on the Desolate North and for gaming in general. I want to come up with a framework for figuring out the resources for settlements of various sizes, including how the PCs interact with them. (I'm thinking changing the markets by spending money, their militaries, how easy it is to find what kinds of items, and a domain-level view of what kinds of resources they possess and exploit, all without needed to turn this in to Spreadsheets & Secretaries. Something a little like AER, but lighter weight and in some places less abstract.) I have a whole bunch of hex contents ideas I want to flesh out on this here blog. I'm still writing that megadungeon, and I want to post what I can about how it's shaping up without revealing enough to spoil surprises for the players. And at some point soon hopefully there will be some play reports coming in as I get a group together.

All that said, I re-iterate that this blog is not a commitment for me. Posting might drop off again with no notice whatsoever due to life changes or a lack of interest. Take all this as a good sign, but not a promise.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Bisociation as dungeon device

Let me share something with you.

I committed to building a megadungeon for the Desolate North a while ago. Quite a while ago. The first thing I started with was an idea of what kind of place I wanted and a tie-in to the campaign. I decided on an old dwarven fortress, abandoned for centuries. I promptly made a side-view map (pretty cool, too, and pretty detailed, if I may say so myself)...and then got swept up in real life. This was back before my recent spate of posting, mind.

When I came back to it, I had this great side-view map, and some of the entrance to level 1 mapped out. And...it sat there. I knew I should work on it, but it sat there. Why?

I just wasn't enthused about the idea. First, there was the setting idea - Oh, great, another dwarven fortress dungeon, just like other classic dwarven fortress dungeons! how original and wonderfully evocative! - and then there was the fact that, even if I liked the setting idea, I didn't want to play with it for a whole megadungeon's worth of space and effort. It sat there.

Until, talking it over with my wife one day, I came upon the solution. See, I still like the idea of an old dwarven fortress. It fits in very nicely with the Desolate North, as the first clue that this is actually an area of ancient history instead of virgin territory. But I didn't want to stick with it for the whole dungeon. So what to do?

Bisociate. The dungeon is two different things at the same time in the same place. (Hat tip to Kenneth Hite. Suppressed Transmission is a big part of my gaming bildungsroman.)

So at the same time as the dungeon is indeed an ancestral homeland for a civlization of dwarves that was never supposed to be here and is only in the crackpot theories of some discredited sage, it is also so much more, weirdly layered over it and shining through it and competing with it. Which set of myths is true? What exactly is the dungeon? Is it inside out?

This has a bunch of benefits. Firstly, I feel less like I'm leading the players on by the nose if I shove in discoverable bits about the lore. After all, through the bisociation they can come to their own conclusions about the history of the dungeon and the Desolate North, and I can't even say that they're wrong.

Further, it allows me to throw in a bunch of stuff that's interesting and Weird and cultish and oh-so-appropriate to what gets my creative juices flowing without feeling tied to the dusty and tired theme of 'underground mountain fortress for short people' that's just, by itself, missing that je ne sais quoi.

What this isn't is an excuse for the dungeon to not make sense or go 'gonzo.' I could use it that way, but I don't want to. ASE is all well and good, but I don't want to play it. Besides, Mr Wetmore is better at it than me by miles, despite sharing a first name.

But it does feel freeing. I can draw rooms without worrying overly about whether or not they fit with the dwarven theme, or (especially on lower levels) even if it exactly made sense for someone to build them this way. I can include whole other themes if I want without breaking stride, so long as I can tie them all together into the larger bisociative picture.

Ultimately, though, it passes the best test of all: I'm actually drawing it. I have the first (of four) sections of level 1 nearly completed (on graph paper, not keyed) despite the fact that my only time to work on it is in snatches and starts. (Mostly in the morning while waiting for my professor to come to class.) And I'm excited about the place, about drawing it and keying it and putting it all together and letting PCs loose to wreck it. Ask my wife; I won't shut up about it.

That's nice for you, but what can I do with it?

That's a valid question. After all, you're here reading for ideas about your own gaming. Here's the thing: you can do it too.

Let's say you have an idea for a dungeon. For the sake of an example, we'll go with 'ancient Greek with animal men' in the tradition of Jacquays. That's a good theme, but if you want (or if you're struggling) you can bisociate (the italics are traditional). The dungeon has another theme. Not a complementary one, a completely new one that's sufficient unto itself. Going with our example, you can also have 'original touch-down spot and temple to the Elder Things'.

How does this work? That's up to you and how far you want to take it. Maybe different levels are on different 'planes' or places and interpenetrate. Maybe the dungeon changes from visit to visit (making restocking potentially very interesting, if a lot of work). Maybe if you're on drugs you see things differently - not more or less true, just differently. Maybe if you go right at the fork, you find one thing, but if you go left, you find another. Maybe there are different groups of monsters in your factions that only make sense in one of the idioms but not the other.

The possibilities are endless.

Try it out.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas to one and all. May your holiday be filled with cheer and possibly even gaming.

I need to think up some kind of Christmas-ish holiday for the Desolate North. Perhaps a Wild Hunt...

Thursday, December 22, 2016


Whew! That last post was a doozy. Let's go with something easier. It needs to get done anyway.

As part of a previous post about real-life adventurers, I mentioned that they practically always go on caravans. How can we encourage that in gaming?

One thing about dungeon- and hex-crawling is that it's all about the management of resources.

Caravans are an abstraction of resources. Here's how it works.

You pay an up-front cost for your caravan in some place with a caravanserai. (It becomes the DM's responsibility to figure out where a caravanserai might be. I suggest any city unless it's completely isolated, and to a limited extent any town.) That up-front cost probably costs a bit more than it would if you just went through the equipment list putting together stuff for an expedition. (Note also that caravan costs assume you buy mounts at the starting point, but sell them again when the expedition's over. If you decide to keep them or lose them, pay full price.)

However, if you do buy a caravan, you're completely covered for all normal, common items as long as you're with the caravan for some period of time. Rope, food, water, lights, arrows, mapping supplies - they're all part of the caravan. Gifts for the natives, too. If you need something specific that's not an extremely common item, but you nevertheless might have (like a white horse or a five-man tent) you roll to see if you have it.

All this comes with a number of servants and animals appropriate to the size. If the animals can't graze where you're going, it halves your number of supplies.

Caravans travel slowly; assume the speed of a heavily laden walking man for a standard pace. Follow roads.

Also, caravans can generally resupply on some stocks (not gifts, but yes to food and water, other stuff at the DM's discretion) in any villages/settlements/tribal homelands they come across. Prices are at the DM's discretion as well, but stuff is cheap out in the bush. I recommend starting at around 1/10th the caravan price for resupply.

Caravans can also set up base camps. A base camp is a 'safe place' - not that it can't get attacked if the DM decides that's reasonable, but it's a lightly-fortified location with guards (mostly just caravan servants) and food and supplies. If you go into the dungeon, when you come out again you can rest and resupply at the base camp, as well as dumping off your excess loot. (You can't spend it, though.)

Guards cost extra. Paying for guards you get standard men-at-arms, with variations appropriate to the area.

That's enough talking. Let's give some examples

Small Caravan
Cost: 500gp
Unusual item roll: 5 or less (on 2d6)
Five pack animals and ten servants, plus riding animals for the party. Supplies for one month. Gifts for four introductions. Pay 100gp extra for guards.

Medium Caravan
Cost: 1000gp
Unusual item roll: 7 or less (on 2d6)
Ten pack animals and fifteen servants, plus riding animals for the party. Supplies for three months. Gifts for eight introductions. Pay 200gp extra for guards.

Large Caravan
Cost: 2000gp
Unusual item roll: 9 or less (on 2d6)
Twenty pack animals and  thirty servants, plus riding animals for the party. Supplies for six months. Gifts for sixteen introductions. Pay 400gp extra for guards.

Meeting the natives

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Necromancers are pansies


Requirements: WIS 12 or below
Prime Requisite: CON
Hit Dice: 1d4
Maximum Level: 9
Alignment: Chaotic

Necromancers are reviled the world over, with the exception of the Qynarate, where they fulfill the role of both priests and slaves, forced by the Undying Empress to channel their grotesque craft toward the unholy task of keeping the state running. For all but the highest, it's perhaps a worse existence than everywhere else, where you'll just be hunted down by the locals and lynched or by the Church and burnt.

Further, necromancers are limited by their focus on thanatologies. They haven't the breadth of magic-users, and the day-to-day existence of a necromancer is often unpleasant - grave robbing and corpses, rotting flesh, and malevolent, life-hating intelligences.

So why do people turn to necromancy? Simple: it's easy, and it's fast. Necromancers gain power amazingly quickly, and all you have to sacrifice is your humanity.

Necromancers are restricted in arms and armor as magic-users. They also gain and cast spells like magic-users, but are restricted to the necromancer spell list.

In addition to their spellbooks, at 2nd level necromancers must make a pact with some malevolent intelligence. Non-exhaustive examples include a powerful undead, a demon, or another necromancer. As part of this pact, a necromancer learns 1 new spell whenever he gains a new level, but must complete some task for his patron (and may be required to do so between levels as well, if he wishes to keep the patronage).

Further, a necromancer may cast bonus spells per day. In order to do so, a necromancer must sacrifice a living, sentient creature. A necromancer gains bonus spellss equal in level to the number of hit-dice of the sacrificed creature(s), distributed as he chooses. A necromancer may never have more than one bonus spell of any given level. Bonus spells are kept until cast. (Example: the necromancer catches and sacrifices a 5th-level fighter. He may now memorize an extra fifth-level spell, a fourth and a first level spell, a third and a second level spell, or so on.)

Reaching 9th level: Upon reaching 9th level, a necromancer may create a stronghold, often a tower. He will attract a number (1d6) of intelligent undead (wights, wraiths, ghouls, but never mummies or vampires) and 1-3 necromancer apprentices of 1st level.
(Further, it will be difficult to attract peasants for tax revenue. 1/4th is a good starting point.)


Experience Hit Dice (d4) Number of Spells (by level)
1 2 3 4 5
1 0 1 1
2 1,251 2 2
3 2,501 3 3 1
4 5,001 4 3 2
5 10,001 5 4 2 1
6 20,001 6 4 2 2
7 40,001 7 4 3 2 1
8 80,001 8 4 3 3 2
9 160,001 9 4 3 3 2 1


Non-exhaustive list

Level 1

Charm Undead
As MU spell, but only works on intelligent undead (ghouls, wights, etc.)

Detect Evil
As MU spell

Protection from Evil
As MU spell

Foul Grave
Duration: Permanent
By means of this spell the necromancer desecrates a grave-site. A body interred in such a grave is practically guaranteed to rise again as an appropriate form of undead, probably a wight or a wraith.

Corpse Essence
Duration: Permanent
Range: Touch
The caster draws forth the lingering vitality of a fresh corpse and infuses it into himself, gaining 1d4hp per HD of the dead creature. The corpse crumbles to dust in the process. It must be fresh, having died no more than a week ago.

Preserve Body
Duration: One Week
The necromancer temporarily halts the decay of a corpse, fending off all natural sources of rot and dissolution. Magical rot and trauma (such as from attacks) will still harm the body, but it will not suffer from bacteria, vermin, etc. This spell only halts decay; it does not reverse it. This spell may be cast on the animated dead.

Cloak of Death
Duration: 3 turns
Range: 30'
The subject of this spell is perceived by undead to be 'one of them' or otherwise not a threat or target. Intelligent undead get a saving throw to resist the effect. If the subject attacks or otherwise harms the undead, the spell ends.

Level 2

Raise Ghoul
Duration: Permanent
This spell allows the caster to raise a new ghoul from the dead. It requires a fresh body no more than a month dead (or well-preserved) to work with. The ghoul thus raised is the slave of the caster and must follow verbal commands, but he doesn't have to like it.

Aspect of Death
Duration: 1 turn
Range: Personal
The caster's visage becomes supernaturally gruesome and chilling, striking terror into all who behold him and fail a saving throw vs. spells

Animate Dead
As the Cleric spell of the same name, but the necromancer can raise twice his level in HD of skeletons and zombies.

Drain Level
Duration: Permanent
Range: Touch
After casting this spell, the necromancer must make a melee attack at +4 to hit. If he hits, the necromancer drains one level from the target.

Level 3

Ward Against Turning
Duration: 6 turns
Range: 60'
The necromancer whispers his will to the undead, letting them add half his level to their effective hit dice to avoid turning attempts. A necromancer may ward up to his own level in hit dice of undead with this spell.

Rip Out Spirit
Duration: Concenration
Range: 20'
This gruesome spell allows the caster to violently separate the spirit from the flesh of the target. If the subject fails a save vs. death, he loses 1 level (or hit die) per round until he dies or the caster ceases to draw forth his spirit. The caster must concentrate and do nothing else for the duration of the spell.

A spirit drawn forth in this way may be stored as per Soul Jar, though it does not get the ability to possess other vessels. Intelligent creatures only. Elves are immune.

Inflict Rot
Duration: Permanent
Range: 60'
If the subject fails his saving throw vs spells, he is imbued with a supernatural rotting disease. He loses 1d6 CON and CHA and is unable to heal naturally or magically from any inflicted wounds. A cure disease followed by remove curse can end the effects.

Raise Wight
Duration: Permanent
The caster raises a new wight from an available body. The body must be freshly slain (no more than 1 week old) or well-preserved. The wight thus raised is slave to the caster and must follow verbal commands.

Raise Wraith
Duration: Permanent
The caster raises a new wraith from an available body. The body must have been slain over a year ago and buried with grave goods of no less than 50gp worth. The wraith thus raised is slave to the caster and must follow verbal commands.

Summon Shade
By means of this spell the caster summons forth a shade from the dead. He may then ask it three questions before it returns to whence it came. The caster must have some strong link to the shade - a part of the body, a dear object, or being in a specially important location - and any given shade may only be summoned once. The shade will only know things that it would have known in life. In order to cast this spell, the caster must sacrifice at least 1hp worth of fresh blood (though it need not be his own).

Level 4

Eldritch Life
Duration: Permanent
This spell breathes life of a sort into the dead. To cast this spell, the necromancer must spend 2d4 weeks preparing the body for its 'resurrection'. When first chosen, the body must be fresh, slain no more than 1 week ago, or very well-preserved (think formaldehyde, not mummification). This spell only works on humans and demi-humans (elves included).

When raised, the new 'person' will have no memories of his former life, and must be taught everything - how to speak, how to read, how to eat, etc. (Neither will he have any class levels from his former life.) There is a 5% chance that the raised creature will be subtly insane, gradually becoming homocidal and monomaniac.

Revitalization in this fashion will give the new 'person' unnatural strength and vigor, imbuing him with 2 (d8) HD, max CON, and max STR. If not insane, the creature will be strongly attached to the caster, as though Charmed (but permanent, and unable to be dispelled), unless and until the caster tries to kill or seriously harm him.

Any given caster may only have one such raised companion at a time, for if he raises another inevitably they will go to great lengths to kill one another.

Raise Mummy
Duration: Permanent
The caster raises a new mummy from an available body. The body must be properly mummified, which takes at least a week and 500gp of materials unless you happen to have a mummified body sitting around. The mummy thus raised is slave to the caster and must follow verbal commands.

Raise Spectre
Duration: Permanent
The caster raises a new spectre from an available body. The body must have been slain over a year ago and buried with grave goods of no less than 200gp worth. The spectre thus raised is slave to the caster and must follow verbal commands
Skull Spirit
Duration: Permanent
The caster raises a new skull spirit from an available skull of an intelligent creature. The skull must be clean of all flesh and not seriously damaged. The skull spirit follows the verbal commands of the caster. (Stats for skull spirits can be found at the end.)

Level 5

Soul Leech
Duration: Special, see below
By means of this spell, the caster consumes a stored spirit. Consuming a spirit may give many benefits. Choose one:
  •  Remove curse as per the spell
  • Cure disease as per the spell
  • Gain 1 bonus spell of each level you are able to cast. You may not do this more than once per day
  • Cure critical wounds as per the spell (3d6+3)
  • Restoration as per the spell
  • See invisible, See ethereal and detect magic as per the spells
  • Set any one stat to max (18) for 1 day
This spell functions like the clerical spell Commune, except that the caster must kill and read the entrails of some creature as part of the spell. Further, use of unintelligent creatures only grants 1 question.

Death Spell
As per the MU spell

Duration: Permanent
This spell infuses the caster with necromantic energies that prolong life into undeath. It must be cast three times exactly a year and a day apart from one another. If the caster misses a subsequent casting, he dies and his body turns to dust with no chance of resurrection. Further, each casting requires reagants costing at least 5,000gp and a week's careful, uninterrupted preparation.

If successful, there is at first no outward change to the caster. However, when he dies either from old age or any other source, he will not die. Instead, he will continue on as a lich. (Exactly how to handle this is up to the DM.)