Saturday, December 5, 2015

Are we popular in France?

Looking through my traffic analysis tools for this blog (because having the biggest possible reader-base is so important to me, as you can tell), it seems we've been getting a not-insubstantial number of hits from French Google (Le Google?) for our post on Queen's Landing. I can only assume this is because the sweeping originality and breadth of my vision resonates deeply with some essential element of the French soul.

I can't say this is too much of a surprise. After all, I've read by Baudelaire, and my Valéry.

Which seems like the genesis of an idea or two, actually...

So, for any French readers in the audience, à bientôt.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Movement paradigms

Writing about a bunch of sessile creatures got me thinking about movement and how different dimensions of movement are the kind of paradigm shift that you don't even notice it sometimes.

We're broadly accustomed to things that move in two dimensions, roughly. (Yes, we go up and down stairs, ropes, mountains whatever. If you consider the surface of the Earth as a curve defined by a pseudo-function, it has two parameters, not three. Thus two dimensions. And you people out there who want to point out that more than one person can be in a multi-story building at a time can hush.)

When they don't move in two dimensions, it changes things. It changes our approach to them. It changes their approach to us. All in ways much more fundamental than some special ability, like a gaze attack or turning invisible.

So here goes.

Zero Dimensions

This one is actually fairly common, both for monsters and for PCs. For monsters, you have things like ropers, shriekers, otyughs. They either rely on sneak attacks and range, or the inclusion of other elements that mitigate their disadvantage. (Like a shrieker calls for other monsters who can move in two dimensions.)

For the players, this just means being caught in a net or something, and generally sought out. It's a challenge to be overcome rather than a mechanic to be used.

One possible way to use zero-dimensional movement in a fun way might be something like a teleportation fight. You have a room (or whatever) and want to either get away from or get at something else in the room. In order to do this, you have to figure out the right series of jumps, which are all limited to small areas - say, big enough to stand two or three people in, but not big enough to count as small rooms themselves.

This can either be a puzzle (figure out the right sequence of jumps to get to the door) or a chase (trying to catch a guy who keeps fleeing after a few seconds of contact, or figure out a way to cut him off from other jumps). Or even both. Maybe I'll throw together a room, because this is an idea worth playing with.

In the case of mis-matches where one side has 2-dimensional movement (the most common mismatch), the 2-dimensional side determines the engagement. After all, if something can't come after you, you can always stand back and hit it with lightning bolts until it dies.

One Dimension

Things that move only in a straight line. These are, methinks, the least innately common. They're just hard to do - moving in a straight line is still pretty restrictive. The only monster I can think of off the top of my head that does this is the Juggernaut from the Caverns of Thracia, and it cheats by being able to turn in place.

There is one commonly-used poor-man's model of this, though: sticking the PCs/monsters/creatures/whatever on a bridge, or isthmus. To a rough approximation you can only go forward and backward, not around. You could probably mix it up a little by making the line curved - in two or even three dimensions. Walking up a deformed helix in the astral plane to get to the Altar of Osmeden while everyone has a different native rotation around the helix and must all reach there at the same time while being stalked by the feared Astral Shark sounds like it might be a good time.

Generally, restricting the PCs' movement to one dimension forces them to encounter something if they want to go forward.

In the case of a mismatch, those with 2-dimensional movement still control the engagement, but the methods are different. Instead of just walking away, you trap the creature, go around a corner, remove its ability to turn, and you have to make sure you're going the right direction - else it might follow you. (So, on a featureless plane, only moving in one dimension isn't a drawback if all you want to do is get away.)

Two Dimensions

As mentioned previously, this is the default assumption of movement. Randomly pick a monster out of your monster manual; chances are it moves in two dimensions.

This is already pretty interesting without being changed up. Two dimensions gives you freedom for tactical engagements, under the assumption that the enemy's awareness is not as well-distributed as your movement possibilities. But (as with others) one thing that I don't see done very often (though sometimes) is to have the plane of movement not be flat. This includes tricks like walking on walls, around 'roller coaster' curves, shifting gravity, and so forth.

This type of movement is also the first one to be altered more by a definition of where you can't move than where you can. Walls, pits, lakes, etc. become obstacles that are essential to figuring out where you can and can't move, because the default assumption is that you can, rather than that you can't. Mazes, chasms, even the structure of dungeons themselves usually assume this kind of movement is prevalent and are designed for freedom or restriction in two dimensions.

One other way of looking at movement becomes potentially fun at this level: changing the way you move. Ice slicks are a fairly common example, which change the idea from, "I go where I want to be," to, "I gain the velocity I want to have (in order to end up where I want to be)." You could try the same thing with acceleration, though I don't know what that would look like or how it would play. There are also numerous other tricks, like switching directions (you go right when you mean to go forward) to translational or rotational instability (having to avoid falling down if you want to go forward; having to correct for a tendency to move away from your direction of motion, etc.)

A simple example: A room that has 'pits', changes the direction of gravity as you move across it, and has a strong wind blowing from one wall. Pretty difficult to navigate, that.

Three Dimensions

There are two main methods of movement in three dimensions: flight, and swimming. For the former, the PCs usually don't have it, and the NPCs do. For the latter, both the PCs and the NPCs usually have it.

I think movement in three dimensions is a large portion of why underwater adventures feel so weird. Yes, there's the fish/ocean/nonterrestrial theme, but take that and put it on the ground, and it loses some of its strangeness. There's just something alien about having that third degree of unrestricted movement. Another way to see this is if you say to the PCs, "Okay, you're underwater and can breathe just fine for whatever reason, but you have to walk along the bottom." It loses a lot of its charm.

Generally this is hard to run, at least with a mat, because your mat is in 2 dimensions and your characters are moving in three. No, I don't have any suggestions to help with that, sorry. What I usually see done is a kind of assumption of an X-Y plane and a deviation off of that (that happens with some rarity, depending on how enthusiastic people are about it). This is a shame. If you're going to design an underwater dungeon, town, or encounter, be sure to make it clear most things are not on the same level - why would they be?

If both parties are three-dimension capable, this also changes tactics considerably. You can swoop in from above or below. You can break off in any direction. Cornering someone is a lot harder. This is also an area where ranged weapons shine even brighter than they do in two dimensions, since they naturally operate in three. Be aware: if the party's flying, the wizard is going to outclass the fighter very easily for usefulness unless the fighter brought a bow.

 Flight is where we see the effects of a mismatch between the PCs and their enemies most often, though sometimes it can go the other way. If you can move in 3 dimensions and your enemy is stuck in 2, you define the engagement again. Generally this looks like momentary contact, or projectiles. (A classic example is the roc dropping rocks on the party from high enough that they can't shoot it.) If you're on the underside of this, your first order of business is to remove your enemy's extra dimension of movement. Cut off his wings, trap him with a low ceiling, suck the air out of the room so he can't use it, whatever. Even if you have superior force, he gets to decide where and how you apply it.

Many ways to change this up exist. One of the simplest is clustering and restriction of means - for example, rather than natively flying themselves, the monsters are riding flying beasts, or a magic carpet or some such. Removing their mode of transportation also runs the risk of giving them a nasty fall (assuming a force like gravity), and it can be separately targeted. Also of note is that 2-dimensional traps can still work - while pits don't mean anything, nets do.

Effects I don't see very often but that might be fun to play with include changing the parameters of the movement itself, like above. Maybe three-dimensional movers move like airplanes, instead of like people with a tallness control. Or maybe there are pockets - like pits, canyons, rivers, etc. - that they can't cross and must go around. Maybe you can move in three dimensions, but those dimensions have certain rigid ratios - like you can only move on planes of a certain slope, or within certain solids.

As an example other than the ordinary flight/swim alternatives, I give you: Orbital Mechanics, the Mad Wizard's play room! In the exact center of the room is a huge black ball, humming quietly. This ball floats in the middle of the air, and gravity points toward it at all times. If you manage to avoid falling in after opening the door and crossing the threshold (because you kept a hand on the door or whatever), you'll notice harnesses hanging on the walls. These harnesses, when worn, shoot arcane missiles out of the chest, which allow you to scoot around. Better get to orbital velocity quickly before you touch the black ball, or who knows what might happen!

(In order to use this, you have to know something about orbits, so here goes. Prograde thrust (tangential, in the direction of travel) widen your orbit; retrograde will narrow it. (At apoapsis, the highest point, this raises or lowers your periapsis, or lowest point). The higher you are the slower you're moving; the lower you are, the faster. Radial thrust (toward or away from the black ball) will both lower the part where you are now and raise the part across the orbit, but not by much. Normal (at right angles to both) will change your inclination, or the angle of your orbit.

You can probably ignore or gloss most of that with modifiers; being in orbit when you're not accustomed to it is weird. And of course, there are strange scintillating bullet-shaped animals here that squirt a dark cloud out the back end and come at you, all mouths. They seem to know what they're doing...good thing you have time to react, so you'll miss them at the next rendezvous. Oh, and did I mention that you're trying to get to the door over there in that weird corner that looks like it has a bit of ladder you could grab onto?

Four or more Dimensions

(More than four and just four look pretty much the same at the table.) I'm not talking about movement through time or anything like that. The problem with four-dimensional movement is that, while we have the tools to mathematically analyze it, we don't have the intuition to grasp it, seeing as we're naturally creatures in three dimensions.

Unrestricted four-dimensional movement is probably boring. As far as the PCs can tell, it's no different from occasional teleportation, since in order to interact with the PCs the creature needs to be at a certain point on the fourth axis - and that doesn't move (at least relative to the PCs). If the PCs are given unrestricted four-dimensional movement...well, you're a braver (and probably brainier) GM than I am.

This can become interesting, however, with proper restrictions. Instead of being completely free, say the creature has to move in a certain relation of the fourth dimension to the rest - like a tesseract. Then, with observation and a little smarts, the PCs can start to predict points of contact with their three-dimensional existence, and plan accordingly. The same is true if you give them access to four dimensions - the fun will come from observing those restrictions and seeing what freedom you're allowed within them. For example, maybe you can step through this wall but not that one because of the local geometry. Or maybe you can figure out a way to steal the Fire Emerald off its Pedestal without setting off the Rolling Rock of Doom.

Side note: ethereal and astral travel could be used as a sort of poor-man's fourth dimension, but I feel like that's reducing something really potentially cool (you have a whole other world in those planes!) to something rather quotidian.

A simple, restricted example of a challenge related to movement in the fourth dimension is the dungeon room that's a tesseract. In order to construct one, make each surface (floor, ceiling, walls) a potential floor. Give them all kinds of accoutrements, too - essentially you're stuffing six rooms into one, and allowing them a way to interact.

Then, label them 1 - 6, or A - F, or whatever. Then, for each side of one floor, (NESW) choose a number/letter it connects to, while making sure that it's not the one it should connect to in 3 dimensions.

In a way, it's like a teleportation maze where you can see everything in the maze at the same time, with the added complication of looking a little crazy to the eye, because you never change orientation but the room does.

Anyway, I hope that helps someone come up with something cool. I feel like I hadn't really been considering movement paradigms enough in my designs, so I reckon I'm probably not the only one.

Other notable fauna in the Forest of Fog

I started off the last post with just an idea of "Desert hyacinth monster" and it grew from there. Aaaand then I kind of went overboard with the monster description; nobody needs umpteen paragraphs on a single gimmick plant. So here's some more information on the Forest of Fog for anyone who's interested.

Denizens of the Forest of Fog

The first thing to remember is that there are no animals. Most everything that tries to kill you is going to be a plant, because the plants eat everything else.

There are the hyacinths of course. But there are some others. These are just samples; the Mad Elven King was really, really into horticulture.

More of a trap than a monster, shattergrass is a delicate, transparent green grass that almost looks to be made from spun glass. From a distance, it looks normal. It grows in patches, usually in gaps in the trees (which it sometimes causes). In the dim light of the forest, it can be hard to tell from regular grass - not that there's much of either.

When disturbed by anything stronger than a gentle wind, shattergrass breaks into thousands of razor-sharp shards, like really thin slivers of broken glass. Basically, moving through a patch of shattergrass is going to cost you 1d6 hp and possibly shred your footgear or leggings.

Weeping bromeliads
Like their more mundane cousins, these live on the branches of trees. Unlike their more mundane cousins, they hijack trees.

Trees with a large number of weeping bromeliads on them will have trunks and branches stained a deep red from the juices of the flowering plant. They will also move whenever anything larger than a cat walks by, because the bromeliads are territorial and don't like invaders.

Stats as a treant, only most of the trees are sessile, and have 1d10 + 3 bromeliads all over the branches. Trees with ten or more bromeliads may even uproot themselves temporarily to chase off the party.
(7HD version, treants go up to 12): HD 7; AC 2[17]; Atk 2 strikes (2d6); Move -- or 3; Save 9; ML 12; CL/XP 7/600

Hangman's moss
Here's another trap-monster. This looks a lot like like Spanish moss, except maybe even longer. It likes to form long curtains, hanging in the air and waving listlessly on any light breeze. Close inspection will show a small assortment of insects, birds, and an occasional bat caught in the curtain and dessicated.

Anyone touching a sufficient amount of the moss (a couple clumps is fine, but a curtain is dangerous) must save vs. poison or be paralyzed. (Elves are not immune.) Anyone so caught will be slowly dessicated, losing 1hp/round as the moss sucks out their bodily fluids. Losing 6 or more hit points in this fashion at a time may cost the character either 1 CON or 1 CHA at the discretion of the GM.

Suggestive forsythia
(The name sucks. Sorry. Feel free to suggest a better one; I'll probably adopt it.) These bushes were magically bred from their mundane cousins in an attempt by the Mad King to create "someone who finally understands me!" They are telepathic.

Many are just lonely and looking for someone to talk to. However, all are subtly (or not so subtly) mad - whether from the original process or the long isolation or just their alien natures, its hard to say. 

Only 1 in 6 elves can actually hold something like a conversation with them; everyone else just gets creepy crawly feelings in the back of the skull and an occasional burst of suggestive emotion - save vs charm or be given a two-word suggestion. (Anything obviously life-threatening or morally contrary requires no save.) The forsythia are also accomplished chromatophores, changing the colors of their flowers in various different patterns. This allows a few of them to cast spells via complicated, rapid color shifts. They favor charm effects and other emotion/perception altering spells.

Suggestive forsythia: HD 2; AC 7 (9 vs fire); Atk None; Move --; Save 17; ML 8; CL/XP 2/30
Can cast 1 2nd level and 2 1st level spells per day. Example spell list: Charm Person - Faerie Fire - Phantasmal Force

It's hard to say what these trees look like, because anyone wandering within 50ft of them falls prey to an hallucinatory effect that subtly changes the terrain, cloaking certain objects and giving the illusion of progress when in fact they are walking in circles. Once this is noticed ("Hey, I think we passed that tree a couple times before!") the illusion is broken - in game terms, give a secret save every fifteen minutes or so. The thing that makes these nasty is that other, more dangerous plants will often live nearby and be altered by the effect so as not to be noticed until too late. (If this happens, the effect is broken immediately - it doesn't stand up to direct contradiction.

Travellers who are aware of the danger and alert get a save against the effect when they first wander in. Roll once for the leader of a party.

The bark of the warpwood tree contains a powerful hallucinogen that when properly prepared and boiled into a tea gives visions. These are usually relaxing and pleasant, but can occasionally evoke powerful emotions - fear, loathing, lust, despair. There may even be a way for a shaman to use it for a vision-quest of sorts (like use of the Commune spell, with no level requirements, but only 1 question). Overuse, especially of potent concoctions, can lead to all kinds of nasty effects best left to the DM.

One 'dose' - a given tree will have enough easily reachable bark for 50 or so, if you want to carry a bunch of bark around - is probably worth 5gp to the right buyer.

That's great, but how do I use this?

Good question. Once the players figure out the gimmick of the place, the solution is simple: stay away from the plants. They mostly can't come after you.

The solution to this is to put them near/around something the players wan to investigate and so much brave the dangers of the plants to do so, or to place them in such a way that the players don't know until it's too late that they're wandering into danger. (Warpwood is an example way to do this latter one, but if you use 'it's a mind-screwy tree!' too often, your players will probably get angry.)

Concrete examples, as well as notable areas of the Forest of Fog and random encounters should be forthcoming shortly, like in the next post.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Hyacinths of the Mad King Undumiel

Once upon a time, in what is now the Forest of Fog (so called by the natives, who shun it and force exiles into it), there flourished an elven city. To call it a city is something of a misnomer: elves rarely live in communities larger than 300. The Forest of Fog is the remnant of that city.

Elves prefer to carefully sculpt their chosen environments (usually forests, but sometimes mountain valleys, river plains, prarie, etc.) to provide the comforts of civilized living while still appearing to be 'in harmony with Nature' by elven standards. One of the things this means is that elven settlements tend to decay quickly once the Elves move on.

 The Forest of Fog is roughly three miles by three miles, circular in shape. It looms over the surroundings on a plateau 200 feet up. This is the traditional boundary among those tribes who use it for exile. The guilty party is force to climb up at spear-point (there are plenty of easy ways up and down from the plateau for even a mediocre climber, but you'd have to leave ponies behind). Sometimes the climber chooses the spears, for legend has it that no one ever returns from the Forest of Fog.

But foggy

It is called the Forest of Fog because it is continually covered in a cloudbank

The first thing you will notice upon entering the Forest of Fog is that it is warmer than the surrounding land. It never snows here; the fog's warmth melts all snow before it hits the ground. The second thing you will notice upon entering the Forest of Fog is that there is no animal life. No birds. No squirrels. You can look, but you won't find any deer, or wolves, or anything like that. Even bugs keep a low profile and are hard to find. The reason for this is the hyacinths.

A fictional example, placed in a desert to confuse onlookers. Note the lack of leaves.
 If you travel into the forest instead of staying near the cliff edge, you will eventually see the reason for the fog and the lack of animals: a hyacinth, sticking out of the bark of one of the trees. If it's large enough, it will try to kill you.

 Hyacinths in the Forest of Fog

The hyacinths in the forest of Fog were created by the mad sorcerer-elfking Undumiel in the search for the perfect plant. During the cataclysm that ended elven civilization here, the nursery was broken open, and they have since spread through the forest.

These plants are shaped like multiple small flowers in various states of opening, ranging from the size of a human hand up to the size of a fir tree. They attach themselves to trees, rotting logs, the ground - any stable non-rocky surface will do.

When a non-elf first sees a hyacinth roughly the size of a dog or larger (smaller hyacinths are not yet mature), he must make a save vs charm or approach the plant. This effect is completely mundane; the hyacinth is the most beautiful thing you've ever seen. Beautiful enough to make an angel cry. Beautiful enough to take your breath away. You simply must stop and admire it. Those who have seen the hyacinth try to eat someone, made the save, or seen truly sublime beauty before (e.g. glimpsed Aphrodite in her bower) are immune. It's still beautiful beyond description, but you don't have to approach.

Elves are immune because they're jaded assholes who have seen it all before and it's, "just a flower, nothing to compare to what my grandmother grows in her window box at home." (But with more pretentious language.)

Each hyacinth has a profusion of flowers. These are its digestive organs. The ones at the top are usually closed because bugs are stupid and easy to catch. The ones at the bottom are often open. If a flower is open, and you're the right size, it will attack when you get within range - usually about 20ft for a human.

A tendril will emerge from the flower and seek to rapidly twine around you. The tendril bears a contact euphoric - save vs. poison each round if it hits or be paralyzed in ecstasy. The plant will then attempt to drag you toward the flower that houses the tendril and engulf you at a rate of 5ft/round. A tendril has STR 12 and 3 hit points, but can be hurt only by cutting weapons. Incidentally, this also makes the plant immune to arrow or sling fire - tendrils from the smaller flowers dart out and catch the projectiles to ingest them, only to spit them out a few moments later.

Elves are immune, because they've felt it all before and aren't that impressed.

Once engulfed in a flower, you take 1d6/round until dead, and will dissolve over several days. By accounts of survivors (or the ghosts of former victims) it feels like being in the womb. You don't even notice as your flesh sloughs away; all your cares and concerns are dissolved with it.

They look so happy right before they die
A combined STR of 30 is required to pry someone out of a bud in 3 rounds. A combined score of 40 will drop that to 2 rounds; a combined score of 50 will drop that to 1 round.

A hyacinth uses water pressure gradients to move, and each one has a small mass of water bladders buried shallowly into whatever surface they are attached to. Since pressure gradients are required, when moving the plant lets off a constant trickle of escaping water vapor, which is the cause of the fog. This means that a hyacinth will generally only be able to move for 1d12+7 rounds before it depletes its water supply and goes still.

Once the plant has digested its victim, it will eject any inedible bits (over-large bones, metals, woods or cloth of plant material), meaning that plants old enough to digest people will probably have a small cache of treasure scattered on the nearby ground.

The pollen of the hyacinth is a strong euphoric. It loses a little of its potency when taken out of the flower, but kept in an air-tight bottle can be shelved almost indefinitely. It could probably sell for around 25gp/oz to the right buyer; a plant will have a number of ounces of pollen equal to its hit dice. One ounce contains 20 doses. (Pollen is light.)

Hyacinth of the Forest of Fog

This is an example plant capable of engulfing a human. At any time it will have 1d6 open blossoms of the appropriate size.

HD 4 AC 8 ATK no damage, save v. poison or be paralyzed MV -- Save 14 ML 12 CL/XP 5/240 Special Engulf for 1d6/round; also, immune to sleep, charm, etc because it's a plant.

Edited to add: made things a little clearer above; specifically, the plant can't simply be shot from a distance with non-magical projectiles, and it requires a to-hit roll to touch a victim. The tendril never misses, but it can't poison a leather breastplate.

You can't have a post about carnivorous plants without Audrey.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Robbers' Bay, Queen's Landing, and the Desolate North

Fifty years ago, then-King Marcus II of Albilonia had an idea. Banditry had been a perpetual problem for the realm and he was determined to put it to an end. The rule of law would be established. But carving a new standard of civilization on the hearts of the people requires harsh measures, and soon the prisons were bursting at the seams, and many of the hanging trees were in full fruit.

So he issued a proclamation: everyone in the Kingdom who is found guilty of theft, robbery, banditry, rape, murder, etc. has a choice to either serve out the sentence as usual or indenture himself to the Crown for a period of time dependent on the crime. Those who choose the latter are shipped to Queen's Landing.

Queen's Landing

Needs more snow
Queen's Landing is reached by ship from around the spur of the Spine of the World, a huge mountain range that marks the end of the Known World on all civilised maps. It was chosen as the site for the new penal colony because these mountains are impassible, it has a natural harbor, and when Robin the Seafarer landed here during one of his fabled journeys he discovered salt at the base of the mountains right by the sea. Thus, most convicts sent to Queen's Landing serve out their terms digging in the salt mines, and salt is the primary export.

Queen's Landing is ruled by Lord Marchand (whose family rebelled against the King around two hundred years ago) whose primary concern is to keep the salt flowing. While it is mostly populated by men who have finished their terms of service (indentured servants are kept in communal barracks), some have brought their families with them. Anyone can come to Queen's Landing if he wishes, and volunteers will even be paid a resettlement fee by the Crown, so the town does boast a small but non-negligible number of women and children, many of the former doing a brisk business in the town's whorehouses. The free population of Queen's Landing fluctuates around five hundred souls, with another five to eight hundred slaves attached to the mines.

Queen's Landing is situated at the mouth of Robbers' Bay at the base of the Spine of the World, which makes it the northern-most known dwelling of civilized men by far. The land stretches away to the north and west, remaining rugged and mountainous for as far as surveys have seen. Conifer forests are the rule, at least near the town: what the geography and flora are like further into the wastes none can say.

The town is walled all round with a stout timber pallisade and permanently garrisoned by fifty men of the King's Army under command of the Governor. This is in part to guard against an uprising at the salt mines, and in part simple prudence. For those caught in misdeeds in the town justice is swift and summary: another term in the mines, or exile. No doubt most of those exiled die, but it is just possible that some do survive.

The residents of Queen's Landing subsist mostly on hunting, trapping, and fishing. The growing season is too short for most crops, being only two-and-a-half months, though in lucky years crops of potatoes and sometimes rye can come in. Just recently, experiments with herding the local wildlife have been undertaken, adding butter and caribou meat to the staples of the colony. Very occasionally the hardy fishermen manage to snag a whale: these creatures are often seen cavorting in the Bay, and are prized for their blubber, which makes excellent oil.

Queen's Landing imports much more than just labor: because of its situation it will be dependent upon the Kingdom of Albilonia for basic foodstuffs like wheat and almost all finished products for the foreseeable future. Most trade is done in salt, which is also the primary export. Others are obvious from the above: furs, fish, timber, and precious stones (more on this last below).

Demihumans in Queen's Landing

Humans are by far the most common race in Queen's Landing, even moreso than the home country. Next come dwarves: these hardy folk do well in the harsh conditions, being generally hale of limb and body, easily acclimated to the cold, and not as worn down as men by the gruelling work in the salt mines. Indeed, most come voluntarily, wanting to see the Spine of the World and live in its shadow. Not one elf has been sent to Queen's Landing to work as a slave, and only a handful have come as volunteer settlers, since they have a hard time with the cold, but the rugged and wild beauty of the wastes does draw some. Most rare of all are halflings: not only is the cold and hard labour harder on these folk than any other, but they find the necessity of covering their parietal eye with headgear to keep from freezing due to their baldness both disorienting and depressing. (The widespread feeling among halflings of the Kingdom is that you would have to be demented to want to do such a thing.)

Using Queen's Landing as a base for Adventure

The town itself is an isolated spot of safety at the mouth of a great unexplored desert. The Desolate North doubtless has its share of unknown treasures and opportunities for those bold enough to risk hypothermia and who knows what other dangers. In the past few years, a few
adventurers have trickled north to land here, hoping to make a fortune. Recently, Queen's Landing has made contact with a tribe of indigenous peoples who seem open to trade and bring tales of ancient ruins buried in the ice which never melts. One dwarven sage insists that the Spine of the World is the site of an old dwarven megapolis from before the Great Opposition turned the North into a barren wasteland. And, most promising of all, one band of adventurers recently returned - missing three members and looking like walking, frostbitten skeletons, but with seventeen sapphires, each the size of a thumbnail.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

New beginnings and real-world dungeons

I think I've finally decided to get my gumption up and try my hand at creating a new campaign.

About a year ago, I had to leave my old one behind to move to a new job and a new school. This was really a shame, because I had a group of players who seemed to really 'get it' and they clicked pretty well together. We were having great times. Alas. Yes, I know I could have tried to keep it up with something through Roll20 or G+, but even if that had been successful, I'd have sorely missed the face-to-face element. Those guys were just fun to hang out with.

It's time to start another. Last time, I plopped down B2 and used it as the core, planning to expand later. It's a good solution, but this time i want to try making something original. I still want large portions of the world to be decided via co-creation with the players, both because that's easier for me and it's a lot more fun, but I want to start with some specific ideas.

I think I'll be starting with a tentpole dungeon; one that will perhaps turn into a megadungeon, but I don't plan on that initially. I'll also add a large swath of wilderness for later hex-crawling.

I'm conflicted about some of my possible plans, though. For example, I'm fond of the idea of severely reducing the variation of goblinoids (who needs goblins, orcs, hobgoblins, and bugbears? just replace them all with norkers and bandits), but at the same time I want to have room to plop down existing modules if they strike my fancy, because who doesn't want the Caverns of Thracia hanging out somewhere in their game world?

At the moment, I'm fond of the idea of a wilderness with a large main river running into a map-defining bay, forming a delta and a saltmarsh. Hopefully I can advise you to stay tuned to this space for further developments.

And now for the price of admission.

During WW2, the Swiss government undertook a massive military project to hollow out the Alps for use as military bases and population centers in case of German attack. They also mined all the roads and passes, and wired all their bridges and many of the mountain-sides to collapse. The plan was to sacrifice the main valley - which could not be held against the superior war machines of either the Axis or the Allies - but to make taking each new mountain, and each new valley after it, into a living hell for which the Stalingrad campaign is but a pale comparison. After the end of the war, the project continued, fortifying Switzerland against the possible outcomes of the Cold War, even to the point of proofing these bunkers against the use of tactical nukes.

In effect, the entirety of the Alps is a string of dungeons.

Entrance to a real-life dungeon. I think this is an aircraft hangar.

In true Swiss fashion, many of these have since been turned into cheese caves, for the maturation of Gruyère-type cheese. While it seems less cool, this is actually a good thing for us, since it means you're much more likely to get a look inside.

You are at the head of a set of stairs that descend steeply into the darkness. You cannot see the bottom.
The 5' corridor continues another 60 feet before coming to an apparent dead end.Do you search for secret doors?
Many of them also include suspended footpaths between mountains, so cleverly concealed from above that you can't find them even if you know where you're looking. It only takes a little imagination to turn the whole of the Swiss Alps into a megadungeon, waiting to be explored. Especially if, in some alternate historical future, "the Swiss delved too greedily, and too deep."

For those who are interested, plenty more pictures of old Swiss military mountain caves can be found here: Fortifications Suisses

Saturday, June 13, 2015

JDIMS - Joint Dungeon Inventory Management System

I've heard and read a lot of complaints that tracking encumbrance is just too much work, or too fiddly, or too unfun. I sympathize. After all, who wants to be ciphering and double-checking rules every five minutes instead of killing goblins and taking their stuff? Yet at the same time, people do recognize that encumbrance management is an important part of the game: it's about recovering treasure, and part of the core mechanic of the game is figuring out how much you can bring out for what level of risk.

There are a fair number of good alternatives out there, but none of them quite feel right to me. So I made my own.

First steps

Before going on an adventure, calculate your encumbrance according to the normal rules. You're in town; it's time for bookkeeping anyway. Additionally, you can choose to re-calculate encumbrance according to the normal rules at any time, so long as you're not bogging anything down in the game. By the same token, the DM can require the same, of course

 Item classifications and their meanings

Once you're on the road, items come in two main categories: Small items, and Large items. What category an object falls into is a combination of weight, bulk, and how much care must be taken with that object in trasport. It's important to note that this only matters for new items you pick up, since you're using your previously-calculated encumbrance as your starting point.

Small Items

Small items don't weigh you down. Some common examples of small items include swords, scrolls, potions, cloaks, very small rugs, helmets, and spellbooks. 100 coins also count as a Small item in my game.

Five Small items count as one Large item.

Large Items

If you are carrying a Large item, count yourself one step more encumbered. If you are carrying 2 Large items, count yourself two steps more encumbered, and take a -2 to hit and AC. Also, you aren't going to be stealthy. You cannot normally carry more than 2 Large items. Examples of Large items include plate or chain mail, shields, tapestries, small treasure chests, busts, and Halfling bodies.

Free Items

Anything not big enough to be a small item basically doesn't count against encumbrance. This includes rings, jewels, certain other jewelry (often assuming you're wearing it), lockpicks, and generally anything that would easily fit in the palm of your hand and not feel terribly weighty.

Two-man Items

The name's pretty much self-explanatory; these things require at least two adventurers to cooperate to move them. Two-man items count as two Large items for each member of the moving team. Examples include large chests, armoires, and elf-sized statues.

Another example of a large item

Extensions and Variations

The core works pretty well all by itself. People I've played with have agreed that it hits the sweet spot between complexity and plausibility, allowing them to actually make meaningful choices about what they'll carry while not feeling like it takes too much time and effort. However, over time I've identified some tweaks I like to make to differentiate characters and some further rulings I've made that help the system feel more complete.


Characters with a Strength of 5 or less can only carry one Large item, and for them it behaves as though they are carrying two. (Two encumbrance levels, minuses in combat.) Characters with a Strength of 15 or higher can carry an extra Large item before being doubly encumbered. Characters with the rare and coveted 18 Strength can carry two more.


Dwarves can carry one extra Large item before being doubly encumbered, because dwarves are naturally doughty. (Woe betide the dungeon denizens who run across a Dwarf with 18 Strength; they'll all be naked.)

Halflings on the other hand can carry one fewer, because they're tiny.

Elves are roughly human-sized, but slightly smaller. Some items that would count as Small for a Man might count as Large for them, and they only get four Small items to the Large (unless you forget or don't care).

Load Bearing Equipment and Beasts of Burden

These rules assume that characters are entering the dungeon with a backpack and the very basic pockets, ties, and such that come with clothing made for adventurers or outdoorsmen. If for some reason this isn't the case, reduce carrying capacity to suit. (Naked people can carry three small items - one in each hand, plus one between the teeth.)

Ponies and donkeys can carry three Large items. Horses can carry five. Mules can carry six. Good luck fitting a mule in a dungeon. Other more fantastic animals are up to the GM.

Bags come in two different sizes. Small bags can carry up to 3 Small items, combining them to count as one. Large bags can carry up to 10 Small items, counting as 1 Large item. Small chests are the same, but you don't have to worry about your bundle of swords accidentally cutting through it while you're running away from goblins.

Medium chests can carry up to 25 Small items, but they count as 2 Large items. (You can share this load between 2 people if you can't carry enough, and this allows you to easily drop it in combat.)

Large chests are Two-man items, and can carry up to 50 Small items.

A hand-cart or wheelbarrow will allow you to carry 50 Small items by yourself, but of course you aren't going to be stealthy and you aren't doing anything else with your hands.

Potion belts, scroll belts, and the like carry 5 or so of the specified Small items and count the total as just one Small item.

Magical load-bearing equipment such as Tenkar's Flying Disc and Bags of Holding should be similarly rated by the GM for how many Small items they can carry. (I like calling Bags of Holding Large items that can carry up to 200 Small items.)

Once you get to wagons and the like, you've grown beyond the limits where this system is useful.

Use your judgment on what to allow players to put in bags. Just because a glaive is a Large item doesn't mean it'll fit into your large bag.

Parting Thoughts

I like this system because I find it easy to run at table and easy for players to understand. It doesn't require looking things up, ever. I also think that, because of the ease of use in play, it opens up inventory management as a real object that can be manipulated in play. For example, a cursed Loadstone is two Large objects that cannot be put down. Further, temporary effects can really, actually be useful or debilitating in play without requiring a mood-crippling amount of number fiddling. As proof, below I'll share two spells that have made it onto the Cleric list in my game.

Share the Load
Cleric 2
Range: Touch
Duration: 1d4 + cleric level hours

This spell allows the subject to carry one more Large item before experiencing any encumbrance effects. Only works on humanoids.

Burden of Truth
Cleric 2
Range: 30 ft
Duration: 1d4 + cleric level turns

This spell causes the subject to feel the extra heft of 2 more Large items. Save vs. magic to resist. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Making skeletons scary

It's been a long time since I stepped in here. A lot of stuff has happened to keep me from coming back, and I make no bones about having no plans to regularize my posting again. I could bore you with a long story about how this all happened, but if you're anything like me, you're checking this blog to see awesome ideas to put in a game, not listen to some long-winded drivel about the life of a total stranger.

Skeletons. In real life, even the unmoving kind would likely make almost everyone likely to see this blog lose his lunch. If I ever saw one actually dancing around, or God forbid trying to claw my face off, I'd probably shit myself, pop a gasket, and go screaming and crying in a fit of temporary insanity. And I like to think I'm a decently brave guy.

Apparently Spielberg used real skeletons in Poltergeist. Yeah, I'd be making that face too, and you wouldn't even have to pay me.
Unfortunately, it's not the same in tabletop games. Even in horror games, while the players will sometimes pretend to fear, nobody at the table is really scared. Skeletons used to evoke horror even in the description, but that old gag has been pulled so many times it just doesn't work on us anymore.

There have been various antidotes tried. Flaming skeletons, icy skeletons, electric skeletons, big skeletons, bloodthirsty skeletons, etc. etc. ad nauseam. My basic problem with all of these is that they're simply different monsters. They're not just skeletons; they're dire skeletons of some variety. Some of them are really cool (like the Eye of Fear and Flame) but they're not just skeletons. They're 'skeletons and'.

The uncommon and elusive 'drunk driving skeleton', which despite its rarity is responsible for an unrepresentatively large number of adventurer deaths.
Now if you think I'm here to tell you how to bring the mystique, the thrill of grotesque horror back to your players at the table with their beer and pizza and Monty Python jokes, think again. It would take a genius far greater than mine to make them shiver at your pewter figurines the way that Mary Shelley's original audience did in that Chateux on that stormy night. But if you want some real, accessible fear, maybe I've got something for you.

The formula is simple. Skeletonization is contagious. Roughly every 1 in 30 skeletons (or 1 in 20, or 1 in 10, or whatever makes you happy) will, if it touches you with its bare claws or with anything it's holding, cause your skeleton to animate, rip out of your body in an extremely gruesome manner, and start attacking the rest of the party. Save vs. death every time it hits you. Oh, and did I mention that your newly animated skeleton is a carrier for the contagion?

Needless to say, the poor sod this happens to is very, very dead. Though I suppose if his friends like him far too much for their own good and they're extremely clever, they might find a way to subdue his skeleton, collect his meatsack remains, and convince a cleric to both remove the curse (with Remove Curse and Cure Disease, naturally) from the skeleton and resurrect him.

If you're playing GURPS, you can treat it like an Eviscerate spell cast at 21. If it were me, I'd make it Will to resist instead of HT.

That oughtta make your players take skeletons seriously next time they see a gaggle hanging around some wannabe lich.