Saturday, August 18, 2018

And then...the PCs arrived

Despite it being out for some time, I only recently picked up Broodmother Skyfortress by Jeff Rients. And boy oh boy, it rules.

The basic premise of the adventure is that there's a floating fortress that hosts hammerhead shark centaurs that will fuck your campaign world up. (Awesome, right?) To facilitate this, Rients asks this question:

"What would happen if a bunch of giants showed up here and wrecked the place?" 

He goes on to say that this might be painful if you are in love with your campaign setting. Nobody wants to spend hours lovingly crafting a world only to tear it apart. But this sacrifice is necessary--the pain of the loss of your favorite sites will let your PCs "get" the threat.

This is old writing advice: you have to kill your darlings (or, as one professor of mine put it, "drown those puppies.") In this instance, Rients is talking about the hammerhead centaurs. But really, this advice supersedes the adventure. This advice should be forefront in the minds of every GM out there.

You see, the PCs are the giants. And they are going to ruin your beautiful little fantasy world. They're going to set fires to your favorite inn, they're going to assassinate your aged kings and wicked despots, they're going to resurrect your forgotten gods, they're going to replace your strange cults with stranger ones.

When you're constructing your setting, your adventure, your quest, ask yourself: "What would happen if a bunch of giants showed up here and wrecked the place?" Be confident the PCs will do just that. And that's the point. That's why your players are playing your game. Let the PCs make a mess of your setting, and they'll keep coming back. Don't be afraid to kill those darlings.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Bifurcated Sheets and One Shots

One of the features of OSR games is "quick character creation," and for the most part that's true. Even so, it requires SOME fiddling before a one shot game to wrangle everybody and make a character (especially if you grant random gold and let the players pore over the equipment list--definitely the biggest offender). I wanted to share a technique that's worked fairly well for my one shots. It lets players totally ignorant of the system to slap together a character quickly, and allows for a middle range of character customization. This does require a little GM prep time, but it's not hard if you're familiar with the system you want to run.

I call it the "bifurcated character sheet."

You, as the GM, are going to make a few premade characters for their players. What I do is usually create a few standard flavors of an adventuring party (e.g., Ranger Fighter, Front Line Fighter, Elementalist Wizard, Illusionist Wizard, Cleric, Thief). For one shots, I rarely roll and count gold. Rather, I fill up equipment packs with considerations towards "failed occupation." For example, I make one pack for "Dominatrix" and fill the pack with like, whips and chains, and make another pack for "Outdoorsman" and fill the pack with a tent and a bedroll, and another for "Rat Catcher" and give them a cudgel and a mean dog or whatever. Then, I cut the character sheets of these characters into parts. Separate out the section that details your race and/or class and the one that details your gear.

When the players arrive, I tell them everybody has gets to pick a class (and a race, if applicable) and a failed profession. Go around a circle and give everybody one choice, then reverse the order and give them another. The combinations they make are often really cool and subvert my expectations.

The stupid simple sheet I use for my own homebrewed OSR games is here.

Thursday, May 3, 2018


For my fantasy heartbreaker, His Majesty the Worm, I recently ran the party through a doppleganger encounter. It was fun! We had about three sessions of doppleganger nonsense; one where the players freaked out, and then two more when they weighed the pros and cons of just letting them hang out. I was impressed with how the players handled the situation (TONS of creative solutions) and how the general premise worked at the table. I found that this monster encouraged puzzle-esque OSR play.

In the game, dopplegangers are a type of fungus that read the minds of your companions to construct the perfect image of you. They want to be you.

They want to be you so bad.

From Dungeon Meshi

Doppleganger Fungoid
Encounters with the doppleganger fungoid start out the same way. Adventurers tromp through a patch of them when they're in ther larval state. At this point, they look like some mildew on the wall, just barely probing their dark world with their flagella. Then, they get a sniff of the adventurer.  A little bit of psychic residue stains them. They push upwards. They grow. They follow.
Doppleganger fungoids use psychic images to choose their appearance, behavior, and demeanor. They, essentially, form themselves into clones of the first people they encounter as mushroom children.
Adventurers often encounter doppleganger fungoids while they camp. If there's ever darkness, ever a moment of sleep, the fungoids slip in and bed down. They want to belong.
The fungoids will try and tag along with adventurers for a while. At first, they'll even be helpful. They continue to refine their appearance and behavior on the original. They love to be as close to perfect as possible.
But they make mistakes. This infuriates them. They develop body dysmorphia. They develop self-image disorders. They get confused, genuinely confused, about who is the original and who is the clone. They begin to self-harm. They begin to lash out.
What does it look like?
Well that's the question, isn't it? What does it look like? It looks like you. A little taller than you. Its left boob is a bit lopsided. Your eyes are hazel but its eyes are brown. But other than that, it looks like you.
That is, until you stab the imposter. And mash it. And burn it. Then it reveals its true form: moldy, tubular stalks of fungus. A lopsided mushroom head. A face like a carven jack o' lantern. Hallucinogenic spores spilling out of it.
They are a painting of you in fungus.
The doppleganger fungus derives its image of self not from the original's self-perception, but from the perception of their companions. To run encounters with these creatures, ask the players to each text you a description of themselves and a description of each of their guild mates. A player's description of themselves becomes canon for what the original looks like. A player's description of their companion becomes a description of one bloom of doppleganger fungus.
For example, if you are running the game with four players, each player would text you a description of their own character and a description of each of their three companions. Then, when you wish to reveal the fungoids, you would reveal twelve new creatures—each described as one of the originals, but seen through the eyes of another player.
Likes: Dampness, rain, tearing things up (obsessively shreds paper, sticks, etc.)
Hates: Fire, mirrors, probing questions about childhood

Special: Make it clear to the players that during an encounter, a "loyal" fungoid will follow the commands of the original like a henchmen. Do not tell the players that the dopplegangers are imperfect. Roll a dice. If the result is odd, the doppleganger misinterprets the command or makes a mistake. This usually ends up with them attacking an adventurer by accident.

HD: 4
Attacks: Pretending to attack as base creature, 1d6
AC: Same as base creature
Save As: 4th level Fighter
Morale: 9
# Encountered: The dopplegangers appear in a crowd equaling n * (n - 1), where n = the number of adventurers. See above.

Minor Illusion: A doppleganger can replicate through illusion any item that the original could believably have. A doppleganger can replicate through illusion any class ability that the original has demonstrated previously. 

Perfect Imitation: If they have not yet acted during the turn, dopplegangers may elect to move simultaneously to their "original." When the original takes an action, they also take that exact action. If this happens, the original and the dopplegangers have become mirror images of each other. If they are in the same zone, it is impossible for an outside observer to tell who the original is. Essentially, the clones act like mirror images. 

Fungal Regeneration: A doppleganger may spend an entire action thinking about who they really are (you). They heal 1d12 HP. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Matter of the Marcher Lords

John Howe, Celtic Myth
The knights of the Round Table were sent out as a measure against Fort Mayne, and the choleric barons who lived by Fort Mayne took up the cudgels with the ferocity of despair. They would have written to The Times about it, if there had been such a paper. The best of them convinced themselves that Arthur was newfangled, and that his knights were degenerate from the standards of their fathers. The worst of them made up uglier names than Bolshevist even, and allowed the brutal side of their natures to dwell on imaginary enormities which they attributed to the knights.
- The Ill-Made Knight, T.H. White 

I want to run a Lamentations pick-up game with themes of The Once and Future King and The Faerie Queene. Lamentations products are centered around the weird, and although Arthurian romances aren't obliquely horrorific (horrifying, maybe) or sexual (well, never mind, yes they are), they are overwhelmingly weird

This is a set of house rules that I intend to use when I run this game, ostensibly running through the Hexcrawl of the Marcher Lords. I'll use City of Iron's Dolmenwood Hexcrawl Procedures. I intend to use the old Knights of Camelot board game rules ostensibly as an encounter table

Characters may the following Lamentations classes, each with a particular contextual skin. 

Characters are bound together by service to a feudal lord. All characters serve the same lord. Tell me which one, and what his deal is. 

...that other of gigantic frame, on his right hand, is the ever dauntless Brandabarbaran de Boliche, lord of the three Arabias, who for armour wears that serpent skin, and has for shield a gate which, according to tradition, is one of those of the temple that Samson brought to the ground when by his death he revenged himself upon his enemies. 
Don QuixoteMiguel de Cervantes

As Fighters. Knights represent the noble class. Knights are really the star of the show. Every player can play a knight if they wish. I totally wish someone would play a sweet lady knight like Britomart. 

  • Each knight is awarded the right to bear a personal set of arms. Tell me what your heraldry is. What's your motto or warcry? 
  • Each knight begins the game with a warhorse and a set of full plate in addition to his normal allotment of equipment. Beware, however. Your armor is forfeit if you lose in a tourney, and must be ransomed back. 

Henchmen (like squires) and pets (like horses) can utilize Ten Foot Polemic's excellent rules

Les Innocents
And now it is empassioned so deepe, 

For fairest Unaes sake, of whom I sing,
That my fraile eyes these lines with teares do steepe,
To thinke how she through guilefull handeling,
Though true as touch, though daughter of a king,
Though faire as ever living wight was faire,
Though nor in word nor deede ill meriting,
Is from her knight divorced in despaire,
And her due loves deriv'd to that vile witches share.
The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spencer

As Clerics. These are often ladies, but this class is called "les innocents" to be more fucking inclusive and allow for shepherds and hermits and stuff. 

  • Les innocents must pray at the beginning of each day and be in good standing with the Holy Church and the Lord Our God to perform miracles (i.e., spells). However, these miracles are not prepared. Any cleric spell of appropriate level can be cast via divine provenance at any time, as long as they have not exhausted their allotted miracles for that day. The only thing les innocent must do to evoke these miracles is pray to our Sweet Lord Jesu. 
  • Les innocents cannot use or create spell scrolls. 
  • Les innocents can create holy water. 

"Robin Wood!" 
"Aye, Robin 'ood. What else should un be, seeing as he rules 'em. They'm free pleaces, the 'oods, and fine pleaces. Let thee sleep in 'em, come summer, come winter, and hunt in 'em for thy commons lest thee starve; and smell to 'em as they brings forward their comely bright leaves, according to order, or loses of 'em by the same order back'ards: let thee stand in 'em that thou be'st not seen, and move in "em that thou be'st not heard, and warm thee with 'em as thou fall'st on sleep—ah, they'm proper fine pleaces, the 'oods, for a free man of hands and heart."
- The Sword in the Stone, T.H. White

As Specialists. These could be your bandits, ala Robin Hood, or your learned clerics, ala Friar Tuck. Heck, everybody in the Merry Men could be called a specialist. Specialists often serve as retainers, advisors, viziers, stewards, men-at-arms, or jesters serving knights. 

"She was trying a well-known piseog to amuse herself, or at any rate to pass the time while the men were away at the war. It was a method of becoming invisible. She was not a serious witch like her sister Morgan le Fay—for her head was too empty to take any great art seriously, even if it were the black one. She was doing it because the little magics ran in her blood— as they did with all the women of her race." 
Queen of Air and Darkness, T.H. White

As Magic-Users. Through infernal pact (ala Archimago) or infernal heritage (ala Merlyn) you know the arts of sorcery.
  • As sorcerers are aligned with the forces of Chaos, it's possible that they follow some old pagan religion or dead god. The Church just hates this. 
  • We'll use Wonders & Wickedness spell rules and lists.  

            The false Duessa leaving noyous Night,
Returnd to stately pallace of Dame Pride;
Where when she came, she found the Faery knight
Departed thence, albe his woundes wide
Not throughly heald, unreadie were to ride.
Good cause he had to hasten thence away;
For on a day his wary Dwarfe had spide
Where in a dongeon deepe huge numbers lay
Of caytive wretched thrals, that wayled night and day
The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spencer

As Dwarfs.  Those commoners who have been warped by infernal Faerie into stunted (if sturdy) forms. By ancient tradition, knights keep dwarfs as servants for good luck. It is often dwarfs who carry the knight's gear, gird them before battle, and keep their arms and armor in good repair. 

  • Dwarfs start with 3 in 6 Tinkering (not Architecture). All other class abilities are standard. 

Faerie Knight
As it fell out upon a day,
A-hunting I did ride;
There came a wind out of the north
And woe it did betide.
And drowsy, drowsy as I was,
The sleep upon me fell;
The Queen of Fairies she was there,
And took me to herself.

- Tam Lin, Traditional

As Elves. Knights who dally too long in Faerie gain a little magic. Unfortunately, every Halloween, they have a one in ten chance to be given to the devil as a tithe to hell. (This tithe is why fay are immortal.) 

Also, Halflings represent the fair folk, the tylwyth teg, the little people. This class is locked until the players actually form allies in the land of Faerie.  

Character Weirdness
Weird Skills: Some skills are gone (unchivalrous Sneak Attacks won't be found here!), some are changed, some are added. The skills are: Bushcraft, Climbing, Husbandry, Languages, Lore, Open Doors, Sleight of Hand, Stealth, Tinkering. 

Per normal rules, Languages benefit from Int bonus and Open Doors benefit from Str (but can't be leveled up via Specialist). 

Husbandry deals with wild animal taming as well as animal training. It lets you do things like coax your horse into a crazy stunt or tame a unicorn with your gentleness. Your Husbandry rating benefits from your Wisdom bonus. 

Lore is a broad "Hey, does my character know about this legend?"

Weird Saves: I replaced the standard saves for these (in order): Stun is movement, Doom is poison/instant death, Dragon Spume is area of attack, Geas is Law Magics, Enchantment is Chaos Magics.

Force Majeure! 
Here are some house rules for combat. 

Grit and Flesh: Borrowed from Last Gasp Grimoire, reproduced here with small amendments. 

Flesh is the measure of how much physical punishment you can take before passing out, and caps out at your full class HD, plus anything gained from a Constitution bonus. Players begin level 1 with their max HD + Con in Flesh. Grit is the rest of the HP you gain, and is a measure of ways you learn to avoid injury, plus glancing blows, exhaustion whatever.

  • Attacks reduce Grit first, and when it’s gone you start taking Flesh wounds.
  • When you're at 0 Flesh, you're defeated. This usually means you're on the ground and gasping for help, but you may be knocked out at your discretion. 
  • If an enemy specifically performs a murder stroke against you while you're at 0 Flesh, you die. This is very unchivalrous. 
  • If someone rolls a Critical hit against you it bypasses Grit and rolls double damage.
  • Being attacked from behind or by surprise also bypasses Grit. This is very unchivalrous. 
  • Spend a Turn to regain your class HD. Knights rest in tourneys between fights to keep the fights fair.

Gambit: A player can try to do anything they want: trip, push, disarm, etc. 

  • The attacker describes what they want to do, and if they successfully perform a to-hit roll, they do it. The victim can decide to take weapon damage instead
  • However, if the player attempting a gambit fails, they suffer whatever outcome they were attempting. If that doesn't make sense (e.g., they can't be disarmed if they're not wielding anything), they take weapon damage from the creature they were attacking. 

Shields Shall Be Splintered: A classic. Similarly, you may sunder your helm to reduce a critical attack to a normal attack. 

Gold is an evil. A necessary one, to be sure, but an evil. 1 Timothy 6:10 tells us that. We'll be using an alternative form of character advancement that divorces itself from silver for XP. 

You gain 1000XP when you achieve one of the following glories. Sometimes, these only work once. I got a ton of these from Into the Depths by the Retired Adventurer

  1. Win a tournament (each one)
  2. Resolve a situation scourging a town or more’s worth of people (10,000+) (each one)
  3. Slay a famous villain (e.g., dragon or wicked knight) (each one)
  4. Deliver a holy relic to the Church (each one)
  5. Depose a powerful ruler by any means (each one)
  6. Behold a miraculous event (each time)
  7. Map new lands (20+ hexes or locations) (each time)
  8. Destroy an evil organization with at least 50 members (each one)
  9. Recover 3 lost or secret books (each set of 3)
  10. Resolve 3 situations scourging the innocent without reward (each set of 3)
  11. Train at least 3 followers or apprentices until they gain a level (each set of 3)
  12. Foil the plans of a powerful villain well enough to permanently stop those plans (each time)
  13. Swear allegiance faithfully to a lady (once)
  14. Search out a wise mentor and learn their secrets (once)
  15. Establish and hold a permanent base of operations (once)
  16. Own more land than you can easily take in with a glance while employing 150+ people (once)
  17. Own a ship or other vehicle with a crew and stores sufficient to travel great distances (once)
  18. Stop a wicked social custom in a region (once) (Stop it everywhere for another)
  19. Resolve an apparently unresoluble conundrum through cleverness (once)
  20. Lead an institution with at least 30 loyal members for a year (once)
  21. Obtain an official title with real powers and responsibility from a powerful government (once)
  22. Make a lifelong enemy of a powerful foe (once)
  23. Exact revenge for a misdeed done to you by a powerful foe (once)
  24. Assemble an astounding library or trophy case (once)
  25. Survive an event that slays everyone else in the party (once)
  26. Save another PC from otherwise certain death (once)
  27. Get a curse or geas removed from yourself (once)
  28. Get initiated into a mystery cult or magical tradition (once)
  29. Make something lasting (e.g., write a book, build a castle, found a town, create a spell) (once)
  30. Become famous enough that almost everyone in a country can recognise you on sight (once)
  31. Build an elaborate and difficult-to-plunder tomb for yourself (once)
  32. Donate 100,000 SP to a charity or other good cause (once)
  33. Become the ruler of a country or kingdom. (each one)
I also have some rules coming out for jousting. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Making of a Lich

The word lich means "corpse." (It is sometimes more polite to call a lich a "flesh body bodhisattva" to their face.) A lich is a corpse that remains animate and passably sentient long after death. 

A lich is a miserable creature. 

I'm not playing the tired refrain that "Living forever is a curse and a burden." It's not. Life is usually desirable. Life unending is a desirable thing. 

But lichdom is not. Lichdom is not eternal life; it is eternal death. 

Lichdom is only possible for the truly mad and the truly obsessed. One does not, cannot, become a lich if you have good intentions sadly bounded by brief mortal constraints. A lich has an obsession that they cannot give up, not even in death. Some love; some vengeance; some task; that must persist, long after their muscles give out, their skin is torn away, and their bones crumble into dirt. 

Many have attempted to attain a state of lichdom. Few have succeeded. Those who have enter into a unique infamy. Their names are forever remembered by the Men whose ranks they have left, but also forever cursed. They are the devils of the stories the Men tell each other. Their names become synonymous with evil. 


Saphronia Wort...

Draco Scabra...


Becoming a lich is, well, not secret. The Tower Gnostic probably has a text that explains the procedure. It's just difficult, lengthy, and unlikely. 

The process goes thusly...

Step the First
Before death, a lich's diet must be one of wood*: nuts, pine needles, seeds, roots, and bark tea. This diet must be strictly maintained for somewhere between 3,000 and 3,600 days. This diet reduces body fat to nothingness. The would-be lich is literally mummifying himself. 

Over this time, the intake of liquids is curtailed and, finally, eliminated. A lich must die of thirst. 

* The diet varies from tradition to tradition. Sorcerers practicing weald magic have a different diet from those practicing weird magic, for instance. 

Step the Second
Only master sorcerers are afforded the option of lichdom, for reasons which will soon become clear. The would-be lich must memorize and maintain a rigid proscribed panoply of spells for a period of at least forty-one days. (In D&D terms, this is something like "a wizard of at least 15th level must fill all available slots with spells, with at least two duplicates at each level.") 

Holding spells and not releasing them is incredibly difficult. The process requires strict concentration and meditation, lest some cantrip slip out unbidden. 

This burden literally causes changes in the sorcerer's physiology. Their brains cannot handle the weight of the spells, and twist and grow cancerously. They bulge painfully against the skulls of the sorcerer. 

Step the Third
During the period of spell memorization, when the brain-swelling becomes too intolerable for life, trepanning is required. This step requires the help of aides. The flesh of the center of the forehead is carefully cut away and pried open, like a flower or a citrus fruit. Then, a boring utensil makes a hole in the skull. A runic inscription is then written around the edge of the exposed skull. If done correctly, this inscription magically calcifies the lich's skull--it is no longer vulnerable to any physical damage. 

Though this is (obviously) incredibly painful, no pain-dulling drugs are allowed the sorcerer. Total calm must be maintained, lest the spells escape and ruin the process. 

Step the Fourth
In the last week of spell memorization, the sorcerer must cut all water from their diet. As the sorcerer is dying of dehydration, a deep state of meditation must be maintained. It takes about a week to die once all water is refused, and the meditative state cannot be broken during this time. 

During this time, the phylactery is made. 

The phylactery can be anything, as long as it's an object of complete obsession for the lich. It is usually a love letter, or a shell, or a broken dagger. It's almost always transitory and vulnerable--that's why he's obsessed with it. It is some object of significance. It is the reason that the lich has been undergoing all this suffering. A lich does not choose to be obsessed with the item. The item is obsessive. It drives the lich. 

During the last week of dehydration, all the sorcerer's attention is placed on this item. It is held and cradled and loved and obsessed over. Nothing else is touched or handled during this crucial period. 

Step the Fifth
Now comes the dying. During this time, the need for complete concentration is greatest. Normally, all spells that a sorcerer has memorized come pouring out of their brain upon death. The lich must not, cannot, let this happen. If he does, all is ruined. 

A save (Con? Fortitude?) is necessary for each of the spells memorized as the would-be lich dies. If even one save is failed and a spell is released, the entire process is ruined. 

Step the Sixth
At this time, the sorcerer has either interred himself or is relying on aides to inter him. The place the corpse is buried is important. It must be soft and rich earth, thick with worms. Good crop ground. 

The would-be lich's corpse must be devoured by worms and other detritivores. This step is only compete when they get to his spell-swollen brain. 

Step the Seventh
If the phylactery was truly obsessed over, spells in the dead brain get confused about where they belong. Should they be in the rotting material they're currently trapped in, or should they be in the phylactery? Where is their master? What are they? 

This epistemological concern is the catalyst for the seventh step. 

As the worms eat the brain, the spells get confused and begin to effect a change on the detritivores. The spells incite change and mutation. Over the period of many years, the worms--their lives unnaturally preserved--begin to merge and shape themselves together. They try and cross the gap between "worm" and "the sorcerer." 

With difficulty and pain, these worms form themselves from many into one, and from death into undeath. Using the phylactery as an emotional anchor, the lich is given a body. 


And there you have it. Now you know the deep secret. 

Insanity and evil begets eternal life. Virtue has no such counterpart. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Magic of the Wilderlands

A continuation from my last post, I wanted to investigate the sort of fairy-tale magic you find in The Hobbit. I wrote my thesis about magic in The Lord of the Rings, and found that I was interested in what we could extrapolate just from the text of the first book.

What Do We Mean By Magic?

For this is what your folk would call magic. I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem also to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. 

In old-school D&D, you could assume that the world would conform to understandable Newtonian principles and scientific rationalism except when magic crops up. Players interacted with magic only in two ways: (1) spells and (2) magic items. Both were nullified by something like an anti-magic field. (These terms might get a little muddied in later editions of D&D: in 4E, someone blasting a fireball might just be their class's normal attack.)

In a setting like the Wilderland, the world sans spells or artifacts doesn't necessarily behave like our world. Animals speak their own languages. Entire forests are enchanted, to say nothing of its inhabitants. Is a troll turning to stone magical or natural? The terms seem confused and overlapping. 

This is what I mean when I say Wilderland is fantastic, even if it is "low magic." Sure, Gandalf casts about as many spells as a 1st level magic-user playing Red Box, but Bilbo's world absolutely stinks of folklore. It's a satisfying space for an RPG setting to inhabit. Things seem mysterious, magical, and unique, but never modern, formulaic, or scientific. 

But how do we emulate that? First, let's investigate what gameable elements of "magic" exist in the text. 

Items of Enchantment

“Gandalf, Gandalf! Good gracious me! Not the wandering wizard that gave Old Took a pair of magic diamond studs that fastened themselves and never came undone till ordered?"

I can't tell you how bored I was of magic items having played a level 1 to level 20 Pathfinder game. The Monty Hall was baked into the system! If you didn't have a magic item in each of your "slots," it felt like you were playing the game wrong. Each character twinkled like a Christmas tree, and looked about as ridiculous in my mind's eye as a WoW toon with a mismatched set. Somehow, Wilderland's magic items avoid this feeling entirely. 

From weapons like Sting to Gollum's funny (krazy! kooky!) ring of invisibility, magic items are at once frequent but also interesting. This is because Wilderland has a feeling of deep lore, and each magic item is a clue to this lore. They are keys to history. 

I think it is also important to lump items of surpassing skill into this group. Was the archenstone magical? That is, did it confer magical abilities to its bearer? Since the text does not say so, I assume not. At the same time, it has a feeling of magic about it. Similarly, techniques like writing in moon-letters might not be explicitly sorcerous, but are so close to magic that it should be indistinguishable. 

Here is a list of enchanted items in the text:

  • The Old Took's magical cuff links, which fastened themselves and did not accidentally come undone
  • Gandalf's staff, which glows with blue light (note that this text calls his staff "magical" explicitly, in contrast to Gandalf using the staff as a target for his light spell in Fellowship)
  • The troll's wallet, which could speak up if burgled
  • Gollum's ring, which turns its wearer invisible, except for a shadow in broad daylight
  • Glamdring, a magical sword that shone with a blue flame near goblins and could cut through chains with ease when "happy" -- seems to get happy when killing goblins
  • Orcrist, a magical sword that glowed blue near goblins or when danger was near
  • The Elf King's magic doors, which opened and shut at the command of the elves
  • Bard's black arrow, which always flew true and was always able to be recovered 
  • The dragon's hoard, which was "enchanted" and made those who looked upon it desire it
  • Magic harps, which preserved their tune and integrity through the years
  • The hidden door to the Lonely Mountain, which appeared as stone and could not be opened except by key
  • Moon-letters, which only appear in a particular phase of the moon, or a particular season
  • Coat of mithril mail, which was sturdy as steel but light as cloth
To remain interesting, items of enchantment need to check the following boxes:
  • Be active. An item that gives a flat bonus is going to be factored into the character sheet and forgotten. An item that gives you a new way to approach problems is going to be remembered. An item that requires a certain activation is going to be remembered (be it magic word or immersion in troll blood). 
  • Tied to lore. An item with a name and a history give a sense of setting. People remember if they are wielding Glamdring the Foe-hammer, but forget a "+1 sword." Items that come from a character's class/lineage/race/enemy will be especially interesting to them. 
  • Be evocative. Enchanted items should feel appropriate to the Wilderland setting. This is the most finicky point because not everybody might have the same opinion about what is appropriate or cool. However, if the item would be at home in a European fairy tale, it's my sense that it would be appropriate for this sort of game. 

Using Items of Enchantment
The main characters (Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin) each get one or two items of enchantment in the journey. I posit that accumulating enchanted items are rewards of leveling up. They are every bit as defining as a new class feature. 

A rule: Instead of gaining a new class level, you can claim an enchanted item. The GM will put it in the hoard of a recently vanquished foe or have a mentor NPC grant it to you. Use the "just in time" identification rules from the last post. 

Objection!: Wait, so the GM can't put magic items hidden in the game as treasure? You only get items from leveling up? What if it would make sense that the goblin had stolen the dwarf king's magic axe, and the players take the risk to get it back? They have to spend a level to get it? 

Well, no. The GM can still sprinkle enchanted items in the world. He can also sprinkle "Gain 1 level instantly" potions, too. They should be roughly as powerful and roughly as frequent. Objection overruled! 

Objection!: Items are different than class features. You can lose items, but you can't lose class features. How are they equivalent? 

Well, actually! A piece of advice I've taken to heart from Arnold K is that you can attack every part of the character sheet. A belt of alignment shift can attack your alignment. A witch's curse can attack your race or gender. A vampire's kiss can attack your character's motivations. An axe of mutation can attack your character's appearance or, yes, even your class features. 

Items being lost or stolen should come up about as frequently as you feel comfortable using these other techniques to enact character change. And, like most things, these setbacks can be overcome. Curses can be cured, items lost can be reclaimed again. Objection overruled!


The dwarves of yore made mighty spells
While hammers fell like ringing bells

The term "spell" doesn't come up a lot in The Hobbit. Let's look at each instance the term is used:
  • We know dwarves made spells while forging from the song
  • The dwarves cast "a great many spells" of safe keeping over the trolls' treasure, which they buried
  • The elves cast a spell of sleep on the dwarves after having been bothered by them three times
  • The dwarves tried to remember spells of opening to use on the secret door into the mountain (to no avail)
  • Smaug apparently possessed a power referred to as the "dragon spell," a power which tries to compel Bilbo to reveal himself as a thief
Okay. So "spell" can accommodate apparently a "safe keeping ritual," creating enchanted items, guessing at command words for a magic door, and displays of power from both elves and dragons. 

If the elven and draconic displays of power can be considered spells, you can probably also consider the following as spells: 
  • Elves creating and snuffing out the light of their forest feast 
  • Beorn skinchanging into a bear
  • Gandalf's lightning blasts 
  • Gandalf changing the color of smoke rings
  • Gandalf lighting pine cones with magical fire
Using Spells
What a great many variety of things spells can be. From a gaming perspective, spells seem all over the map--and there's no talk in the text about a drawback or limiting factor.

I propose that a Wilderlands game use a three-part system to define spells: cantrips, enchantments, and runes. 

This system is inspired by Beyond the Wall. Beyond the Wall is probably  my favorite OSR game because it has such a perfectly evocative folklore feeling. It's a great example of rules inspiring a particular type of game experience. 


Then Gandalf’s smoke-ring would go green and come back to hover over the wizard’s head. He had a cloud of them about him already, and in the dim light it made him look strange and sorcerous.

The least art of magic can be called "cantrips." Cantrips are minor displays of sorcerous craft, such as when Gandalf uses his lore of smoke on Bilbo's smoke rings, or when the elves snuff out their feast's lights. 

You may cast any cantrip you know as often as you wish. It is a minor magical ability you possess. 

I probably have a persnickity opinion about what are appropriate cantrips and what aren't (Light? Nope. Create Food and Water? Absolutely not.) but it's beyond the scope of this post to post custom tailored spell lists. Beyond the Wall's cantrip list is fine. 


But not Gandalf. Bilbo’s yell had done that much good. It had wakened him up wide in a splintered second, and when goblins came to grab him, there was a terrific flash like lightning in the cave, a smell like gunpowder, and several of them fell dead.

An enchantment is a single expression of magical power which requires some component or reagent of arcane potency. An enchantment is roughly equivalent to a first level spell in D&D terms. Sleep is a good marker for efficacy. 

Enchantments require consumable components to cast. Each casting of an enchantment consumes one component. As long as he has components available, a wizard may cast as many enchantments as he wishes. 

Each enchantment requires a specific component. For example, Sleep's component is a pinch of river sand gathered under the starlight, whereas Open Door's component is an iron nail etched with a peculiar rune. 

Wizards must track their components. Each component takes one item slot. (I'm imagining Lamentations-esque encumbrance rules) 

Gathering components in the wilderness should be treated like hunting. If it takes one hex action to hunt, it takes one hex action to gather components. Test Wisdom to gather components in the wilderness. Success yields 1d4 + Int bonus components of the wizard's choice. 


“They were not made by any troll, nor by any smith among men in these parts and days; but when we can read the runes on them, we shall know more about them.”

Runes of power are the most powerful expression of magic. They create a significant spell effect, such as the creation of a magic item or laying an enchantment around a large area. Crafting runes on wood, metal, or stone requires time, tools, and a steady hand. 

Runes of power, unlike enchantments or cantrips, have levels. You can only master runes of your level or less. Writing a rune requires a number of hours equal to the rune's level. 

When you cast a rune, make an Intelligence or Wisdom check (the ritual in question will list which to test). If successful, the ritual effect is successful. If you fail, there will be some twist or danger associated with the effect. 

Other games, like 5E or Beyond the Wall, might call this level of magic "ritual." The flavor here is not dissimilar. For this spell list, I would use Beyond the Wall's ritual list. But, really, any D&D spell is fine. If you want to Fly--you can--but it requires a lengthy rite of runic magic. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

1937 Hobbit as a Setting

I only recently read this post, which speculates about what the Middle-earth intellectual property would look like if The Hobbit existed in isolation. It is a good post and the context for today's treatise, so go read it real quick. I'll wait here.

Ready? OK.

If The Hobbit (1937 edition) existed in isolation, what would we know about that setting? How would the setting work for an RPG?

The Hobbit is usually thought of as a more juvenile text. The Hobbit is more of a fairy story, in contrast to the trilogy's modern fantasy worldbuilding. If you see Norse influences in The Hobbit, they are the half-forgotten memories brought by vikings to England and reimagined by the people there. In fact, a word search in my pdf of the text reveals that the term "Middle-earth" doesn't even exist in this book. As such, I refer to the setting as "Wilderland," using the name on the map provided to us.

Here are some observations...

What is the Game About?

A game based on a literary setting would do well to emulate and support a type of play emblematic of the central themes of the text. This is done by 1) a shared understanding between the GM and the players and 2) mechanics that reinforce the central themes. So this raises the question: what is The Hobbit about? 

I offer that the central themes of The Hobbit are:
1. Treasure hunting
2. Journeys
3. Singing

Treasure Hunting

"And I assure you there is a mark on this door-the usual one in the trade, or used to be. Burglar wants a good job, plenty of Excitement and reasonable Reward, that's how it is usually read. You can say Expert Treasure-hunter instead of Burglar if you like. Some of them do."
Smaug from the Romanian edition
The plot of the The Hobbit is recognizable: an unwilling hero, a wise mentor, a descent into danger, a transformation, and a return home. One of the central conceits, however, is that Bilbo is a burglar i.e., an expert treasure-hunter. The text supposes that there is an adventuring class. It tells us that these people advertise their status via runic markings on their door. Burglars can be contracted to go on adventurers for/with you. 

I assume a game based in Wilderland will have the players will all be professional burglars. Instead of meeting in an inn, clients will knock on their door (ala Sherlock Holmes) and offer them a contract similar to the one Thorin offers Bilbo: "Terms: cash on delivery, up to and not exceeding one fourteenth of total profits (if any); all traveling expenses guaranteed in any event; funeral expenses to be defrayed by us or our representatives, if occasion arises and the matter is not otherwise arranged for."


Roads go ever ever on / Under cloud and under star, / Yet feet that wandering have gone / Turn at last to home afar. 
Bilbo and Gandalf from the Portugese edition
The Hobbit is essentially about a journey, as one can gather from the subtitle There and Back Again. A hexcrawl seems a likely play style for this sort of setting--but not a meandering, wandering colonial sandbox. I picture a "get from point A to point B" style hexcrawl, where a map is handed to the PCs and they are allowed to choose the best path, as the default play style. One map is provided by Tolkien in the book. Without the trilogy to pin you down, you can imagine how many more maps could be made by those wishing to explore other corners of Wilderland. (The One Ring RPG has done a great job of creating both player- and GM-facing maps which are used just for this purpose.)

New Rule: Journey-Based Experience
  • You earn 1XP for each hex traveled. 
  • You earn 2XP for discovering a new adventuring site (ruin, monster lair, natural wonder, etc.). 
  • You "cash in" your earned XP at a safe haven (the Shire, Elrond's house, Beorn's house, Laketown, etc.).If you have enough XP to level up, do so at the safe haven, then discard all extra earned XP.  
  • You level up when you reach 20 x [Current Level] XP.  
(NB: Jeff's Gameblog has an alternate system for this.)


Now they rode away amid songs of farewell and good speed, with their hearts ready for more adventure, and with a knowledge of the road they must follow over the Misty Mountains to the land beyond.
Dwarves from the Swedish edition
There are more songs than battles in The Hobbit by about a thousand to one. Songs in the text do a lot of work. They are 1) mnemonic devices for remembering lore 2) truisms and appeals to authority 3) taunts 4) inspirational battle chants 5) humorous 6) comforting. 

Although it obviously wouldn't be everybody's cup of tea, songs are so important to The Hobbit that I would make them a central mechanic. Imagine the stunt system from Exalted or the haiku duel system of Warrior-Poet.

New Rule: Sing for Success
Whenever a PC speaks or sings at least one verse from a song in compliment to his action, they gain an extra +1d6 bonus to their d20 roll.
You get a single bonus dice if the song is not original (just a Tolkien or folk song).
You get two bonus dice if the song is original, maintains a Tolkien-esque aesthetic, and seems pretty applicable to the task at hand.

What is the Setting Like?

I would describe the lay of the land as both fantastic and ancient.
Bilbo and friends from the Russian edition
Despite people always going on about how "low magic" Middle-earth is, The Hobbit has magic pouring out of it. Without the added histories of the trilogy, The Silmarillion, and other supplementary materials, Gandalf becomes "just a wizard." Magic rings are given away for winning riddling contests. Trolls have wallets that can cry out when picked and holes full of magic swords. Eagles, spiders, and wolves can all speak. I would describe Wilderland as "fantastical." 

New Rule: Animal Tongues
Animals speak their own languages. Foxes speak foxish, eagles speak eaglese, thrushes speak thrushican, etc. Animals with high Intelligence scores can learn additional languages, including the Common Tongue. Player characters with high Intelligence scores can learn additional languages, including animal tongues.

The setting also maintains the trilogy's feeling of "fading grandeur." The dwarves no longer had access to the astronomical sciences needed to reckon when Durin's Day would come about. The Kingdom of Dale had been scourged away by the dragon, and its bloodline had run thin. Elrond talks about how the realm of the High Elves, Gondolin, had been destroyed by goblins. And yet, all of these ancient roots have branches that reach into the current age. 

Gollum from the Romanian edition
New Rule: Identification
You can tell when an item is magical because it has runes on it. Until identified, all found magical items exist in a quantum unknown state. If a player character tries to use the magic item, the quantum state collapses. The GM rolls on his favorite magic item chart and determines what the item is. As the player experiments with it, the GM informs them what happens. Does it catch on fire? Does it return when thrown? This is worked out as normal.
If the player keeps the magic item until it can be identified through a) research at a safe haven or b) identification by a loremaster NPC, the player has authority to state what kind of magic item was found. The GM should provide players a list of acceptable magic items that exist in their setting (perhaps any +1 equivalent?) and let the players choose which one they found.

What are the Characters Like? 

Battle of Five Armies from the French edition
People who read Bilbo's story have a peculiar view of "who's who" in Wilderland. Goblins capture and imprison Thorin's party--but so do the wood elves. Wolves trap them and eagles rescue them, but we are told that eagles are not "kindly birds." We are told that neither elves, nor goblins, nor Beorn had any love lost with dwarves. We see why when Thorin retakes the Kingdom Under the Mountain: dwarves can also be jerks.

Lacking a Dark Lord to unite the forces of darkness, and thus unite the forces of light to oppose him, we are given a picture of disparate races each preoccupied with their own interests and problems.

Bloodlines seem to be important to the folk of Wilderland. Bard can speak to thrushes because he is of the true blood of Dale. Bilbo is perhaps a little brave because he has Tookish genes. Gandalf refers to Radagast the wizard as his "cousin," so maybe magic travels through bloodlines, too.

Because of this, I think that random advancement OSR classes that Zak S and Jeff make would be fun for this sort of game. When you get a weird roll and suddenly talk to badgers, you can say "Ah, of course. The bloodline of the ancient Brockhouse runs through my veins. They were known to keep badgers as pets."

Player characters may be:

No one had dared to give battle to him for many an age; nor would they have dared now, if it had not been for the grim-voiced man (Bard was his name), who ran to and fro cheering on the archers and urging the Master to order them to fight to the last arrow.

Wilderland seems to support a few different tribes of humans. The ancient kingdom of Dale has been reduced to the men of the Long Lake. Beorn comes from somewhere time out of mind. The map mentions Woodmen. The elves trade with the people of Dorwinion. I assume there are other kingdoms of men. I'd model them after the folk of Ham in Farmer Giles of Ham or the men of Erl in The King of Elfland's Daughter.

Humans level using catch-all random advancement. Unless they're wizards. Those guys level up as witches. 

There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly); have long clever brown fingers, good-natured faces, and laugh deep fruity laughs (especially after dinner, which they have twice a day when they can get it).

Hobbits level as halflings. Except they are called hobbits. Don't tell the Tolkien Estate.

The dwarves of yore made mighty spells, / While hammers fell like ringing bells / In places deep, where dark things sleep, / In hollow halls beneath the fells

Dwarves level as dwarves. It's possible nobody likes them.

Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and badhearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far. They did not hate dwarves especially, no more than they hated everybody and everything, and particularly the orderly and prosperous; in some parts wicked dwarves had even made alliances with them.

Goblins level as half-orcs. They seem to be generally "bad news."

An Observation
The text makes mention of "guns" in a few oblique ways. They credit goblins with making machines and explosions. Gandalf chastens Bilbo for opening his door like a "pop gun." Gandalf's spell makes a smell like gunpowder. You know what? Put blunderbusses in the Wilderland setting. Go for it. Play a gun-toting hobbit.

In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon, but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost. They dwelt most often by the edges of the woods, from which they could escape at times to hunt, or to ride and run over the open lands by moonlight or starlight; and after the coming of Men they took ever more and more to the gloaming and the dusk. 

The text differentiates high elves and wood elves. It's said that wood elves are more dangerous and less wise.
High Elves level as elves. There are three tribes of high elves: deep elves, sea elves, or light elves.
Wood Elves level as rangers. They are distrustful of strangers but are not a wicked folk.

The master of the house was an elf-friend— one of those people whose fathers came into the strange stories before the beginning of History, the wars of the evil goblins and the elves and the first men in the North. In those days of our tale there were still some people who had both elves and heroes of the North for ancestors, and Elrond the master of the house was their chief.

Elf-friends level as half-elves.

Great Animals
Whether wolf or spider or eagle, it seems that animals are as active in the world as anything that goes on two legs. If somebody really wanted to play an animal, I'd hack something together using Arnold K's Very Good Dog.

New Rule: Critical Names
When you score a critical success (either a 20 or a 1, depending whether you roll low or high), you may sacrifice 10XP to declare a new byname or name one of your objects.
For example, if you pick up a club and manage to hold off a goblin's attack with a critical success, you can give yourself the byname "Oakenshield." If you take out your magic dagger and stab a spider right in his stupid spider face with a critical success, you can call your dagger "Sting."
When your name (or your item's name) comes up and is relevant to the task at hand, you can add +1 to your roll. For example, if your weapon's name is the goblin cleaver, you get a +1 to attack goblins.