Thursday, September 06, 2018

how to make a megadungeon without really trying

So I've never found a commercially available megadungeon that really spoke to me, that made me say out loud "Yes! I want to spend the next fifty sessions running this bad boy again and again!"  There are lots of megadungeons out now with lots of good stuff in them, but I've not found one where the totality of it moved me to action.

In the nineties I tried solving this problem by using various random dungeon generators, like the one in the back of the first edition DMG.  That takes a long time for each level to be developed.  And doing this work helped me figure out a couple of things about my own approach to dungeon mastering:
  • Although I have certain gut opinions about the aesthetics of dungeon maps and how they should be designed, I don't take much joy in drawing out levels myself.
  • Ditto for stocking dungeon keys.  
I can looked at a finished dungeon level and key and form an opinion about whether a level is too crowded or sparse, whether the monsters work together, the flow of the passages, etc.  But building levels to conform with those ideas doesn't feel like fun.  It feels like homework.  So here's what I do instead,

Like many DMs, I own a lot of published dungeons.  And given the amount of free and cheap D&D material available on the interwebs, we all have access to approximately one gerjillion dungeons of various sizes and complexity.  My method now is to plunder that archive and assemble my megadungeon out of bits and pieces of other dungeons.

So, for example, you can take the first level of module B1 In Search of the Unknown, the moathouse dungeon from T1 The Village of Hommlet, the sample dungeon from Holmes Basic, and the same dungeon from the first edition DM and put 'em together like this: 

All I did here was drop some images of these maps into  You can use Gimp or Adobe Illustrator.  The B1 map is a low ink version that someone on Dragonsfoot made many years ago.

I resized them all to roughly the same grid scale, no need to be super precise here.  Heck,you can see  I made a boo-boo moving the Zenopus dungeon from Holmes basic that I didn't bother to correct.  (This is a DMs working map, not art for public display.)  I looked for how to arrange these maps based upon where it would be easy to cut and paste a bit of corridor to connect them.  That's how you get from Quasqueton to the Abbey dungeon of the DMG to the Holmes dungeon.  

I rotated the Moathouse and used the paint tool to line up the Zenopus rat tunnels and the Moathouse ghoul warrens.  That's currently the only way the Moathouse dungeon is connected to the rest of the map.  If you don't want to brave Viet Cong style tunnel fighting against ghouls and giant rats, the only way to reach part of level 1 of this megadungeon is to exit and re-enter through the moathouse level entrance.  Or maybe there's an aquatic route.  I lined up the DMG and Holmes maps so that one can imagine the trickling stream of the DMG map flowing into the underground river of Holmes.  Maybe the giant crawdad pool in the Moathouse dungeon also connects to this underwater system.  Add some eggs to the crawdad lair and--if they are still there, say, ten sessions into the campaign--let those eggs hatch.  You can now see some places some young giant crayfish may migrate to in the dungeon.

That's the fun part for me, making connections between these disparate dungeon sections.  There are a lot of undead bumming about this new mega-level.  Are they all part of one necromantic scheme?  How do the berserkers in Quasqueton relate to the bandits under the Moathouse, or the smugglers under Zenopus?  Those are wildly more interesting questions to me than "What's in room 22?".  In this case, there's also the matter of the above ground structures mentions in the texts of dungeons.  Maybe the moathouse, the tower of Zenopus, the tower of Quasqueton, and the Abbey were part of a titantic sprawling fortified abbey that now lies largely in ruins on the surface.

You don't need any skill with graphics programs to use this method.  For the first level of the Vaults of Vyzor, I simply redrew the level maps on some big-ass graph paper:

Not pictured: Orange Lake (north of Citrine 1) and Purple 1 (south of Rose 1).
But this is the main section of level 1.
I got this 11"x14" graph paper (6 squares to an inch) at GaryCon II or III.  Black Blade Publishing was selling it.  Is Black Blade defunct?  Their website seems to have last been updated in 2010.  (UPDATE: Allen Grohe says Black Blade is still an ongoing operation.  Contact him or Jon Hershberger directly or visit You can get similar products from office supply stores, Amazon, etc.  Some day I'm going to get something like this and go real nerd crazy.

Anyway, if you look at these four levels smooshed together you'll see that there's only one corridor connecting each to the next one.  That was sufficient for 50 sessions of play, especially given that other connections existed in the lower levels.

You don't even need to go to the work of making a big map like this.  Levels 2 through 5 of Vyzor were never mapped out this way.  I just corridors leading off the page with a not "connects to room 24, page 7" or something like that.  You have to be careful annotate both ends of each connection and be mindful of the over all layout, but it totally works without the hassle of redrawing a bunch of maps.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

some miscellaneous links

  • Dungeons and Possums is one of my favorite new blogs, and not just because of his rave review of Broodmother Skyfortress.  It's also because Possum interviewed me and fellow co-conspirators Alex and Jez.  No seriously, it's a neato blog and Possum doesn't some absolutely charming illo work.
  • The module I wrote for one of Raggi's GenCon exclusives sold out at Noble Knight the same day it went on sale, but you can now buy the PDF at RPGNow/Drivethru.  Here's a review of all four LotFP GenCon releases by Peter Webb of the blog Instadeath, and here's a video review by Crazy Sheep.  I played the latter for my wife today and she deadpanned "I didn't know Elvira reviewed game stuff."
  • Over the past few weeks I've written some stuff and utterly failed to link it all here.  So have four new classes, three of them of the Random Advancement sort. 
  • Also I made these silly random rules for dwarf names.
  • Finally, here's the first result that came up when I did a Google image search for the terms "frankenstein dragon."
I'm sorry, but those shoes are absolutely ridiculous.  Even I can't justify such absurdities.

Friday, August 24, 2018

a dumb project idea

This would be a good project for someone who got around to more game conventions than I do.  Start with a large scrapbook/photo album.  Something like this one:

The insides are these sturdy, creamy beige pages.  I've used this exact type of album to teach undergrads about medieval manuscript practices.  We'd copy in bits of literature as if we were scribes, then annotate each others' work in the margins.  Those that got it thought it was kinda fun.  You can't tell from the pics above, but this album is pretty large.

The next step would be to take two copies of your favorite old school product and destroy them by cutting them into individual sheets.  That's the crazy part.  With some rubber cement or similar adhesive, attach each page to a sheet in the album, in order.

Then take this monstrosity to conventions and gamestore events and invite people to annotate the text.  Maybe they want to clarify a rule or argue with the author or tell a brief story about their favorite monster or magic item.  Whatever they want to say, invite them to say it.  Maybe they see a comment from someone else and want to respond to that.

The result is that pages in the album would start looking like this:

I think this would be a fun way to collect the opinions and experiences of a wide ranger of gamers.  It'd probably be a hassle to lug this big thing all over a larger convention, though.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Venderant Nalaberong & Godpower

1.  WTF is Venderant Nalaberong?

In Doctor Who, they call this the Skasis Paradigm, the base code of the universe, and/or block-transfer computation.  Tolkien called it the Music of the Ainur.  On Synnibarr, it is referred to as Venderant Nalaberong.

The concept is simple.  Reality, at its most fundamental level, is not made of matter or energy, but rather consists of pure form, pure symbol.  If you can do the right math, sing the right song, or say the right words, you can alter the universe from the ground up.

Ordinary arcane magic doesn't work this way.  Typical arcane magic consists of figuring out how to jump in that one correct spot to leap out of the level proper and into the parts of the game you're not supposed to go.  The people who first figured out the rocket jump, the folks who use glitches to achieve speedrunning records?  Total run-of-the-mill magic-users.  The people who actually get into the code of the game and alter it are the ones using Venderant Nalaberong.

No one teaches Venderant Nalaberong.  You have to encounter it.  The first time an arcane caster comes across a scroll, spellbook, or other inscription written in Venderant Nalaberong, roll percentile dice.  If you get your Int score or less, the secret is revealed to you and you can employ any Venderant Nalaberong magic you find.  If you roll a 99 you go mad and if you roll 00 your head explodes.  Any other roll indicates that you don't get it and never will.

So why would you even want to risk it?  Three reasons:
  1. About 1 in 10 ancient scrolls, spellbooks, etc. are written in Venderant Nalaberong.  They're useless if you don't understand it.
  2. The highest level arcane spells aren't available in any other form.  Since my games start from BX D&D and build from there, that means 7+ level spells are all ancient Venderant Nalaberong technology.
  3. No other form of magic can beat Venderant Nalaberong.
That last one means, for instance, that a standard Globe of Invulnerability is completely useless against a Venderant Nalaberong attack spell.  And a persistent effect powered by a Venderant Nalaberong spell can't be dispelled, unless you know the Venderant Nalaberong version of Dispel Magic.

How Venderant Nalaberong works in adjacent universes is up to the individual FLAILSNAILS referee.  Maybe Venderant Nalaberong powered spells work just like ordinary spells.  Maybe they don't work at all.  Pandimensional vagabonds are urged to test their Venderant Nalaberong spells before using them in a new reality.

2. Godpower

Godpower is the power used by the gods.  Pretty simple, eh?  Whether the first god found or invented Godpower is a subject of great dispute among theologians.  What they all agree upon is the fact that divine magic as we know it is basically Godpower with all the safety filters turned on so as to not damage puny mortal casters.

Everytime a new level after the first is achieved by a cleric, paladin, or other divine caster (excepting druidic/shamanic sorts; on Synnibarr they use Earthpower), they may roll percentile dice to see if they get access to any undiluted Godpower.  If they roll their Wisdom or less, they gain d3 non-renewable points of Godpower.  On a 99, they have inadvertently cheesed off their patron deity and loss all divine powers until they atone.  On a 00 they have somehow lost access to pure Godpower forever, losing any accumulated points and their opportunity to roll for future Godpower points.  Gods are fickle sometimes.

To spend a Godpower point, Wisdom or less must be rolled on a d20.  A failure indicates the point is lost with no effect.  A natural 20 means that all accumulated Godpower points are unleashed in a blast of (un)holiness doing d20 damage per point to the caster and everyone in a 100' radius.

Cleric just prior to a Godpower fumble.
Spending one point of Godpower allows for the users choice of the following effects:

  • Add d6 to your level for the purposes of the Turn Undead matrix
  • Increase the dice size of the number of Undead turned to d12's (i.e. 2d12 affected instead of 2d6)
  • Go berserk in combat, smiting foes in melee with +2 to-hit, +2 damage, and one extra attack per round for d6 rounds
  • Overpower a spell, adding d6 to your caster level
  • Increase the dice size of Cure-type spells to d12
  • Cast an extra spell off your normal spell lists, as if you had it prepped.
Spending two or more points of Godpower allows the user to negotiate a freeform miracle with the referee.  It cannot completely duplicate the form of a known spell, but it can achieve a similar effect.  For example, say the party once again cannot get the next door in the dungeon to open.  Spending two points of Godpower might allow the cleric to summon a bolt of holy lighting that shatters the door to pieces.  That's effectively a Knock spell, but with cooler window dressing, so it's okay.

Godpower probably only works on parallel universes where your particular god exists.

3. Final Note

Venderant Nalaberong and Godpower are effectively transparent to one another.  For example, a Venderant Nalaberong-powered Anti-Magic Shell is absolutely useless against a Godpower Flamestrike.  And Venderant Nalaberong attacks ignore Godpower defenses.

Friday, August 17, 2018

a little wisdom

Found this quote while doing some research wholly unrelated to D&D type stuff:
The good craftsman seeks out the commonplace and tries to master it, knowing that originality comes of necessity and not of searching.
That's from Edward Johnston's book Writing and Illuminating and Lettering.  Johnston (pictured) is a founding figure in the revival of calligraphy as an art form at the end of the 19th century.

Johnston's remark strikes me as equally applicable to the craft of DMing.  You don't need to strive for a unique style or an individual approach since your own personal way of DMing will emerge spontaneously through an accumulation of seemingly insignificant decisions you make over the course of play.  This is why you don't need to start out with your own special take on, say, orcs.  Twenty sessions into an orc-heavy campaign and you'll have your own local version of orcs pretty much whether you like it or not.

I've seen similar advice offered to illustrators working in comic books.  Don't worry about your unique style at first; do enough drawings and it will appear.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Lazy DM + Ugly Dice = Astrology!

I've never been good at keeping track of time in the game.  I rarely remember to let torches go out, for example.  By Uncle Gary's standards ("YOU CAN NOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT.") I kinda suck at this part of DMing, which is why I've never had any decent astrological events impacting a game.

So here's how to make some astrology happen in your game.  First get some dice.  You want one of each size (one d4, one d6, etc.).  Break out you ugliest, most colorful dice.  The speckled ones.  The marbled stuff.  Just make sure that no two dice are of the same color scheme.  Just trust me for the moment.  I'll explain soon why you need these dice.

(I suck at taking pictures with my phone.)
Okay, that's too many dice.  Six dice is all you really need.  I'll cut the white percentiles, the yellow d24, and the orange d4.

So here's the deal.  The six dice you've got now?  Those are the planets visible in the sky of your campaign world (or alternatively, the moons that orbit the gas giant your campaign world also circles).  The die size is the relative size of the orbit (bigger dice are further from their star), while the color scheme is what the planet looks like up close.  I'd suggest naming these planet in a way that helps your remember which die to use.  Thirty-sider=Thea, Icosahedron=Iggwilv, Twelve-sider=Tweenus, etc.

At the start of a session, at the beginning of the adventure, after a week has passed in game play, or whenever you feel like consulting the omens, roll all them dices.

So you see the seven-sider and the d12 have both come up as 6?  That's a conjunction.  That's what you're looking for.  A conjunction indicates something is up with the universe that will impact the PCs' insignificant little lives.  You'll need to write a minor mechanical effect for each conjunction.  In an ideal world, it would be a die table for each one, but by my count 6 planet dice means 15 possible conjunction, that is, 15 different effects (or 15 die tables).  Here are a few dumb ideas for effects.

d30 + d20 - Chaotic characters +1 saves versus petrification
d30 + d12 - Non-humans get one free reroll
d30 + d8 - Dwarves get 150% xp from gold and golden jewels
d30 + d7 - Thieves +1 saves vs poison
d30 + d6 - Arcana casters may make an Int roll to memorize one extra first level spell each day
d20 + d12 - Clerics +1 to turn corporeal undead
d20 + d8 - Humans get +1 reaction rolls when parlaying with dragons
d20 + d7 - Neutral characters +1 saves versus charms and enchantments
d20 + d6 - Fighter types +1 to-hit beasts and animals
d12 + d8 - Henchmen and hirelings +1 saves versus Death Rays
d12 + d7 - Elves may call one trick shot with an arrow on a normal to-hit roll
d12 + d6 - Lawful characters +1 saves to disbelieve illusions
d8 + d7 - Halfbreeds (half-elves, half-orcs, etc) are surprised one pip less
d8 + d6 - First level characters get +1 to all saves
d7 + d6 - Halflings gain d6 bonus hit points

If three or more dice come up on the same number, then you have a multiple conjunction and all the relevant bonuses above apply at the same time.  If a week passes during play, roll all the dice again to find the new arrangement of the planets.

What if people want to game the system?  That's what astrologers are for!  For a fee (100gp, at least), they will be able to tell a querent when the next favorable conjunction will be.  If they just want a conjunction of some sort, it will be d6 weeks away.  If the party is looking for a specific effect, roll d20 for the number of weeks from now and charge 'em double for the extra work.  If the greedy bastards want a triple conjunction, add d100 to the d20 roll and charge triple.

A proper astrology system would also have bad omens that hinder the party.  Frankly, I don't want to keep track of that stuff.  Making all the possibilities into bonuses for the PCs means the players can do all the remembering.  If they forget their little bonus, that's their problemo.  And it gives me yet another excuse to be harder on the poor buggers, as they are getting bonuses the bad guys aren't.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

What does this monster know?

Here's a go at something I've wrestled with forever.

Monster's Dungeon Knowledge

Roll Hostile Neutral Friendly
2 or less Walks into nearest trap Wanders randomly for d6 turns Moves in circle 2d6 turns
3-5 Nearest hostile lair Nearest stairs, etc. Nearest potential ally
6-8 Leads into nearest trap Nearest dungeon menace Nearest secret door
9-11 Nearest monster allies Nearest safe room Nearest trap
12 or more Nearest enemy of monster Nearest big treasure Nearest unguarded treasure

Modifiers: Leader or significant NPC +1, Smart +1, Cannon fodder -1, Stupid -1

The party may be searching for something specific.  If it is on the chart and either above and/or to the left of the chart, the informant can help, but with a chance of misinformation equal to 1 in 20 for each step away from the result.  Double the chance if the informant is Stupid.

If misinformation occurs, treat result as if the original roll had been 2 or less.

Example: The PCs meet a sphinx and obtain a Friendly reaction roll.  The net roll for Dungeon Knowledge is a 12, so the sphinx could lead her new friends to the nearest unguarded treasure.  However, the party is desperate to exit the dungeon, so they specifically ask her about stairs or other conveyances up.  "Nearest stairs, etc." is 3 up and 1 to the left from the indicated result, so the chance of misinformation is 4 in 20.  Of course, since this is a sphinx, misinformation is probably the result of her talking in riddles.

Q: Why doesn't the average monster know as much about their immediate environ as most people know about their neighborhood?
A: Because this is a game and letting one dumb kobold ruin all the surprises in the level is no fun.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Amulet of Spell Immunity

Here's a full write-up for an item mentioned in passing in Supplement IV: God, Demi-Gods & Heroes by Robert Kuntz and James M. Ward.

Amulet of Spell Immunity

An ancient goddess of magic and motherhood whose name is now lost to antiquity first bestowed the method of creating these potent magical defenses upon humanity at the dawn of its first civilization. The secret procedure for the creation of Amulets of Spell Immunity were lost--as was much early magical lore--during the Revolt of the Battle Pyramids. Therefore any Amulets of Spell Immunity discovered today are at least 5,000 years old.

The amulet takes the form of a small round or oval medallion of old gold, slightly larger than the largest coins. Both sides of the amulet are covered with ancient pictograms, now well worn. An off-center hole pierces the medallion, allowing a cord, leather thong, or very fine chain to be threaded through it. A full 50% of all encountered Amulets of Spell Immunity show signs of past use in the form a brittle texture not usually associated with gold and one or more thin cracks along the surface.

When worn around the neck, an Amulet of Spell Immunity grants the wearer immunity to a single spell. The spell is not cancelled; if more than one person can be targeted (such as an area effect attack), the others are still subject to the spell.

Each time the Amulet protects a wearer from a spell, there is a 50% chance that the enchantment wanes and the amulet becomes damaged. A fully intact amulet becomes brittle and cracked, as described above. An already brittle and cracked amulet (whether found in that condition or through repeated use) crumbles into pieces of a dry, spongy material not unlike old cork.

Since these Amulets were created in the earliest days of Magic Use, they only protect from a narrow range of possible spells:

01-08 Charm Person
09-16 Sleep
17-23 ESP
24-30 Hold Person
31-37 Fire Ball
38-44 Lightning Bolt
45-51 Slow
52-57 Polymorph Others
58-62 Confusion
63-66 Charm Monster
67-72 Magic Jar
73-77 Cloudkill
78-83 Feeblemind
84-88 Flesh to Stone
89-92 Death Spell
93-96 Geas
97-00 Disintegrate

The alchemist Grumthrap Viloodle theorizes that the strange residue of a destroyed Amulet of Spell Immunity is not entirely useless. In his work Secrets of Alchemy Revealed Viloodle speculates that this substance can be used as a substitute material component for the spell the amulet previously protected against and/or as the key ingredient in a potion of similar effect.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

coming this Gen Con

So I have a short adventure that James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess will be releasing at GenCon (the Lord willing and the creek don't rise, as my grandpa used to say).  OSR2 is my attempt to write an adventure in line with the Early Modern Age of Horrors default setting of LotFP, but it should also slot into more traditional faux medieval worlds with just a little finagling.  As I was writing the manuscript I was thinking about several things: the old TV shows Cheers and Gilligan's Island, module T1 The Village of Hommlet, and the old film version of Lair of the White Worm with Hugh Grant and Amanda Donohoe.  

The interior art is by Yancy Beterly, a.k.a. Journeyman1029.  He streams on Twitch as he works, so I got to see my module come to life in real time.  Very trippy.  This is Jman's first LotFP gig and I hope he gets more paid work in the RPG world.  He's also done some indy comics and sells things like t-shirts and prints online.  If you do a google image search for either of his monikers you'll find some of his work.  Great stuff!

Friday, June 15, 2018

Six Wands that Kinda Suck

So sometimes I like to try to rip off MERP (Middle Earth Role Play) for D&D ideas.  Today's idea started by asking the question, "Why do MERP wands suck so bad?"  Per the rules, wands can only hold 1 to 10 charges and they can contain no more than second level spells.

First and second level spells in MERP are pretty dang lame.  This is because MERP is the kid brother of RoleMaster, where spells run up to level 100.  It's a little like the passage in Holmes Basic D&D that points you to AD&D for the grown-up version of the game.  MERP explicitly makes that same sort of connection to RoleMaster.  This relationship is why I tend to think of MERP as the game for running the adventures of Men and Hobbits in the Third and Fourth Age, while RoleMaster is the system for Epic Elvish Nonsense of the Good Ol' Days.

So here's my answer to the question as to why MERP wands are so limited in power: they are pre-apocalyptic elvish disposable technology.  You go to the corner store, buy a wand for a specific household annoyance, use it once, then stick it in the junk drawer in your kitchen, and forget about it until you need it again.  In a world of hundredth level magicks, these prosaic devices are of no real consequence.  They're churned out by the dozen, enchanted en masse by schmucks who flunked out of the Alchemist Academy.  Here are six examples of the kind of drek these losers have unleashed on the world.  They are only considered treasure nowadays because the world has gone to crap.

Wand of Boil Liquid
Class Allowed: Magic-User/Elf/any arcane caster
Range: 10'
Charges: 1d10, can't be recharged

This device was developed for those rare times when the arcane fire in your elvish hearth goes out.  It's also useful when camping.  Use of a single charge brings to boil a volume of water, soup, coffee, etc. equal to 1 cubic foot (approximate 7 and half gallons or 28 liters) per round, up to a maximum volume of one cubic foot per level of the user or 10 cubic feet, whichever is lower.  When directed at creatures made entirely of water or ice, the wand will do 1 point of damage on the first round, 2 on the second, 3 on the third, etc.  No other lifeforms are affected by this wand.  The user must concentrate the entirety of the usage of the wand, or the effects are cancelled early.  To move at more than quarter speed or take any other action save utter a word or two will end the wand's effect.

Wand of Item Assessment
Class Allowed: Bards only
Range: touch
Charges: 1d10, can't be recharged

A tool used by junior lore-bards of old to help ensure equitable transactions in the marketplace, touching this wand to any non-enchanted item less than building size and expending a charge allows the user to determine its fair market value, with a margin of error of + or - 10%.  If used on an enchanted item, the wand returns a value of zero.  Artifacts and relics return a false value of d100 x 100gp.

Wand of Frost & Burn Relief
Class Allowed: Anyone who doesn't cast Arcane spells
Range: touch
Charges: 1d10, can't be recharged

Use of this household first aid device allows for the healing of 2d4 points of fire or cold related damage.  If fire and cold damage has not been tracked separately (after all, who does that?) assume that no more than 50% of current lost hit points have been due to heat or cold, unless the character has been exclusively fighting monsters that only do heat or cold damage.

Wand of Limbwalking
Class Allowed: Ranger only
Range: self only
Charges: 1d10, can't be recharged

This wand was issued to new recruits to the Rangers of the Great Forest, the area now known as the
Robyn Greenarse laughs at
your pathetic civilization.
Sea of Cinders.  Use of this device allows the wielder to walk (not run) on tree limbs as easily as they would on the ground.  Duration is one round per level of the user, up to a maximum of 10 rounds.  The wand must be held the entire durations of the Limbwalking, but no additional concentration is required.  The limb is not magically strengthened by this magic; it must support the users weight of its own accord.

Wand of Nasal Repair
Class Allowed: Cleric or Druid only
Range: touch
Charges: 1d10, can't be recharged

This item was once a minor component in the standard medical kit for elvish healers and parents of rowdy elf-children.  A single charge will repair any specific damage to the target's nose.  It will not regrow a lost nose completely, but a severed nose can be reattached if the nose is available and the wand used within 24 hours.  If a wound did hit point damage to the nose, it is healed d6 points.  Wounds to the face in general can be healed d4-1 points, while wounds to the head in general can be healed 0-1 points (50/50 chance).  Non-nasal areas are unaffected by this wand.

Wand of Vibrations
Class Allowed: Anyone who doesn't cast Divine spells
Range: 100'
Charges: 1d10, can't be recharged

The original use of this wand has been lost.  Or maybe the elves are too embarrassed to explain.  What is known is that it can cause any object up to 5 pounds in weight to vibrate rapidly for one round per level of the user, up to a maximum of 10 rounds.  Fragile or poorly constructed objects are likely to shake to pieces.  If used in combat, the wand can be pointed at an enemy weapon.  The wielder must save versus wands each round or fumble the weapon.  If no fumble rules are being used, the weapon is dropped instead.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

better living through polearms

A common source of confusion and merriment for AD&D1 players is the ludicrous number of polearms detailed on the weapons list.  Every designer has their fetishes and blades on long sticks was one of Uncle Gary's.  Over many years of play, I've seen players make use of only a handful of the 16 polearms statted out in the original Players Handbook, but today I'm going to show you DMs how to use all these crazy weapons as a worldbuilding tool.

This post was inspired by the chart below, which I found on wikipedia, and FLAILSNAILer Shoe Skogan, the only player I've ever seen whose character wields a partisan.

Click to Embiggen
So here's how to do it.  Start by naming 16 different polearm-wielding factions in your campaign setting.  Here are some examples:

  • One or more dwarf clans (per the Monster Manual, 10% of dwarf forces are armed with polearms)
  • One or more gnoll tribes or mercenary units (35% polearms)
  • One or more hobgoblin tribes (30% polearms)
  • One or more orc tribes (30% polearms)
  • One or more large, successful, and long-running bandit gangs (10% polearms) 
  • A famous merchant city (10% of merchant guards have polearms)
  • A well-known unit of mercenary heavy footmen
  • One or more ethnicities or nationalities (the Hill People, the Islanders, etc.)
  • An elite foot unit of a major nation
  • A now-dead empire
  • The elite guards of a city, a king, a high priest, etc
  • An order of fighting monks
  • Any other weapon-wielding monster that might use a polearm (the Gith, for instance)

Now, arbitrarily or randomly assign each of these groups a Signature Polearm from this list:

bec de corbin
fork, military
hammer, lucern

So now you know that 10% of the Dwarfs of the Ironbutt Clan wield fauchards.  Big hairy deal.  Here's the next part.

This chart, adapted from the first chart above, is a relationship map.  It tells you who has interacted with each other in your campaign's past.

Items in the same column have had some sort of friendly contact in the past.  If the items in the same column are adjacent, that alliance continues.  If there is another item in between, the friendly contact was long ago.  So the Ironbutt Dwarfs have an ongoing alliance with whoever on your list wields fauchard-forks, and they once got along with the military fork people, but the relationship has cooled for some reason.

The three horizontal lines identify the major factions in three big wars.  The top line is the most recent conflict, the bottom line the most ancient.  The left half of the row were allies against the right half of the row.

Working through this stuff means you should 16 factions, some alliances past and present, and 3 wars that have been important to your campaign world.  It also allows canny players to make observations like these:

"Those orcs have guisames.  That means they're not the same tribe as the ones we're warring against.  Let's try to enlist them in our cause."

"Some of the skeletons were wielding bardiches.  That means this tomb must date back to the Torgonian Empire!"

"These ladies claim to be Amazonian Mercenaries, but they wield halberds.  I think they're really members of Lady Katarina's bandit gang."

"There's a broken lucern hammer by the dwarf corpse?  He must have been a kinsmen of mine.  No other dwarf clan uses that polearm."

Friday, May 04, 2018

I'm a player tomorrow!

It's been nearly four years since I was a player in a FLAILSNAILS game.  Below are my guy and his associates.  Tomorrow we'll see if any of them can survive Aleksandr Revzin's Stonehell campaign.

Donnal MacDonnal, a fighting man sometimes mistaken for a knight

His shield

Elford, Donnal's magical pet lizard, which hovers constantly over his left shoulder and telepathically urges him to take greater and greater risks

Donnal's henchman Stan, the world's worst magic-user

Polg, Donnal's rascally squire

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Two People Are Annoying Me Today

I'm grumpy today because I didn't get much sleep last night.  I was trying to edit a chapter of my dissertation and not a lot was happening in that regard.  So this post will probably come off as angrier than necessary.

Person #1: Michelle Malkin
Nitpick: If you are going to frame your video with the conceit that you are in the middle of
prepping for a session, then you should also have some paper and writing utensils in the shot.
By way of full disclosure, I can't think of a time I've heard an opinion of Ms. Malkin's that I agreed with, so when I heard she had a video about Dungeons & Dragons, I went in assuming I was going to disagree with it.  The video is only sorta about D&D.  It's mostly an excuse to attack academia.  The target is Antero Garcia's article "Privilege, Power, and Dungeons & Dragons: How Systems Shape Racial and Gender Identities in Tabletop Role-Playing Games."

There's no firm evidence in the video that Ms. Malkin bothered to read the actual article.  She cites the abstract, notes that she first heard of the piece from Breitbart, and shows a brief clip from a presentation where Garcia discusses part of his methodology.  Maybe she read it.  It's a short video, so maybe the part where she says something like "On page 243 he says..." ended up getting cut.  Harris Bomberguy's multiple takedowns of right-wing folks who don't do their homework has probably made me a little bit paranoid about such things.

But I definitely did read the whole article, even the boring parts.  Turns out this stuff is more than a little in my wheelhouse, disciplinary-wise.  Garcia uses cultural-historical activity theory, which I teach to undergrads, and systems theory, which I've used a tiny bit in my own work, as part of a larger cultural studies-based analysis of the D&D corebooks.  And he cites Huizinga's classic work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, which I read as a good sign that he's taking the game studies end of the element seriously.  (Though I also think that Homo Ludens is a bit of a minefield.  It's sort of like Frasier's Golden Bough for games: the synthesis maybe goes too far in smashing disparate cultural elements together.)

Anyway, to someone who is both a D&D player of many years and a scholar of the right type, Garcia's article doesn't really say much new: Depictions of women in early D&D ranged from puerile fantasy to outright erasure.  D&D race (orc, elf, halfling, etc.) is problematic at times, and possibly congruent to problematic notions of real world race.  Oriental Adventures exoticizes Asia and Asians.  Garcia ends with a rather ham-handed attempt to link these observations to GamerGate.  Such an articulation is possible, I think.  The author just doesn't do a great job of connecting the dots.

There are a few other quibbles, but basically this is the exact sort of thing I normally wouldn't think to write because it all strikes me as so glaringly obvious.  Of course you're going to find traces of sexism and racism and orientalism in D&D.  Have you read the inspirational fiction?  Have you seen our culture at large?  The way I teach my students about this stuff is to make an analogy with environmental pollution: we all breathe it in whether we like it or not.  The real questions on the table are whether or not you are going to make efforts to not be an emitter and whether or not you are going to help clean up the sludge.

What Garcia doesn't do is end with something like "Therefore D&D is bad and you should feel bad for playing it."  Time and again, I have seen people on the right make this leap, to assume this sort of critique is an attack.  For some reason they seem to think that academics are coy about these things.  What they don't get is that this sort of criticism is almost always done by people who love the subject material.  I don't really like much of Wordsworth's work for various reasons.  But I love Lord Byron's poetry.  I am spending most of a chapter in my dissertation giving Lord Byron the business, because that is far more interesting to me than ragging on Wordsworth.

Similarly, the most cogent and biting critiques of race in comics I have heard came from my buddy D.C., who fucking loves comics.  My favorite rundown of everything fucked up about Star Wars came from my other buddy Thaddeus, who loves Star Wars.  And why do I discuss comics and Star Wars with these guys?  Because I fucking love that shit, too.  D&D has had some shit in it that is maybe fucked up in its treatment of women and minorities.  That's not an invitation to throw out the baby with the bath water!  I honestly don't understand this sort of assumption when I see it in action.  Everyone is allowed to enjoy fucked up things.  What you don't get to do is enjoy them without criticism.  Is that what Ms. Malkin wants?  To play D&D without having to think about it too hard?  I dunno.

So, to conclude: Ms. Malkin, if you are reading Garcia's fairly tame article as an attack, I suspect that says more about you than the article you may or may not have read.

Person #2: Ron Edwards

I got to hand it to this guy.  To make a 42 minute video with an extended argument drawing parallels between the OSR and fundamentalist Christianity takes something.  Endurance, at least.  In an era where some actual religious fundamentalists seem to be into things like blowing up other people, it also requires a fairly interesting sense of proportion.  Or maybe there's an OSR Jihadist dynamiting stores that carry hippie games and I don't know it.

The biggest thing that gets my goat about this video is that I gave Dr. Edwards 42 minutes of my time and he never strayed far from painting with broad brush strokes.  I'm left with the impression that he's done some research into the texts, plus read some blogs and forums.  But I can't tell from this video whether or not he's ever actually played in any Old School games.  

His comments about "false compatibility" between OSR games and a taboo against critiquing the original texts, to give two examples, do not describe my experiences.  I run a FLAILSNAILS game where I often do not even know what rules half the party was made for, and it all seems to work out pretty well.  And I've written about four of my complaints with Moldvay Basic, without even getting into how dumb alignment languages are.  I'm pretty sure my BX vs LotFP series also notes places where I think Raggi improved on Moldvay's rules.    

I found Edwards' lack of specifics especially frustrating, given that early on he claimed, as part of his extended religious metaphor, that "local practice is religion."  Edwards and I seem to agree that I am part of the OSR scene.  I'm not sure what to make of the fact that what he describes seem to have nothing to do with what is happening in my corner of the OSR.  Especially the part about caring a bunch about what Hasbro/WotC is doing.

My own relationship with mainstream D&D has evolved over the years and I will readily admit that 4e annoyed me.  About the last time I gave much serious thought about the latest edition was when I wrote my piece about how to adjudicate old school fireballs.  That was back in 2014.  You know what I've been doing since then?  My own thing.  As have a lot of people.  I honestly can't remember the last time Wizards/Hasbro came up in conversation during game time.  We'll pause to talk about the latest OSR thing of note, or to speculate on what a crazy bastard James Raggi is for his latest project, but 5e is hardly on the radar in my circles.

So I guess what I'm saying is that I reject your main premise, I doubt you have evidence to back it up, and my own experience seems to be counter-evidence.  Frankly, I think you can find a better (and less inflammatory) metaphor for what is happening in the OSR by looking at the evolution of pop art into folk art.  Take, for example, the rise of hip hop and the relative loss of status for heavy metal.  There's certainly got to be some "us versus the world" attitude in the heavy metal scene today, and perhaps some anger towards hip hop.  But to conclude that heavy metal is primarily about that reaction to hip hop oversimplifies a range of artistic practices.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Three Weird Books

This is one of those things I had sitting around as a mostly complete draft for a long time.  Finally finished it while at O’Hare yesterday waiting for my connecting flight.

These tomes were designed with 1st edition AD&D in mind.

Experiments of the Phantasmaster

Ordothig the Phantasmaster was an illusionist of great power in the days when that subclass first broke its ties with the magic-user establishment.  The Phantasmaster is said to be the original author of the strange illusionist spell that today is called First Level Magic-User Spells.  

This tome represents Ordothig's early efforts towards the development of that spell.  It contains six sections, all written in an archaic form of the Common Tongue, with many passages struck through and later corrections added.  The first five sections detail the following first level magic-user spells: Hold Portal, Read Magic, Protection from Evil, Charm Person, and Sleep. A magic-user reading this work may transcribe these spells into their spellbook following the normal rules, except that Read Magic is not required to decipher them.

The last section describes a mnemonic technique that allows an arcane caster to use a single second level spell slot to hold any two of the previous five spells.  No other spells may be prepared in this manner, two of the same spell may not be memorized, and only one second level slot may be so employed.  This ability strains the caster physically, who must save versus poison each time it is used. Failure to do so results in d6 points of damage , which can be healed normally, and the caster being exhausted (-2 on to-hits and saves) until both spells are cast.

Secret History of the Nameless Brotherhood

Sages today consider Yertog the Whisperer to have been one of history’s greatest conspiracy theorists.  To most readers of this, his most famous work, the story of an ancient all-powerful secret society that determines the fate of the civilized world can be easily dismissed as the paranoid ravings of a madman.  However, any druid, assassin, or monk who reads this Secret History and makes an Intelligence roll will realize that what Yertog is describing is the now-forgotten predecessor order to all three classes, before they became separated by centuries of schism.  

A druid, assassin, or monk who achieves this insight may make partial use of the abilities of the other two classes.  Each time they gain a level thereafter they may select one of the charts below and roll to gain a bonus ability. Abilities marked with an asterisk can only be gained once; subsequent rerolls indicate that no new ability is gained.

Bonus Druid Abilities for Assassins or Monks
01-15 No additional ability gained
16-20 Gain +2 saves versus fire and electrical/lightning attacks*
21-25 Gain the ability to understand the secret language of the Druids.  Subsequent rolls allow for a selection of the language of a forest creature, as per the druid ability.
26-30 Gain the ability to use druidic magic items, including scrolls.*
31-35 If 4th level or higher, gain the druidic ability to identify plant type, animal type, and pure water.  If 3rd level or lower, treat this result as no additional ability gained.*
36-40 If 4th level or higher, gain the druidic ability to pass without trace through overgrown areas, moving at up to full speed.  If 3rd level or lower, treat this result as no additional ability gained.*
41-45 If 8th level or higher, gain the druidic immunity to charm effects of fairy/sylvan creatures such as dryads, nicies, and sylphs.  If 7th level or lower, treat this result as no additional ability gained.*
46-50 If 8th level or higher, gain the druidic ability to change form into a normal reptile, bird, or mammal up to three times per day.  If 7th level or lower, treat this result as no additional ability gained.*
51-00 Gain the ability to cast spells as a 1st level Druid.  Subsequent rolls of this item advance caster ability by one level.

Bonus Assassin Abilities for Druids or Monks
01-15 No additional ability gained
16-20 Gain proficiency with any one weapon of your choice.
21-30 Gain the assassin ability to safely use and research poisons.*
31-35 Gain the ability to use Thieves Cant.* [If you actually use alignment languages in your campaign, ignore the asterisk and treat this entry as “Gain the ability to use an Thieves Cant or an alignment language of your choice.]
36-40 Gain the assassin ability of disguise.*
41-45 Gain the assassin ability to spy.*
46-90 Gain the ability to use the Assassination chart at one level lower than the character’s current level.  This ability does not advance unless rolled again on this chart.
91-00 Gain the ability to backstab as a thief of one level lower than the character’s level.  Unlike the assassination chart ability above, this ability improves as you level up normally.*

Bonus Monk Abilities for Druids or Assassins
01-15 No additional ability gained
16-25 Gain a damage bonus equal to one half your current level (round down) when using any weapon that is on the monk list, providing you are proficient with it.  This ability does not advance unless rolled again on this chart.
26-45 Gain the open hand damage of a monk of one level lower than your current level.  This ability does not advance unless rolled again on this chart.
46-50 Gain the movement rate of a 1st level monk.  Subsequent rolls advance this ability by one effective level.
51-70 Gain the lettered special ability (special ability A, B, C, etc.)  of a monk one level lower than the character’s current level. If there is no listed ability for that level, treat this result as no additional ability gained.
71-75 Gain the unarmored AC of a monk one level below your current level.  This ability will automatically improve as the character advances levels.*
76-80 Gain the monk ability to dodge/knock aside normal missiles (arrows, bolts, slingstones, thrown weapons, etc.) with a successful save versus petrification.*
81-85 Gain the ability to take no damage from any effect that normally does partial damage on a successful save when the saving roll is made.*
86-95 Gain the ability to be surprised as a monk of one level lower than the current character level.  This ability does not advance unless rolled again on this chart.
96-00 If 5th level or higher, gain the ability to fall up to 20’ and take no damage, provided the character is within 1’ of a wall or other structure for the duration of the fall.*

The Golden Theurgy of Myrdoff the Thrice Blessed

Myrdoff was one of many magic-users who sought a return to the possibly apocryphal era of the original Archmages, before magic was split into divine and arcane realms.  His results were better than most in this regard. Using the secrets contained in this book, any arcane caster who possesses an intelligence score of 15 or higher and a wisdom of 17 or more may learn the ability to treat the spell list of one divine class of their choice as spells allowed by their own class.  

For example, an illusionist who meets the qualifications and studies this book successfully could opt to treat druid spells as legal illusionist spells for purposes of research, use of scrolls, and may opt to add a random druid spell to their spellbook when advancing a level, in lieu of the new illusionist to which they would normally be entitled.  These spells remain unintelligible to others of their class who do not practice the same variety of theurgy.

Less gifted spellcasters (those with less than the required scores) may still make partial use of Myrdoff’s writings.  They may use (but not transcribe into their spellbooks) scrolls created for members of one divine class of their choice, but there will always be a 1 in 6 chance of mishap when they do so.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

The Value of a Penny

What can a single copper piece buy in your game?

Adventure Gaming was the generalist game nerd magazine that Tim Kask started after he left editing The Dragon and working for TSR.  It only lasted 13 issues, but the issues that got made are pretty sweet.  Issue 4 (October 1981) contains Diplomacy variants by the ever-awesome Lewis Pulsipher.  A generic fantasy adventure called "Pyramid of Light" by Kathleen Pettigrew notes "This adventure was originally designed for and run as an AD&D tournament scenario at GenCon XIV.  TSR Hobbies has in informed us, however, that to publish it in its original form would violate their copyright."  Bastards.  There's also part 1 of a two-part piece on playing out the First Romulan War in Star Fleet Battles.

Lots of other good stuff in this issue, too.  But my favorite article is "How Much is That Bearskin in the Window? Rational Economics in FRP" by Glenn Rahman of Divine Right fame.  The bulk of the article consists of a two and a half page price list for ordinary objects and services in the Roman empire.  Clothes, grain, transportation, footwear, and real estate all have multiple entries, for instance.  Most prices are listed in denarii, the silver piece of the Roman world.  Campaign economics aren't really my bag.  And I don't know if Rahman's basic premise that Roman prices were stable enough over the the history of the Empire to serve as the basis for rational economic thinking in D&D is true or not.  But I do like having supplementary price lists handy.

Rahman notes that the Romans also used a smaller value coin than the denarius, called the sestertius, valued at one quarter of a denarius.  As I was looking over Rahman's list, I started to wonder what a sestertius could buy me.  Here's what I found.  A single sestertius can buy one item from the following list:
  • 1 large snail, suitable for eating
  • 2 small apples
  • 1 garden-grown asparagus stalk
  • 2 wild asparagus stalks
  • 1 small cucumber
  • 1 reed pen of second quality
Those aren't exactly earth-shattering choices for how to spend one's money, but a nearly broke person with just one sestertius to their name can at least get something to stave off starvation for one more day.  Keeping the reaper at bay is the first and most important use of money, after all.  Ol' Robert Anton Wilson used to call paper money "bio-survival tickets."

Rahman's article and the sestertius got me thinking about what the smallest value coin, the copper piece, might be good for in D&D.
Paizo will gladly sell you a
dozen fake CP for 12 bucks.

My precious BX D&D, like OD&D before it, lists all costs in gold pieces, so none of the coins smaller than a gp are very useful.  Of course, the BX and OD&D price lists focus strictly on adventuring equipment.  And with BX aiming for a younger demographic, I can see not wanting to muddy equipment purchasing with different denominations of money.  However, if you visit the tavern at the Keep on the Borderlands, the menu there includes items for less than 1gp each.  A single copper can only buy you one thing, a slice of bread.  Still, that's better than nothing.

The first edition AD&D Players Handbook has prices in gold, silver, and copper pieces, but a single cp can only buy you a few things.  You can get a tallow candle (wax costs a whole silver piece-fancy!), a single iron spike, or a single torch.  A 10' pole costs 3cp, so I guess you could get a  3 and a third foot rod for 1cp.  That's all useful stuff, I guess.

2nd edition AD&D has several items available for one copper piece:
  • a meal of "egg or fresh vegetables"
  • a day's worth of firewood
  • a candle (type unspecified)
  • chalk
  • a torch
  • a live pigeon (non-homing)
  • hiring someone to do one load of laundry
  • a sling bullet
Page 12 of Judges Guild's Ready Ref Sheets (still one of my favorite supplements for the game) indicates that a copper piece is the appropriate pay for 5 hours of labor.  I find that to be a handy guideline.  Incidentally, this means that, under City State coin values, a gold piece can buy 250 hours of labor.

Dragon #117 has a great two-page article by Robert A Nelson called "Dungeoneer's Shopping Guide" that does a good job expanding the AD&D price lists to include more everyday items.  I highly recommend it.  I was hoping to find more ways to spend my single copper penny in it, but no dice.  Still, I recommend DMs get a copy of this article and slip it into their campaign materials.

First edition Oriental Adventures has a copper coin called the fen, which is a real unit of Chinese currency.  It is roughly equal to the occidental copper piece in value.  A single fen coin can buy you the following things:
  • a jo stick
  • a straw hat
  • a loincloth
  • a torch
  • a blank paper prayer strip
  • the services of a lantern bearer (per day?)
  • the services of funerary mourners (per day?)
Though I'm not sure what mourners (plural) are going to do with a single fen between them.  Maybe they can buy a fraction of a standard measure of rice.  Still, it doesn't sound like a lucrative career.

The Hackmaster 4th edition Player's Handbook has a quite robust goods and services chapter.  One cp in Garweeze Wurld will get you any of the same stuff you can get in 2nd edition AD&D (not surprising), but you can also purchase a pint of watered down wine for your wineskin or a "shoddy" garment to hide your nakedness.

The DCC RPG has 3 one-cp items: candle, piece of chalk, torch.

Middle-Earth Role Playing isn't really on the same coin standard as D&D.  Starting characters get 2 gold pieces and that's fairly sufficient to buy some starting gear.  The smallest coin in MERP is the tin piece, which will buy you a pint of cider at the Prancing Pony and not much else.

James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess is the only modern D&D variant I try to keep up on
nowadays (though there are lots and lots of other good ones out there).  Below are all your options with a single copper piece in Raggi's messed up world.  LotFP actual gives two prices for each item, one for shopping in the city and one for rural settings.
  • a belt pouch (rural)
  • a drink, cheap (either city or rural)
  • a meal, horrid (rural)
  • a night's stay in a barn (rural)
  • a candle (either)
  • a piece of chalk (either)
  • a bulb of garlic (rural)
  • a wooden holy symbol (rural)
  • a vial of ink (city)
  • an unknown quantity of lard (presumably enough to cause trouble)
  • some nails (city)
  • soap (either)
  • a wooden spike (either)
  • a torch (either)
  • a sprig of wolvesbane (rural)
That's a great list.  It helps that, like MERP, Lamentations isn't on the gold standard.  Most transactions are by the silver piece and 1sp of loot equals 1 experience point.  A single gold piece is actually a pretty decent treasure in LotFP, worth 50 bucks.

Anyway, what's the point of this analysis?  Whatever your campaign's money system, you should give a little thought as to the function of the lowest-valued coin.  What can a down-on-their-luck murderhobo get for a single such coin?  If the answer is "nothing" then maybe you want to think about why that coin even exists.  From a DM's point of view, I feel like copper pieces mainly exist to give logistical hassles when found in great quantities.  But those coins should have a function in the campaign.  Perhaps before the collapse of whatever Roman empire predates your campaign's current dark ages a copper piece had real buying power, but runaway inflation has depressed it to near worthlessness.  No contemporary political point is being made here, honest.

I'm going to conclude with half an idea, which is a terrible way to end a post, but here we go anyway.  What if prices were wide enough in variety that you could have a viable copper piece price list, a silver piece price list, a gold piece price list, etc.  Then for each new campaign start you could decide how toney you want starting PCs to kit out.  A copper campaign would begin with clubs and wooden shields.  A silver campaign would have more metallic weapons, but be less cool than the standard gold lists.  And the platinum list would have all sorts of fancy boy equipment on it.  Because why play a pseudo-medieval setting if you can't have some class conflict?