Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Gating Player Options

I know that many RPG players think that restricting character choices is somehow the fantasy equivalent of joining ISIS, but I really have gotten a lot of mileage from restricting either race or class in my games.

Consider The Lord of the Rings. All of the initial PCs were halflings. Then when they got to the next village, the GM added a new race/class option with human ranger and Aragorn joined the party. By the time they got through the introductory adventure and got to the Council of Elrond, all the "good race" options were on the table. Suddenly, additional players could choose dwarves, elves, magic-users, etc. 

This formula created a special feeling. It created a sense of small-town folk exploring a larger world.

I argue to maintain this sort of feeling, the GM should consider restricting options that are outside of a core collection of themed races/classes. The GM might make additional character options available based on the story choices made in the game.

  • In a game about dwarves reclaiming their lost homeland, all players must begin by playing dwarves. If they make an alliance with the deep gnomes, a new avenue of character options opens up. 
  • In a game set in a low-magic world, no magic-using classes are initially on the table. Once a PC finds a mysterious tome, however, cross-classing into wizard becomes available. 
A few games follow this formula de facto: both The One Ring RPG and Beyond the Wall have a small selection of character options in the core book. This sets a very specific tone. If the GM chooses to add supplementary material, it feels supplementary.

Of course, this can be done even with D&D 5E. Players shouldn't show up at the table expecting to use every Unearthed Arcana class, every optional rule, or every race from Volo's. If you want unusual races like gnomes or tieflings to actually feel unusual, take those off of the table until a story point unlocks them.

Ultimately, the fewer mechanical aspects that players can use to define their character, the more story-based aspects a player will have to use to make their character feel unique.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Maidens and the Moon: The Skeleton Castle

Another in my series of posts about my Zelda-esque campaign. I've been playtesting my heartbreaker using an amalgamation of blogs I like, Instagram artists that inspire me, and some A+ OSR modules. Read the big inspiration post before going on. 

And, again, there's material here that my players have not uncovered yet. If you're in my game, be ye warned that this way lies ruin(ed fun). 

I haven't done a ton to clean my notes up for public consumption. Apologies. This is a gritty glimpse into the way I make notes.

I have done some work to inject commentary on how the playtest went as the players went through the dungeon. Retrospective-ing is one of the reasons I'm mocking up these play reports.

The Skeleton Castle
The City of Gafferdy had a huge necropolis. Within its crypts, generations of dead were revered, respected, and consulted. 

When the Moon King rose, the dead roused too slowly to save the living. However, the necropolis succeeded in driving off the invaders and building the Walls of Ot. The powerful undead raised new ranks from the fallen and then fortified the city against further invasion.  They walled themselves off from the outside world, creating a city where the dead were the only citizens.

The necropolis limped away from City, crawling on skeletal arms. Now it waits in the Barrowlands, terrified of the living.

Playtest Note: I cover my Meatgrinder basics in this post.

I. Resources taxed
II. Resources taxed
III. Resources taxed
IV. Resources taxed
V. Resources taxed
VI. [Curiosity] Distantly, one of the bells of the necropolis tolls. It sends a shiver up your spine.
VII. [Curiosity] An obelisk bearing the ancient inscription (Cups 4 or Linguist to read): YVAIN - WHO TAMED THE SUN
VIII. [Curiosity] A sarcophagus wrought of many bones, depicting several skeletal hands reaching out towards a skeletal maiden. The inscription reads: HER LOYAL KNIGHTS NEVER LEFT HER SIDE
IX. [Curiosity] A beautifully carved statue of a nude queen, her modesty kept by her long hair, wearing only a crown of sun’s rays. The inscription reads: YLLYSA, COLD AS THE DEW, SWIFT AS THE DEER
X. [Curiosity] The cherubic faces of ghost children are illuminated by their tiny candles that they hold in their chubby little hands. They provide dim light.
XI. [Travel Event] A little grey kitty, the starveling cat, mews and runs through their feet and kneads at their bedroll and looks pitiful. Its ribs stick out. It looks hungry. 
If the PCs don't shoo it away, the starveling cat will begin to follow them everywhere. It hunts for itself and is generally agreeable, but will always hungrily eat any food offered it. They have a pet. 
XII. [Travel Event] Finely-dressed skeletons emerge from the ground. One plays the violin while the others try to dance with characters. If danced with for the entire time, skeletons sink back into ground leaving [discard coin] behind them. 
XIII. [Travel Event] “Hey new guys! Someone threw a bloated dog over the fence, and it’s gotten all stinky. Come grab a leg!” 
Skeletons assume PCs are fresh ghouls. Will grow suspicious if the PCs don’t want the gross dog.
XIV. [Travel Event] A gust of corpse wind and a swarm of skeletal bats extinguish and destroy all light sources. 
XV. [Travel Event] A ghoul’s head is undergoing cleaning by maggots, who are eating off his face. He can talk to you if you blow through his neck hole, and knows about a hidden door in this room that leads to treasure. 
XVI. [Encounter] [PC - 2] Hungry Coffins emerge from the ground. The zombies bear grave goods (two wedding rings, a gold tooth, an amethyst pendant, a pocket watch - ~20s a piece)
XVII. [Encounter] Blurmen trying to distance themselves from the cadaver wizards (each carrying 1 random spell component), but terrified to see the corpse dragging along behind them. Scattering, trying to hide. 
XVIII. [Encounter] Toe Gue Goola displaying the territorial aggression display; absolutely terrifying.
XIX. [Encounter] Phantoms weeping around a kingly corpse. The corpse has 500sp of jewelry and a cursed shield shaped like a woman's face.  The phantoms will haunt anybody that takes the treasure, weeping and pointing towards them. 
XX. [Encounter] Three Blood Liches solemnly removing the bones from a dead mammoth; they will bring them back to the Skeleton King. 
XXI. Ouzel


Blood Lich (Stolen from Goblinpunch)
An ooze monster born from the blood of those that adventurers have killed. It seeks vengeance on those who killed it.
HD: 1 (but it doesn't matter)
Special: Immune to damage

This is a symbiotic organism formed between an undead skeleton and a necromantic slime.  The skeleton's bones are squishy, like lutefisk.  You can't hack it apart, and any injury it takes is automatically healed.  They don't even burn, and acid just makes them smell worse.  They're about as strong as a neurasthenic poet, so give them -2 to grappling or something.

Playtest Note: My PCs wasted an entire session trying to defeat the blood liches that shambled out in traditional ways: they tried iron and silver weapons, they tried torches, they targeted their heads and chests and arms. We ended the session mid-combat. The next session, they got serious. They trapped the blood liches in empty cells, shut them inside of iron maidens, and wrapped them up in chains. A+ monster, good job Arnold K.

A mimic that hides in the chest cavity of a wizard’s corpse. They are a meat puppet that knows at least one spell.
HD: 3, AC: Leather
Stats, generally as a mimic.
Special: Can cast 1-4 spells, randomly determined. Will drop the components of that spell if defeated.

8 foot tall naked tattooed giants with huge hands.
Stats as an undead ogre in plate.

Each gripp has a particular obsession. Look at the discard pile to determine what this one’s is:
1. Food
2. Shiny Things
3. Beautiful People
4. Eyes
5. Stolen Things
6. String & Rope
7. Tools
8. Weapons
9. Clothing
10. Skin
11. Tongues
12. Maps
13. Potions
14. Pets

Ja Ja Ghoul
Ghosts that jump out of their pots to scare you. Cannot harm directly. Feast on souls of the dead. Less of a monster and more of an opportunity to telegraph danger nearby.

Friendly NPC. Half-man dog. Lord of Dogs/Slayer of Men. Agile, Loyal. Powerful. Love. Tame. Protect.
Stats: 5th level Fighter

Toe Gue Goola
A creature, roughly gorilla shaped, that walks on its hands and has small, stubby legs. It is robed in red with the symbol of an eye on it. Its hooded mouth is about where its face should be, and long red streamers blow out of it.
Stats generally as a zombie. Undead, with standard undead abilities.
Special: Each "tongue" is a unique curse. Can invoke a curse with a lick. 

Hungry Coffin (Stolen from Goblinpunch)
Essentially the police of Ot. If they perceive the PCs as being alive, it’s their job to undo that unfortunate state.

Phantoms (Stolen from Goblinpunch)

CRUMULA KREMELEN - THE SKELETON KING (Stolen from Patrick Stewart)

Like a man made of dandruff, or quarried from rocks with big crystals that got eroded away. How he has not worn away in full you do not know. Certainly dead, and rather worn. As dry as old lips. A black robe with silvery square stitch skulls staring out. The silver thread is fraying like guitar strings. One still has a needle forgotten in it. The robe has a bat-wing collar that has actual bats nesting in it. Maybe its just part of his look. A little black yarmulke kept on with a bright tack pin pushed into the skull (he doesn't seem to feel it). What Can He Do? He can raise the dead. He has a Death Touch; "It's a little black finger I have on my hand, don't let it poke you?" One poke kills you and makes a zombie. Two pokes makes your flesh fall off and makes a skeleton. Three pokes makes you dust. He can talk to spirits and find out creepy stuff about them if their parents didn't like them (this is why you should always be nice to your parents).
Wants: A new body. This one is being worn out. Hates: Solvents. Acids in particular. Backs away from wine, fears vinegar utterly. "I'm extremely alkali you know."

Zones of the Necropolis of Ot

The Necropolis of Ot with the Mausolem of Kings beneath the Skeleton Castle

Playtest Note: To set the stage for the "heist" part of the dungeon delve, I established the Necropolis of Ot as a mostly-friendly city-crawl. The players took in an enormous amount of uncontextualized lore dump and generally got into trouble, which is what PCs are wont to do.

The Walls of Ot
The obstacle of the Skeleton Castle is getting past the Walls of Ot. It is a low stone wall. Any living thing that passes over the Walls of Ot dies. Only the dead may pass freely. The Walls of Ot are very easy to destroy, but the curse is deadly...

Weeping pilgrims with side quests:
  • Lumbering Jack, a lumberjack, wants to ask his brother, Laboring Jim, about where their father’s axe is. He’s a big kitten and weeps openly.
    • The axe is in the Forest of Drood, stolen by the shamanders. (The elf of the well now has it.)
  • Madam Millicent wants her late husband’s, Master Mellious, permission to remarry. Asks for a concrete sign.
    • He takes off his wedding band and gives it to you to give back to her.
    • Can also sell the wedding band, if you’re bad.
  • Fable and Mavel, two quarreling raccoon half-men twins, want to ask their father, Nigel A Racoon Sneaking, to settle an inheritance dispute. WHO should own the family’s secret ale recipe?
    • They were supposed to split it and open up a tavern together. This would make them get closer.
The pilgrims will thank the PCs with 50s (each).

None of the pilgrims know how to get into the necropolis, but they’ll see an undead parrot squawking when its mentioned.

Near the Walls of Ot, there are several things (graffiti, undead parrot) that mention how Modest Madroff the Smuggler can smuggle you into the Skeleton Castle.

It's easy to track down Modest Madroff.  He died five years ago, and was buried in the cemetery back at the Wicked City.

Playtest Notes: The NPCs waiting outside of the death wall is exactly the sort of warning sign you need to make sure that PCs don't cross over a horrible death wall and die. The PCs enjoyed these NPCs, grokked their "deals," and made (unfulfilled) oaths to solve their problems. Once the PCs got into the necropolis, shit hit the fan (as it does). As near as I know, these NPCs are still waiting outside of the wall to this very day.

The Lucky Pig Statue
A copper pig statue, smiling and winking. Around its neck, a (copper) braided rope and bell. The bell says “Lucky” in an ancient mode. A slot on its back obviously accepts coins.
  • Every [Castles Cleared]+2 silver placed into the statue, a journal page extrudes from the pig’s mouth.
  • The journal pages are from the Knight with the Pentangle Shield
  • Trying to pry open the lucky pig causes the pig to squeal. This is a magical effect and triggers a Wandering Monster’s check.
  • Unless carefully disarmed, acid floods the pig’s stomach and ruins the remaining pages.
Playtest Note: As I said, I borrowed the monsters or the campaign from AyeJay_Make_Art. Because they've made all this cool art and lore bits, I've printed them out for my players. At every castle is a Lucky Pig--a little pig vending machine with scrolls inside. Put in coin, get out scroll. My players have gone nuts about this. They're assembling a pokedex with all the monsters they might encounter. When I describe a blurman as a "droplet of red goo oozing out of the chest cavity of a desiccated wizard," they say "Wait, didn't we have a scroll about that?" and they all turn in their in-character book. Their little faces are so cute as they light up. I love giving players information up front.

Tomb of the Queen
Her tomb (built after her disappearance, at her instructions) reads, "A queen, a life, a guide, a light.  She will be missed."Under this inscription is a “carving” of a key.
  • This is a clue to where she is located: in the lighthouse.
  • The key is real and can be removed from the tomb.
  • The tomb is empty if searched.
Playtest Note: This was a good level of a obfuscation for my PCs. They looted the key, intuited that there was something to do at the lighthouse, and updated their mental note that "something was up."

Plague Inn
Three friendly diseases trying to invent a cure for themselves. They struggle with human language+culture, adorably.

They want to throw parties and invite all those delightful humans over, but their guests keep dying on them.  This makes them sad.  It was rude of the guests to die at the party, but it was also rude of them to infect their hosts.

Malaria is busy replanting orchids in the garden amid a cloud of mosquitos. She is furious at Lord Cholera's sabotage of her work. She wears a bishop's mitre.
Likes: Gardening, being cozy, humans and their little cute ears
Wants: To make the inn a nice, cozy, homey place

Anthrax loiters in the boudoir, lounging on a couch. She is a bit worried about Sister Malaria, who used to be so much fun. Her plague cauldron simmers in the fireplace.  She wears a wimple.
Likes: Parties, drugs and booze
Wants: To make the inn a fun place to hang out

Cholera sits in the dining room, gnawing bones and writing terrible poetry. He is looking for someone to read it to, now that Anthrax has begun acting so strangely. With a talon-like toenail, stirs the frothy mixture in his plague tureen. He wears a tricorn hat.
Likes: Art, poetry
Wants: To make the inn an art collective
Dislikes: Frivolous people, normies

Staying in their presence is dangerous, but they know how to solve most riddles of the Skeleton Castle.

The Plague Inn should have one of the following groups visiting each time you visit:
  • S: A group of vikings are drinking mead and weeping about how they all killed each other, and agreeing about just how honorable they all are.
    (Playtest Note: My PCs managed to start a huge tavern brawl by accidentally casting a lightning bolt on everybody in the tavern, including the vikings. The vikings HULKED OUT and proceded to have a real fight. Things totally went to shit, with spells totally destroying the poor tavern.)
  • P: Modest Madoff is drinking rum with his pirate companions, the Drownies (sea-weed covered). They’re swapping big fish stories. Laboring Jim, a skeleton with a dented skull, is carving one of the Drownies a peg leg.
  • C: A group of animal skeletons (maskless) are gambling and arguing. Anybody with 4 Pentacles notices a raccoon skeleton (Nigel A Racoon Sneaking) is rolling the bones with a trick toss.
  • W: A group of skeletons is posing for Cholera as he tries to paint “unlife - between still life and the quick life.” One of these skeletons is Master Mellious.
    (Playtest Note: My PCs managed to meet Master Mellious and get his permission for his widow. This was a simple and fun quest.)
Side Quest: The plague triplets have heard that garden golems are managing another inn in the Drood Forest. It’s said they cultivate all sorts of herbs--maybe some that will help them find cures for themself. They offer you 220 silver if you bring them back healing herbs from the Garden Inn.

Playtest Notes: I thought this would be a fun little hub with evocative NPCs and a chance to roleplay. Boy howdy, I was wrong. Because of a subsystem in my game where sorcerers can make magical oaths which prompt spell failures when they're broken, one of PCs accidentally unleashed a lightning storm onto the vikings. The vikings were pissed and because the event happened in a "city" where people could go "guards! guards!" eventually the whole thing broke down into being hauled before the SKELETON KING.

These are the sorts of twists that make roleplaying fun for me. A little setting with non-hostile NPCs can suddenly turn sideways from the interesting interaction between mechanics and player choice.

The Well of Lethe
In the center of a pool of milky white water is the huge, porcelain woman with a cracked, burned, and scarred face.
  • Milky fluid gushes from her fractured skull.
    • By drinking of this water, all memories are irrevocably annihilated.
    • Undead that drink of this water enter the cycle of rebirth.
  • The waters of this underground river power the avatars of Ot.
  • Phantoms have gathered around to drink the milky fluid.
    • It trickles through their flesh-less hands.
      • Blurring their fingers into spectral rainbows.
    • They want the PCs to feed them milky fluid.
      • If they do, they enter the cycle of rebirth.
      • If they fail to do so, they become enraged and haunt the PCs.
  • PCs emerge from the river near here if they ride in on Modest Madoff’s ship.
Playtest Notes: At least a few PCs filled hermetic bottles with lethe water and used it to put some kings into their final rest in room 7 of the Mausoleum of Kings.

Skeleton Castle
The skeleton castle has grown up around the original mausoleum of kings. It is impossible to get to the mausoleum without going through the castle.
  • If the PCs just try to walk into the castle, they will be stopped by skeleton guards.
If they meet with the THE SKELETON KING: The Skeleton King, Crumula Kremelen, is friendly if cowardly. He is firm about not allowing the PCs to enter his castle to take the interred memory of his great-great-great, etc., granddaughter. Her memory is an honored guest, protected by the gargoyle golem that serves as the watchdog for the royal dead.
  • The Skeleton King is genuinely surprised if the PCs reveal they are alive. 
    • “Goodness. How did the living come here?”
  • The Skeleton King is terrified of the Siege Castle.
    • “If it rouses itself, we’re doomed!”
  • ... and acids.
    • “I’m terribly basic you know.”
  • If the PCs try to kill the Skeleton King, he does not resist. He welcomes them to try.
    • Will only use his Death Touch as the very, very last resort. Doesn’t care what happens to him.
    • DOES care what happens to the memory of his heir.
  • If they attempt, he takes them into his castle PRISONERS. Then it becomes a jailbreak scenario.
    • The Skeleton King calls up hungry coffins to capture the PCs.
    • The dungeons of the Skeleton Castle are analogous to the Larders of Ill Omen and Catacombs of Ravenloft.
Whereas the Skeleton King is loathe to kill them directly, the laws of his land allow him to imprison law breakers for ten-thousand years--a stint long enough for them to learn their lesson.

Playtest Note: You never know what players are going to do. I had imagined that the PCs would treat this as essentially a stealth scenario--sneak into the Skeleton Castle and then into the Mausoleum of Kings. They were well positioned to do this. However, they instead pleaded with the Skeleton King to give them Princess Sun's memory. This was something that the Skeleton King was very against, and the players offered not collateral or incentives. As such, they were imprisoned, and the whole affair became a protracted jailbreak. This is definitely not how I had imagined things going down (they never are), and reminds me that role-playing games are a special medium because it's fun for both the "storyteller" and players.

The Mausoleum of Kings
In a garden atrium inside the Skeleton Castle sits the Mausoleum of Kings, built by the Old King Ot for himself.

Depictions of the mythological first queen and king of Gafferdy are displayed on a mosaic on the outside walls of the  mausoleum: the Conquering Queen and the Seer King. As you travel around the walls, you see the outline of their story: uniting the city states under the rule of Gafferdy, the visions and madness of the Seer King, the Seer King holding the city of Gafferdy against his wife’s siege, each dying on each other’s blades.
  • Entering the mausoleum takes you to a set of wide, shallow stone stairs that descend into darkness.
    • Much of the mausoleum is like a drowned church: a flooded cathedral library. Everything is stained by meta-text.
  • Doors in the mausoleum are stained-glass angel-windows. They appear on the walls, ceiling, or floor.
    • Submerged windows miraculously support the weight of what is above them.
    • Access to the angel windows requires a skeletal eye.
    • You can learn this by observing skeletal librarians move around.
    • The angels animate, look down, scan their eye sockets with a beam of light, and become partially transparent.
Threat Response Level
The Mausoleum works like a hive.
  • Inside, skeletons will not automatically attack.
  • Instead, certain actions increase the castle’s threat response.
  • Action that increase the threat response  include:
    • Damaging the structure
    • Damaging the active elements
    • Interrupting the work of the active elements
    • Magic cast inside the castle
    • Taking the Memory of Princess Sun raises the threat level to 5, where it remains
  • It’s hard to get out
Playtest Note: The Mausoleum was designed with a "heist" mentality. The PCs had effective disguises and an excuse to be there. I had imagined that they would try and blend in, walk through the dungeon, and then have the dungeon become hostile once they had taken their prize. Easy in, hard exit. However, the players essentially had some critical failures in the first room and thus Benny Hill'd their way through the dungeon, kiting monsters in their wake.

1. The Archive
Shelves of ancient, poorly kept scrolls.
  • The paperwork is largely useless to the PCs. It details things like supplies in the library, rotas for the librarians, and so on.
Two gripps guard the entrance to the mausoleum and will attack living creatures. The gripps are ensorcled to prioritize the wellfare of scrolls to intruders, though, and will rush to right any messes or dangers to the archive before dealing with the living.

An ornate lectern, raised on a slight platform. On it, open, a large book..
  • Each corner of the book’s cover is fastened to the lectern, and the lectern is bolted to the floor. When no-body is observing it, it gives a soft creak or gentle rattle, as if straining against restraints.
  • The book is called: Lessons of House Cat and Tiger.
  • A text detailing the techniques of a lost martial art. Somebody with Swords 4 who reads the book becomes is able to treat his hands as daggers as long as he takes a stance that requires 3 belt slots.
  • This version, however, is dangerous. Reading it results in paper-cuts as the pages twist awk-wardly beneath your fingers, dealing 1 damage for each turn spent reading. If two corners of the book are unfastened (perhaps in order to remove it), the book animates and rips itself free of its bindings.
    • Furious Book
    • 3 HD
    • Can levitate. Immune to poison, cold, backstabs and other things that need the victim to be alive. Double damage from fire.
    • Major Dooms: A Wound instead deals damage to Cups. Each time this happens, the book gains another chapter and a half-inch of thickness.
Skeleton archivists, holding tiny candles, mostly ignore the PCs. They bustle around, going from one room to another by way of the angel-windows.

  • They are intelligent, and self-aware, but single-mindedly devoted to their task. If you engage with them while they work, they will happily talk with you, and prove to be well-educated and philosophical. Many of their conversations among themselves take an existential bent.
Playtest Note: A badly told lie in this room alerted the gripps that the PCs were intruders. This was the start of bad things for them. Chased by gripps, the PCs hurried to room 2.

2. The Scriptorium Eternum
Skeleton archivists here do the work of writing the histories of kings and queens of Gafferdy forever. Lit by an oil lamp.

A blurman is restrained here by the skeleton archivists. (The magical inks are derived from mimic blood.) The blurman has gotten free, and several skeletal archivists are struggling with it.

  • Help the blurman escape or help the archivists restrain it.
Five large brass vats of ink, tops open to the air, rest nearby. On the sides of each vat is a tap, labelled, that allows you to refill an inkwell or bottle from the vat.
  • The black ink is mundane.
  • The red ink stings when touched: anything written on flesh in it appears as if it were a birthmark or scar.
  • The green ink permanently stains anything it touches, and can never be washed off.
  • The blue ink is invisible during the daytime.
  • The purple infernal ink can be used to write infernal contracts. Any contract written in this ink is magically binding. Every signatory on the contract instinctively knows if anybody else has broken the contract as soon as it happens.
Playtest Note: My players, on the run from gripps in room 1, just sprinted through this room.

3. The Hall of Justicars
A ruined statue of Justice dominates an Escher-esque courthouse. Water stands on the floor about hip high.
  • Robes stained black from inky water.
  • Jaw cracked, head slumped at a distressing angle.
  • Riddled with man-size maggot holes.
  • Sword is broken.
  • Her scales replaced with gibbets, from which two naked corpses hang, one slightly heavier than the other.
There is a terminal in the front-center of the statue. Tiles marked with letters a -z, numbers 0-9 and punctuation, that can be pushed. Above the tiles, there is a slot from which emerges a long ribbon of paper that winds down into a pile on the floor, like ticker-tape. A mechanical pen writes onto the paper ribbon as more is extruded.
  • It is, effectively, a necrotic computer.
  • Pushing a tile results in a series of clicks and new wheels within the machine starting to turn. You can type things into the engine using these tiles.
  • Anything the players type in is input to the calculation engine. The output will be written on the paper ribbon, extruded out into the pile. The players can read the response, which will vary depending on what input they used.
  • If the players input a fact that is known to be true (which is to say, correctly recorded as factual in any book anywhere in the world), the response is: ###Data Confirmed###
  • If the players input a fact that is known to be false (which is to say, correctly refuted in any book anywhere in the world), the response is: ###Data Contradictory###
  • If the players input a question to which no answer is recorded in any book anywhere in the world, the response is: ###Data Not Found###
  • If the players input anything which is neither a stated fact nor a question, the response is: ###Unknown Input### ###Recalibrating###
As the PCs move through the room or ask 3+ questions from the computer, a blood lich comes squirming out of the statue’s mouth. More follow from its gross holes.
  • The blood liches gasp one thing: “You don’t remember us?”
Obvious Exit: A portcullis blocks the entrance to the Flooded Halls.

Playtest Notes: My players missed this room. Remember kids, Jayquaying your dungeons mean that players might skip whole sections of content.

4. The Flooded Halls
Once part of the Mausoleum, the River Lethe has flooded into the mausoleum and ruined the greater part of the archives. It has been abandoned and sealed off.

Stacks of shelves, Tetris-like, on top of each other. Rising, inky black water roars underneath.
There’s nowhere to go but down. It’s pitch black.
  • Diving into the water ruins anything that’s vulnerable to water or ink.
  • PCs can make essentially 4 actions while holding their breath. Thereafter, they suffer 1 (Piercing) Wound for action taken.
  • It takes a successful Cups action to make it down to the next floor.
  • Someone who has gone before can lead the rest of the group.
  • Anyone swallowing the water for whatever reason loses their memories from that day. They wake up with a start, forgetting everything from the last Camp action.
    • It is, after all, Lethe water mixed with other pollutants.
5. The Hall of Urns
Each shelf ends with a china urn containing the ashes of a minor noble.
  • Each urn has the death mask sculpted into it.
  • Labelled with their name, and the date of their death.
Ja ja ghouls pop out of their urns as you pass them. First two ranks test Wands or drop whatever they’re holding as they pass by. This happens before you resolve the Meatgrinder.

This area is damp and water damaged. Everything smells moldy, old, and cold.
  • The floor here is rotten. If 2+ people walk in the middle at the same time, it collapses and dumps everybody into the Hall of Kings. Everybody takes 2 damage.
If carefully searched, ancient coins totally 312 silver can be found in the jars.

Playtest Note: Running from the encounters in rooms 1 and 2, the players kited a bunch of enemies onto the rotten flood and collapsed the floor and fell down into room 7.

6. The Embalmer and the Ossuary
Outside this room, urns of ja ja ghouls are sitting, stacked on top of each other. They howl at you, ineffectively.

A terrible smell of rotting corpses, dust, and embalming fluid.
  • Do you remember dissecting a frog from high school? It’s like that.
Pile of fresh bodies which two gripps are currently loading into the Embalmer.On the other side of the room is an ossuary.

  • Alcoves of  perfectly preserved, beautifully arranged mummies set into walls of skeletal art.
    • If carefully searched, the pile of bodies has 458 silver and a small handful of silver jewelry (1 slot worth 100 silver).
The Embalmer hides in the shadow of the ceiling until someone gets close to it.

  • The Embalmer is a huge ebony skull with a splash of molten gold on its face. It has five titanic arms extruding from neck, which it uses to prepare bodies for entombment.
  • Anyone Wounding a Talent receives one of the following:
  1. Skeleton Arm
  2. Skeleton Leg
  3. Huge mummy arm
  4. Mummified mermaid lowerbody
  5. Trepaning - Permanent Wizard Vision, but also permanent mental scar 
  6. Flayed Skull  (can open angel windows, but disfavor forever from social interactions)
  7. Critical hit (starts pulling your brain out from your nose)

7. The Hall of Ten Kings
A low iron door made of a snarling skull.

  • Not trapped, but difficult to open. The rusted hinges howl in protest.

A large room, dimly lit by brass-caged flames along the outer walls. 110'x100', 20' ceilings. Four enormous pillars, crudely chipped into shape, support the roof.

Ten corpses, wrapped in bandages and covered in dry resin, rest in on corroded bronze thrones, each in their own alcove.

  • Their names and details are not important, though a character well versed in mythology or history may remember their mythic deeds.
  • 1 - Rheman, carrying a severed, crowned head.
  • 2 - Tarquin, carrying an iron tablet.
  • 3 - Marcus, carrying a masonry trowel and block of stone.
  • 4 - Severus, carrying an iron scythe.
  • 5 - Lucius, carrying a staff with the symbol of the sun.
  • 6 - Vibus, carrying an iron chain with shackles.
  • 7 - Allectius, carrying an iron shovel.
  • 8 - Caelius, a pair of iron tongs.
  • 9 - Priscus, a broken iron sword.
  • 10 - Gnomon, an iron cauldron.

Stairs, crudely carved, lead upwards to a giant bronze statue of a gargoyle. On her outstretched tongue is a coal shaped like a brain; it burns.

  • If the memory-coal-brain in the gargoyle’s mouth is touched, the brass lamps flare as the Ten Kings awake. If players ignore the memory and smash the corpses of the Ten Kings, they can spend 2 rounds destroying corpses before the remaining Kings awaken and Phase 1 begins.

Phase 1: The Ten Kings (Skerped from Skerples)

They lurch to their feet, resin and rotting fabric falling to the ground.

Ten Kings Stats
HD: 1
Appearance: ancient kings in thin gold crowns. Their armor and robes are streaked with blue-green from their corroding thrones. Their steps are slow, but they do not stumble or stoop. Even in death they are proud.
Wants: to destroy interlopers, protect the wolf statue.
Armor: as chain
Move: 1/2 normal
Morale: 12

The Ten Kings are not very strong. In the end, they are just ten skeletons. They move slowly and can be herded into a group or picked off one by one. They will target anyone holding the key first.

When the last of the Ten Kings falls, Phase 2 begins.

Phase 2: The Gargoyle
A few moments after the last of the Ten Kings is destroyed, the Gargoyle awakens. She shakes herself with a screech of iron, raises her head, and howls. Her howl grows louder and louder, cruel and metallic, and then shrieks into a orange jet of flame. The howl cuts off. She lowers her head, scans the PCs, looks directly at the best armed PC, and charges.

The Gargoyle Stats
HD: 10
Cast in bronze, with iron teeth and iron eyes. Fire drips from her jaws. Her  neck is covered with carved rings like chainmail instead. Her eyes never close and her expression never changes. Wants: blood and conquest and death.
Armor: Immune to iron weapons.
Move: normal Morale: 12

The gargoyle will only deliberately harm people with visible weapons. She will stare with unblinking eyes at swords and other weapons, ignoring everything else. Anything that a PC intends to use to harm the gargoyle counts as a weapon, including spellcasting implements.

Each round, the gargoyle makes one attack from the list below. She can also move up to 30'. She will try to isolate, corner, and devour the most powerful and violent PCs first.

Minor Dooms:
+Leap Back: If surrounded, the Gargoyle leaps back 20', swiping with one paw. A single target is Attacked.
+Devour: Can only be used on a prone, incapacitated, or pinned PC. The Gargoyle spends the entire round clawing and biting them, dealing 3 Wounds. If this kills the PC, the Gargoyle heals +1 Wound for each iron weapon or piece of armor the PC had.

Major Dooms:
+Charge: The Gargoyle moves up to 20' in a straight line towards a single target. Anyone she passes over (including the Ten Kings) takes a Wound. Whoever the Gargoyle lands on is knocked prone.
+Howl: The Gargoyle pauses and howls. 1d3 of the Kings lurch back to their feet. They are stunned for one round, but attack normally at the start of the next round.

Phase 3: The Gargoyle Bloodied

When the gargoyle suffers 5 Wounds, she pauses for one round and howls again. Black smoke and dark orange flames burst from her wounds. In the middle of each round she also makes one of the attacks below.

+Flame Burst: Anybody engaged with the Gargoyle suffers a Wound as intense heat erupts from her.
+Brutal Cough: The Gargoyle belches up a 40' cone of flame. Anything in the cone suffers a fire Attack,The pillars block the flame.

When the gargoyle is killed, she makes on final Flame Burst attack and slowly melts.

The burning coal of memory flickers dangerously low after the gargoyle has been dispatched.

The Gargoyle's ten iron teeth can be used as arrowheads or forged into a weapon. On a hit, they burst with flame, dealing fire damage.

The ten thin gold crowns of the kings, assuming they were not melted by the Gargoyle’s flames, are worth 200gp each.

Playtest Note: The gargoyle and the ten kings were an appropriate challenge for my party--daunting, but not insurmountable if the PCs are careful and tactical. The multiple stages of combat were fun and kept a "throneroom" battle interesting. 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Three Bad Kung Fu Ideas

The Sword-Breaker King Arts

Manse made a post a while ago about special martial techniques and they tickled me.

I had an (unusually awesome) kung fu dream concerning a shadowy Robin Hood-like guy named the Sword-Breaker King. I wrote it up as a lark. Sorry not sorry for the weeb content.

No idea if this is balanced. Probably not.

1. Shield Arm - Your hands and forearms become steely hard and impervious to pain. You gain DR X to weapon attacks, where X equals the highest level technique in the Sword Breaker King Arts. You do not benefit from DR from unarmed attacks, as they employ a variety of chokes, nerve punches, and grapples that don't necessarily benefit from your shield arm training. You do gain this DR when you do things like reach into fires or try and hold open a falling portcullis: any damage centered on your arms is absorbed.

2. Step on Shields and Spears - You can automatically disengage or move past a foe holding ground if they are wielding a weapon. Using this technique, students of this art can walk on spear tips and easily move across the battlefield unchallenged, targeting generals and champions.

From the unparalleled Kill Six Billion Demons

3. Sword Snatching Grip - If your damage reduction completely negates the damage a weapon attack would do to you, you may automatically disarm your opponent.

4. Wild Boar's Gore - If your opponent misses a weapon attack against you, you may apply their attack roll against another foe with which you are engaged.

5. Iron Rain Technique - Make an attack roll against a foe. If you hit, you may automatically sunder an opponent's weapon or shield instead of doing damage. Everyone engaged with you must Save vs. Dragon Breath or take 1d6 damage from the exploding shards of the weapon.

Alternate HP system

Image result for kill 6 billion demons martial arts
Reach Heaven Through Violence
Since I'm here and thinking about combat subsystems, here's an alternate HP system that I've been gnawing on for kung-fu-type games.

You have two states: solid and staggered.

  • If you are solid, you are alert and have good footing. You are aggressive.
  • If you are staggered, you are knocked off balance or disadvantaged. You are vulnerable. 

Keep a coin next to your character sheet. If it's heads up, you're solid. If it's tails up, you're staggered. (You might be flipping this a lot during the flow of combat.)

  • If  you are solid and an opponent hits and would damage you, don't roll any damage. You become staggered.
  • If you are staggered and an opponent hits you, your opponent rolls their damage dice and you roll your HD. 
    • Your HD is determined by your class: magic-users d4, cleric and thief d6, fighter d8.
    • If your opponent rolls higher than you, you are taken out. You fall, gasping and clinging to life. 
    • If you roll higher than your opponent, you're safe (for now). If you roll 4+ on your HD, you return to solid at the beginning of your next turn.
    • You can spend your turn to catch your breath and instantly return to solid. 

The knight Blackthorn is engaged with a two assassins.
  • Round 1: 
    • Blackthorn acts first and makes an attack against Assassin 1 and succeeds. Assassin 1 is now staggered. 
    • Both assassins make an attack against Blackthorn and only Assassin 1 succeeds. Blackthorn is now staggered. 
  • Round 2:
    • The assassins gain initiative. Both assassins make an attack against Blackthorn and both succeed. This could be it for our hero!
      • Assassin 1 rolls his damage dice (1d6) vs Blackthorn's HD (1d8). The assassin rolls 5, but Blackthorn rolls a 6! Blackthorn is safe for now and will become solid at the beginning of his next turn since he rolled 4+.
      • Assassin 2 rolls his damage dice (1d6) vs Blackthorn's HD (1d8). Both the assassin and Blackthorn roll a 4. Because the assassin has to roll higher to take out Blackthorn, Blackthorn survives the attack (by the skin of his teeth).
    • Blackthorn becomes solid. Blackthorn makes an attack against Assassin 1 and succeeds. 
      • Blackthorn rolls his damage dice (1d6) vs the assassin's HD (1d6). Blackthorn rolls a 4 and the assassin rolls a 1. Blackthorn takes out Assassin 1.

The idea behind this system is to simulate having your opponent on the ropes to make a finishing move. I have no idea how this would actually work at the table.

Another Alternate HP System

Myra, also known as the stinking goddess, is the patron goddess of the poor. Though finely dressed, the hem of her long veil is perpetually stained with the mud and filth of her surroundings. She famously broke UN-Ogam's nose when he tried to carry her off and wed her by headbutting him in the face.
Skull of Ys Mara
Forget all that shit I just said about not having HP. 

When you and a minion are in the same combat area, add your minion's HP to your own as temporary hit points. 

When you or your minion is attacked, you can choose to direct the damage to your HP or your temporary hit points. If your minion would take enough damage to die, he dies and the rollover carries on to your HP.  Alternately, you can choose to always take the damage to your own HP. HP never rolls over from master to minion. 

Essentially, this creates scenes where you or your minions leap to defend each other. Have real BUCKYYYY NOOOO scenes.

O Hashiin the Unwashed is surrounded by six of his bloody acolytes, each with 2HP. This gives him 12 temporary hit points as long as he's near his acolytes. 

Because he is a cruel master, you must defeat each of his acolytes before you can meaningfully defeat him. 

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What are you holding? - The GM's Most Important Question

RPGs are a conversational game. The GM describes a scene, the players ask questions, the GM answers them; the players take actions, the GM asks questions, the players answer them; repeat. For the type of games I run, there is one question that trumps all others:

"What do you have in your hands right now?"

(This is only mildly related to the "What's in your mouth?" question I'm always asking my dog on walks.*)

Image result for equipment slots

Everything a PC does is influenced by the answer to this question. A PC who isn't carrying a light source in a dark room won't be able to see--something the GM should know before they ever give their scene setting description. Anything a PC attempts might be hampered or helped by the answer.

Player: Can I climb the wall here and look over it?
GM: Well, the wall is made of crumbling brick, so sure, it would be easy. What are you carrying?
Player: I'll leave my sword and shield on the ground.
GM: OK. So you prop your sword and shield against the wall and start climbing the wall?

Example the Second:
Player: OK, I want to try and pick the lock on the weird door with the face.
GM: Who has the light source? (A variation on "What's in your hands?")
Player 2: I do. I'm standing guard by the first room to make sure nobody ambushes us.
GM: If you're trying to pick the lock but your light source is at the cavern's opening, you basically can't see what you're doing. That'll be a massive penalty.
Player 3: I'll pull out my torch and light it off of Player 2's and stand near the locked door to provide light.
GM: OK, that works. Make a Pick Locks roll.

Example the Third:
GM: You see a bunch of little cube-shaped cuties walking in a line through the forest. The last one in line notices you, exclaims in surprise, and then hurries to catch up with the rest.
Player: I want to catch one!
GM: Do you have a free hand?
Player: Uh, no. No I have my sling in one hand and my shield in the other.
GM: OK. How are you trying to catch one?
Player: I want to put my shield down in front of it. Like, reach over it and try and trap it between me and the shield.

The fiction of what a PC holds gives you immediate context for the rest of the scene.

* Spoiler alert: It's poop.

Monday, February 3, 2020

GLoG: Rat-kebab Edition

Goblin Laws of Gaming

Rat-Kebab Edition

Sources Cited:

Delicious in Dungeon

Image result for dungeon meshi large print
A hack about eating monsters, in case you like stupid shit like this
The Rat-Kebab Edition is a ruleset explicitly about trying to scavenge food in the mythic underworld. It's mostly an homage to Dungeon Meshi by Ryoko Kui. The main gimmick is that nutrients = experience points. The rules assume GLoG as your base (since it's so hackable), but you can probably port this onto whatever your D&D flavor of choice is. Include this with something like Veins of the Earth if laying it on thick is your cup of tea. Blend it with Gardens of Ynn or similar if you wanna get weird with it.

Ability Checks

dungeon meshi -20
Root for the trapsmith's success...from a distance!
As with core GLoG, almost everything uses a d20 rolled against a target number. If the outcome of an attempt is uncertain, the GM determines what ability score most suits the test at hand. The player rolls a d20. If you roll equal to or less than the tested ability score, but above your Fatigue, you succeed. 

Everybody starts with the similar stats.
  • Ability scores are determined by 4d4 in order, swap 2. Abilities cap out at 18.
  • Everybody starts with Attack 11 and Save 6 (modified by Cha) per core GLoG. Attack and Save scores cap out at 15. 
  • You begin with a template A class. You gain more templates when your ability scores increase, to a maximum of four templates.
  • Calculate Defense, Stealth, Move, and Initiative as normal. 


If you have a relevant skill to the task at hand, treat the tested ability as being +2. If you have a mastered skill relevant to the task at hand, treated the tested ability as being +4.

Mastered skills take up two skill slots and must be learned from a master trainer. For example, you learn master lockpicking from the head of the Thief's Guild.


Image result for dungeon meshi healthy
Adventurers must be careful to balance their resources and their fatigue
Fatigue is a measure of how tired you are on a 1-20 scale. When you make a test, you must roll above your current Fatigue score but under or equal to your attribute test to succeed. 

Fatigue is gained from the Encounter Dice and from taking heavy damage (see below). The GM may also deal out Fatigue for strenuous or unhealthy situations, like wading through a fetid swamp or climbing a mountain during a blizzard.

You lose all of your fatigue when you eat a decent meal. See "Cooking" below.

The Encounter Dice

As the PCs explore the dungeon, the GM rolls the Overloaded Encounter Die. On a roll of 2 (Fatigue), each PC gains 1 point of Fatigue. 

Hit Points - Grit and Flesh

Look the fuck out

Grit is "don't get hit" points. It represents your ability to mitigate actual harm. You use these up first.

Flesh represents damage to your precious body. When you take damage to your Flesh, your blood is flowing. You take Flesh damage after you've used up all your Grit--or take damage in such a way that you can't get out of the way, e.g., falling onto spikes totally bypasses your Grit and goes straight onto your Flesh.

Characters have a number of Flesh points equal to 1/2 their Constitution, rounded up. Characters have a variable amount of Grit based on what they eat (see "Leveling" below).

You die when you're at - [Constitution] Flesh points.

If you're in the negatives Flesh-wise but not dead, a character can perform first aid. This is a Wisdom check (with a bonus if you have a skill like Leechcraft or Doctor or something). If successful, the character is restored to 1 Flesh and gains a number of Fatigue points equal to the negative value that was healed.

For example, a wounded character at -5 Flesh who is healed through first aid gains 5 Fatigue points.

You can also heal wounded characters through magic, as per usual. Healing magic adds Flesh points, even if in negative totals.


Cooking brings a brief moment of rest and respite in the dangers of the dungeon
When the party stops to rest in the deep dark dungeon, they have to eat. 

Eating rations and preserved food heals all Fatigue accumulated. It stops you from starving. This is the end of their benefits. 

A feast is a moment of actual rest in the middle of hostile and hungry darkness. All characters eating a feast heal all Flesh and Fatigue as feasts warm the heart and strengthen the body. Additionally, depending on the make up of the feast, characters might gain Grit, Magic Dice, and temporary or permanent bonuses to their abilities. See "Leveling" below.

To create a feast, you require:
  • Two unique ingredients
  • One portion per character
In addition, you must fulfill two of the following five criteria:
  • Fire
  • Water
  • Utensils
  • Cooking gear
  • Spices

A feast must be prepared and then immediately consumed. Leftovers don't count as a feast. 

Each monster eaten provides a certain amount of portions. A rat yields about one portion. A minotaur yields about eight. A dragon could feast upwards of fifty adventurers. 

If you eat something sentient, you gain a point of The Hunger (see below).

The GM should add together any nutritional benefits from the two ingredients used to make a feast and tell the players the totals for each nutrient category (see below). Decimal totals are rounded as normal; .5 is rounded up to 1, .4 is rounded down to 0.

A nutrient has a maximum score of 5. No matter the combination of ingredients, a nutrient can't go above 5 for any one particular feast.

The GM does not need to elaborate about which ingredient provided which benefit.

Example: After a battle with a basilisk, the party cooks an omelette out of the basilisk's eggs, basilisk bacon, and sliced shambling mound. They cook the omelette in Senshi's wok (cooking gear), flavor it with salt, pepper, and ketchup (spices), over a fire. This fulfills 3 out of 5 of the cooking requirements.

Leveling Up - Eat Your Way to Glory

Levels are a useless concept. Abandon them.

Characters grow and become stronger if they eat well-balanced, healthful, and magical meals. 

Each feast has five stats, called nutrients. 
  • Flavor determines how delicious the feast is. This nutrient reinforces a character's Save stat. 
  • Energy determines how many calories a feast has. This nutrient reinforces a character's Grit.
  • Minerals provide needed magical energy. This nutrient refills a spell-casting character's Magic Dice. 
  • Vitamins are good for your brain. This nutrient reinforces a character's mental abilities. 
  • Protein builds strong bones and muscles. This nutrient reinforces a character's physical abilities.
Each character eating a feast may choose to gain the benefits of two nutrients per feast. 

Example: The basilisk and shambling mound omelette both contribute their nutritional merits to the meal.

The shambling mound contributes 0.4 Flavor, 2.6 Energy, 1 Minerals, 2.5 Vitamins, and 2 Protein.

The basilisk contributes 2 Flavor, 1.5 Energy, 2 Minerals, 2 Vitamins, and 2 Protein.

In total, that's 2 Flavor, 4 Energy, 3 Minerals, 4 Vitamins, and 4 Protein. The feast is entirely of exotic foods so the Food Dice equals d6.

  • Laius the fighter and Senshi the dwarf were both injured in the battle, so they both dedicate one-half of the feast to energy to get back some Grit. 
  • Laius is training with Marcille to learn magic, so he dedicates the other half of his feast to vitamins, hoping to buff his mental stats. 
  • Senshi dedicates the other half of his feast to flavor, hoping to get a bonus to his Save stat. 
  • Marcille used magic during the last battle so she dedicates half of her feast to minerals to recover magic dice. She chooses vitamins for the other half of her feast hoping to gain a bonus to her Wisdom stat. 
  • Chilchak chooses flavor and protein for his benefits, hoping to gain some benefit to his Save or Dexterity stats.

Food Dice

When the rules call for it, the players may roll Food Dice (FD). Food Dice are either d4s, d6s or d8s. 
  • If the feast contained mundane animals or plants, the Food Dice are equal to d4s. 
  • If the feast contained no mundane animals or plants, only exotic ingredients, the Food Dice are equal to d6s. 
  • If the feast contained extraordinarily magical ingredients, like a dragon or an angel, the Food Dice are equal to d8s. 

Checks and Increasing Stats

If a player accumulates three checks on any stat except for Attack, they may immediately increase that stat by 1. Adjust derived stats accordingly.

Attack requires five checks to increase.

When you gain a physical stat increase (Strength, Constitution, or Dexterity), you gain a template in a class of predominantly physical prowess (e.g., Acrobat, Fighter, Thief, Ranger, etc.).

When you gain a mental stat increase (Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma), you gain a template in a magical, academic, or weird class (e.g., Wizard, Cleric, Rat Master, etc.). 

The GM will make a call for templates that seem to straddle the physical/mental divide (e.g., Muscle Wizard). Maybe you need alternating stat increases, or maybe the GM will set up prime requisites that trigger template gain.


The more delicious the meal, the better disposition the character has. The better a character's disposition, the stronger their willpower and more stalwart their heart.

If the players benefit from flavor: Characters may roll as many FD as the feast's flavor rank.
  • If the total of the roll exceeds the character's Save, the Save stat gains a check.
  • If any FD show the same face, the character gains a temporary bonus to their Save score equal to the amount of faces shown. This bonus lasts until the next time you rest.
    • For example, a roll of 3, 2, 2, 2, 4 would give a bonus of +3. 


The more energy a character has, the more resilient they are in the face of adversity.

If the players benefit from energy: After the feast, characters may roll as many FD as the feast's energy rank.
  • The character's current Grit score is immediately replaced with the new total. 


Minerals connect a character to the natural world and the ebb of mana. As a magic-user casts spells, their internal reserves of minerals becomes quickly depleted. In fact, magic-users are at great risk for hypokalemia and hypocalcaemia. 

If the players benefit from minerals: Characters gain magic dice (MD) of the same die type and number as the feast's mineral rank. A character can hold as maximum amount of magic dice as they have spell-casting templates. These MD are held until spent and expended through casting spells.

Example: Marsille (Wizard 3, Necromancer 1) currently has 3 MD. She eats basilisk and slime soup, which has a mineral rating of 2. This would yield two d6 MD, to be used whenever she wants to cast a spell. However, since her maximum is 4 magic dice, she only gains one d6 MD from the meal.


Vitamins produce a healthful effect on one's metabolism, reasoning, and cognitive capabilities. By eating foods rich in vitamins, characters benefit from increased memory and logical reasoning capabilities.

If the players benefit from vitamins: Characters may roll as many FD as the feast's vitamin rank.
  • Select one of your mental abilities: Intelligence, Wisdom, or Charisma. If the total of the roll exceeds the character's ability, that ability gains a check.
  • A player may choose to "split" the FD between different mental abilities. For example, after eating a 4FD feast, you may put 2FD towards Wisdom and 2FD towards Charisma.
  • If any FD rolled against the same ability show the same face, the character gains a temporary bonus to their selected score equal to the amount of faces shown. This bonus lasts until the next time you rest.
    • For example, a roll of 4, 4 towards Charisma and 1, 3 towards Wisdom would give a bonus of +2 to Charisma. 


Proteins are important for building muscle and reducing soreness after exertion. Eating foods rich in proteins promotes physical development. 

If the players benefit from proteins: Characters may roll as many FD as the feast's proteins rank.
  • Select one of your physical abilities (Strength, Constitution, or Dexterity) or Attack stat. If the total of the roll exceeds the character's ability, that ability gains a check.
  • A player may choose to "split" the FD between different stats. For example, after eating a 5FD feast, you may put 2FD towards Attack and 3FD towards Constitution.
  • If any FD rolled against the same ability show the same face, the character gains a temporary bonus to their selected score equal to the amount of faces shown. This bonus lasts until the next time you rest.
    • For example, a roll of 4, 4 towards Attack and 1, 3, 3 towards Constitution would give a temporary bonus of +2 to both Attack and Constitution. 

Example: Following our example above, let's zoom in on each member of the party and see how the feast impacted them. 

  • In total, that's 2 Flavor, 4 Energy, 3 Minerals, 4 Vitamins, and 4 Protein. The feast is entirely of exotic foods so the Food Dice equals d6.

    • Laius the fighter rolls 4d6 for Energy and 4d6 for Vitamins. He dedicates all 4d6 to his Intelligence, hoping to raise that stat (currently a 12). 
      • Laius rolls a 15 for his Energy. He sets his current Grit total to 15. 
      • Laius rolls a 13 for his Vitamins. Since this is above his current Intelligence score, he gives this ability one check.
    • Senshi the dwarf rolls 4d6 for Energy and 2d6 for Flavor. Senshi's Save stat is currently 11
      • Senshi rolls a 7 for his Energy. He sets his current Grit total to 7. 
      • Senshi rolls a 5 for his Flavor. This is lower than his current Save score so he gains no checks.
    • Marcille the elf rolls 3d6 for her Minerals and 4d6 for her Vitamins. She currently has 1 Magic Die and a maximum of 4. Her Wisdom stat is currently 15.
      • Marcille gains 3 Magic Dice. This sets her total back to 4, her maximum. 
      • Marcille rolls an 8 for her Vitamins. Since this is lower than her current Wisdom score she gains no checks.
    • Chilchak the halfling rolls 2d6 for Flavor. Chilchak's Save stat is currently 10. He wants to raise both his Strength score (currently 8) and Constitution score (currently 10). Because the feast provides 4d6 Protein, he puts 2d6 towards Strength and 2d6 towards Constitution. 
      • Chilchak rolls 10 for his Flavor. Because this meets but does not exceed his Save stat, he gains no checks.
      • Chilchak rolls 4 for his Proteins vs Strength. Since this is lower than his current Strength score he gains no checks.
      • Chilchak rolls 11 for his Proteins vs Constitution. Since this is above his current Constitution score, he gives this ability one check.

The Hunger

The Hunger is always thrilling

Only the very desperate or the very wicked eat the flesh of sentient races.

If you succumb to the temptation, you gain 1 point of The Hunger.

At the end of each feast where you gained a point of The Hunger, you make a The Hunger check. Roll a d20.

If you "succeed" on The Hunger check, you become a ghoul. You no longer can return to the surface--the mana up there cannot sustain you. You can no longer eat normal food. You can only digest the flesh of the dead or sentient races.

The Hunger never decreases. Once you're on this dark path, you're on the dark path for the rest of your life.

There may be some wiggle room here. Eating harpies might illicit The Hunger whereas eating harpy eggs might not.

The GM is the ultimate arbiter of what's sentient and what isn't, but they must be forthcoming about this up front. No fair saying, "Ha ha actually slimes are like, super intelligent and secretly altruistic. You just ate the Mother Theresa of slimes" after the fact.

Example: Senshi the dwarf, starving and delirious, is served a stew of dwarf flesh after a desperate and failed delving. He partakes and gains 1 point of The Hunger. At the end of the feast, he makes a The Hunger check. His player rolls a d20 and gets a 15--well above the 1 needed to "succeed" on the check. As such, Senshi remains a dwarf but maintains a permanent point of The Hunger.

Finding Food

Each floor of the dungeon has an ecology that makes a perverse amount of sense.
Here is a link to a spreadsheet that has the nutritional details of everything in the 1st Edition Monstrous Manual.

Cross-reference this with the Monster Menu-All from Skerples for full-blown info on everything you want to devour (see Sources Cited).

Friday, December 27, 2019

Dragonlance: 5th Age (Saga System) - A review

I was rereading Art & Arcana over the Christmas holiday, and noticed an interesting caption for a small image, calling out an unpopular edition of a Dragonlance game played with cards called Dragonlance: 5th Age. Since I'm currently writing a game played with cards, I've read a ton of other card-based systems, but somehow this was never on my radar. As a lark, I looked it up.

When the OSR looks back to the earliest days of D&D, they're not really looking at this era. D&D3E was only three years away. At the end of its life, AD&D was doing some weird things. In the same way that D&D4E was contextualized and framed by the popularity of MMOs, TSR of this era is contextualized by Magic: the Gathering. Wizards of the Coast, the new wunderkind (who would eventually go on to devour its older brother like a bizarre terratoma), was perceived by TSR to be its main competition. And instead of defining itself by its differences, TSR wanted to copy what made MtG interesting. In 1994, they released Spellfire, which was followed the next year with Blood Wars. Neither imitator proved as successful as the original. In 1996, TSR also released Dragonlance: 5th Age, a rule set that used not the AD&D 2nd ed rules, but a new card-based system called the Saga Edition. It was not successful either.

But it is interesting! It's sort of like finding an archaeopteryx: a feathered link between the old and the new. It uses a specialized deck of cards with the characters from the Dragonlance novels on them and Tarot-like suits. It steps away from dungeon crawling, coin counting, and inventive solutions with ten-foot poles and packages of lard in favor of high adventure heroics. It has rules that genre-emulate the novels that made Krynn famous.

I can see why it wasn't a hit. The 5th Age of the setting is markedly different from the setting of the novels. In giving new players space to tell their own stories, they removed all the touchstones that made Dragonlance feel like Dragonlance. In a world that was supposed to be more dragon than dungeon, it dramatically reduced the draconic population. It even got rid of the token three moons of magic.

Also, the card-based system is interesting, but it's a real break from AD&D. This was a gamble on TSR's part--frankly, in 1996, D&D wasn't cool or popular, even in its own fanbase. The Satanic Panic had stained D&D's public reputation and taken the teeth out of the creature that remained. There were worthy RPG competitors (I was happily playing Shadowrun around this time, imagining a far future world with a cordless fax machine). By making a non-D&D game, TSR was hoping that the Dragonlance brand could popularize a new system of cooperative card-based storytelling. It was never meant to be.

As I'm reading through the rules for "Fifth Age," I thought I'd jot down my observations. The game is a weird duck, but interesting.
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You could be one of three heroic standers! (Dragons not included.)


The 5th Age came in a boxed set. It's well established that box sets rule. Book 1 has all the core rules of the Saga System and clocks a cool 128 pages. Not an unwieldy tome by any stretch. 

The art is very sparse. Occasionally a quarter-page of half-page black and white character piece will sit breaking up the two column text, but none of it is worth mentioning. 

The other stuff in the boxed set includes the specialized cards used to play the game (called the "Fate Deck"), a gazetteer of the current age of Krynn, and an introductory adventure. This review is all about Book 1. 

Book 1 glosses the high points of the differences between the 5th Age setting and your father's Dragonlance. First change? Like, no fuckin' dragons. Did you think you were gonna lance one? TOO BAD. 

Change the second? The magic system is different (read: non-Vancian). The three moons are gone. In its place is "Sorcery." The gods are gone; in their place is a new cleric-ish system of "Mysticism." These are puerile changes. 

The game defines that it's themes are heroism, tragedy, romance, and good vs evil. Romance is a weird one to throw in there; there aren't really any rules to support it as a core theme that I've read. It would be interesting if they had some. 

To me, it's a welcome departure from the AD&D milieu to explicitly make a game have "heroic" themes. It explicitly says that characters should work together, cooperate, and play the heroes. This sets good expectations for players who want to have an experience like the novels; no murder hobos welcome. 

Part of this focus on heroism explicitly steers GMs (called "Narrators," like a fucking White Wolf game or something) away from scenes about shopping, cooking, bathing, and other mundanities. The game is explicitly about larger than life action, and everybody--players and GMs alike--are supposed to focus on that. Even 5th Ed wasn't this bold.

Chapter 1: Character Creation

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Look at these dudes

Character creation is a mini-game, half-randomized. You draw twelve cards from the deck of fate and assign them to your eight attributes, two personality traits, your "quest/reputation" score, and your "wealth/social standing" score. 

The eight attributes are essentially "Strength/melee attack and defense," "Agility/missile attack and defense," "Intelligence/arcane magic attack and defense," and "Charisma/divine magic attack and defense." 

There are not classes, but class-like features and restrictions are generated from your attributes. Therefore, there's a little strategy to be employed as you assign your card values: attributes also have a "code" based on the suit that you use. For example, the suit of Swords is tied to the Strength attribute. If you assign a 4 of Swords to your Strength score, you'll have a Strength of "4A." This means that you're somewhat weaker than the average human (average Strength of 5) but you're well trained in matters of arms: you can wield any melee weapon. If you instead had put a 10 of Dragons card to your Strength score, you would have been at peak human strength ("10"), but untrained in weapons (can only wield basic melee weapons). Other attributes control your ability to carry shields, wear armor, and cast arcane and divine magic. I thought this was interesting. 

In addition to your attributes, you set your wealth level, assign two personality traits, and your "quest/reputation score." As the game focuses on heroic action and not bean counting, abstracting wealth makes sense. In terms of the personality traits: I can't find any storygame-esque incentives for following these, so I'd be a little worried that these are just dumps for your worst cards. Even 5th ed backgrounds would be used to reward inspiration, so that was a little disappointing.

Most interesting to me was the quest/reputation score. This value demarcates how many cards you can have in your hand (more on this later). Right from character creation, you can generate a rank newbie like Bilbo or a grizzled veteran like Gandalf, both in the same party. 

The advantages of random generation (speed, interesting/unideal combinations) are lost with this method. Still, there's no strategizing for deep builds, where you NEED to pick up the Shield Master Feat at 1st level or you won't be able to qualify for the Dwarven Defender prestige class by 12th. So the worst parts of planned "builds" are absent. 

There are various races: elves, dwarves, centaurs, minotaurs, and the hated kender. Each have attribute requirements to qualify for, so I imagine that players will strategize a bit to see if they can get the appropriate attributes to get the race they want to play.

Characters level up by increasing their quest score once after ever completed adventure. They also have the chance once per adventure to raise one of their attributes by drawing a card. If the card is higher than the tested attribute, it is raised by one point. Absent class features, it seems that characters are more or less flat after character creation. Sometimes their attributes might be raised, they'll gain social standing and win fictional positioning (titles, lands, castles, items, etc.), but won't change much mechanically after character creation. 

Chapter 2: Creating Adventures

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I wish the book had used the cover/calendar art, like this.
The game then jumps to principles for the GM to create adventurers. I think the common wisdom is to put this stuff in the back of the bus, where the GM is exiled, but honestly there's a good logic for putting it front and center: "This is what the game is about. This is what to expect." 

This chapter recounts the common wisdom of 90s RPGs about making plots. There's a flow chart with a basic sample adventure and crossroads of where to go if the party fails/ignores a plot thread, but ultimately it all circles back to the same conclusion. This is bad. If real failure isn't on the line, success isn't real either.

What is better is having a concrete play procedure that is clearly mapped out. From the book:
"To direct the play of each scene, the Narrator must:
1. Offer a short, introductory description to set the scene.
2. Ask the players what their heroes want to do first in the scene.
3. Resolve, through card play or role-playing or both, how well the heroes' plans succeeded."

That rules, and similar to the procedure that I recommend in my own games. It puts a focus on setting "scenes" with problems, lets the players act, and then uses a combination of role-playing and the game's mechanics to resolve the players' actions. More games should have their procedures so clearly articulated. 

Chapter 3: Actions

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The third chapter articulates the basic resolution engine of the game. 

Up front, it talks a bit about movement rates and weather. This isn't what the game is about, so I'm not super sure why this stuff is here. 

The game says explicitly that lighting doesn't matter, that torches are always on hand. In a less gritty game, I'm glad they just said this. It's not my cup of tea, but this is essentially the end state of every 2nd level 5th Ed character.

Finally, the book gets around to telling us the core mechanic of the game. Each player has a hand of cards based on their quest level. When they want to perform an action, even a small one, the GM considers the difficulty of the action and sets a secret target number. Then, the player plays a card and adds the appropriate attribute value. The GM interprets the results, saying whether the card was high enough to meet their secret TN. 

The Pros: I like how players have some autonomy; they can choose to use their best cards for situations they really want to succeed. 

The Cons: Having hidden TNs feels as if the essential gimmick is: "Do the player and the GM agree about how difficult a particular task is?" When the player can only see the world through the GM's description, this gimmick seems inherently problematic. 

When I GM a traditional game, I lay out all the modifiers to the players in a straightforward way. "So, the horse isn't trained for battle, so it's going pretty crazy. It will be a DC 20 to calm it. You did establish a rapport with it earlier, so go ahead and take a +1 bonus to your Animal Handling roll." Everybody knows the stakes up front, and can argue about the essential merits of the "difficulty" up front. Once a task has already failed, it feels crucially unfair to say "Well, nuh uh, it should have been easier to begin with."

I'm not sure how this actually plays at the table. I haven't played this game, only read it. 

Interesting note: the GM doesn't play cards or make actions. The players must oppose the NPCs to stop them from automatically accomplishing tasks. For my two cents, I've always liked systems where the GM doesn't roll. I got enough shit to do.

The book then tries to anticipate some potential bad behaviors and give alternate rules to the core mechanic to help a GM maintain the proper flow of the game. For example, it says that players should not be able to "waste" low cards on frivolous tasks. The GM should just say "No, you don't need to spend a card on that," and keep the scene moving. It also offers an alternative method for using Tarot-like interpretations based on the card's character art. For example, if a player wants to ask if there is an outpost of knights in this town, the GM should ask the player to discard a card. If the card has a knight on it, the answer is yes. The game points out all the cool, helpful characters from the novels have low rankings, so this is one way to get rid of low cards. 

That all seems...pretty wishy washy. 

Chapter 4: Combat

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Teach me how to Douggie
Combat plays out in range bands, from "visual" and "artillery" at its far end to "melee" and "personal" (for grappling) at its near end. Strangely, actions take a different number of minutes in each band, e.g., 1 hour for visual, 1 minute for near missile and melee, but 30 seconds for personal. Not sure why this needed to be called out. There's also a table for initial combat ranges by terrain. Not sure why a "high road" needs to be explicitly called out as "artillery range." Seems like this is easily handled with common sense; no table needed.

Three players have special roles. The one with the highest Presence gets to be the leader. The two with the highest Perception gets to be the sentry or the scout. These characters need to perform special actions during battle (avoiding surprise, setting up surprise, managing distance, etc.). Neat!

The flow of combat is:
1. Surprise attacks
2. Handle combat maneuvers (close vs retreat)
3. Heroes act
4. Check enemy wounds
5. Enemies act
6. Check hero wounds

This is interesting. Having distance management between the two parties is kind of cool, and reminiscent of my own experience LARPing. It's an interesting choice making the heroes always act first. In the game Sentinels of the Multi-verse, the villains always attack first and it gives it the feeling of a comic book--heroes reacting to a villain's scheme. This gives the heroes a much different feeling--charging in and brandishing steel.

That said, there's not a lot of guidance for PCs doing crazy heroic feats of daring outside of an "attack, then defend" grind. There is a mini-game of choosing cards, but yawn. I wish the book had given some additional rules for maneuvers that would break up the basic flow as inspiration for GMs and players. 

Chapter 5: Magic

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You can tell by the look in those hourglasses that he mad

Alright. So to justify the change in the magic rules, 5th Age got rid of the spell systems and lore established in the novels and created two "new" types of magic: sorcery and mysticism. They map to the same ideological space as arcane and divine magic, though. I could take or leave the new names, and think the fluff around them is pretty lame.

As mentioned, only people with a high enough "code" can cast spells. The rank of your spell casting attribute also determines how many spell points you have. 

Players "construct" spells using point totals. For example, a spell cast at archery range needs 3 spell points put towards its "range" attribute. If the spell would effect an entire house, it would cost 5 spell points. Spells can weakly heal or hurt targets, and there's a vague table for how "difficult" it is, on a scale from 1-5.

In general, the spell-creation system is much less robust than something like Ars Magica. This system seems really easy to exploit. It can be a solve-anything button if the most impactful spells have a base cost of 5 spell points. A lucky card at character generation can have a magic user character really overshadow other characters.

That said, if everybody is on the same page and the players all are talented role-players who know how to share the spotlight, it looks fun as hell to create your own spells. Especially if it was contrived to have an entire party of spellcasters. If I found the combat rules de facto repetitive, having infinite spell effects could be a way to really make this system shine.

Chapter 6: Monsters

The last chapter just provides a big tables of monsters, with lists of abilities to look up on another page. The most attention is paid to dragons, despite the claim in chapter 1 that there are only about 50 left, and of those half are "in hiding." 

This is hard to use at the table. I just glanced through this section. Even so, there's all sorts of annoying shit in here. "Brass dragons are slightly larger than bronze dragons" vs "Bronze dragons, almost the size of brass dragons." Well how fucking big are they? Maybe this gloss is good for somebody super familiar with the setting material, but it doesn't recommend itself well to me.

Final Takes

I don't know. I kind of want to play it to see how it plays out at the table, but I also don't really want to waste a precious Saturday getting my gaming group together just to trot this out. 

I think the spellcasting system looks fun--if the GM and players are somewhat heavy handed in making sure that non-spellcasters aren't overshadowed. I like the formalization of the party roles. I like the idea of playing around with cards. I think cards are fun. 

I think the setting is a swing and a miss. I can see why Dragonlance fans were disappointed. I think the core mechanic needs a lot of finesse to be fun, not frustrating. 

In all, I think this is a particularly weird evolutionary missing link in D&D's evolution, and I'm glad to have read it.