Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Making +1 Swords Feel Magical

I had a disagreement with my colleague Tom Kilian recently. I said that +1 swords were boring. In almost all of my previous  D&D games, the little scribbled +1 would fade into a long string of bonuses from other sources (base attack bonus, attribute bonus, feat bonus, etc.). I'd forget that I even owned a magical sword. And when a +2 sword came along? I'd throw the +1 sword onto the ground like day old bread for ducks. 

Tom disagreed. He protested: "I've never been bored with +1 swords! A +1 can be really useful. And they all have a little extra, you know? They point towards the north or float in water. And they have a history you can uncover."

And I thought, whoa, wait, hold on. That does sound cool. 

So I still might not be in love with set-it-and-forget-it bonuses, but I could tell Tom was investing more into standard magic items as a GM than I was.

Let's fix that.

Make treasure lore-full

Darrell Sweet

First things first. The standard treasure lists found at the back of your DMG are about as flavorful as a saltine cracker soaked in room-temperature water.

This is boring: “You find a longbow, artwork that costs 500 gold, a gold ring worth 100 gold, a +1 sword, and 1000 gold coins.”

This is much cooler: “You find an elven bow made of yew and strung with a strand of elf hair. A portrait of a portly burrower with a mayoral hat in a golden frame seems like it would carry a hefty sum. A golden signet ring is marked with the house sigil of three apples. A dwarven sword, short but wide, carries runes that name it Death Cleaver in the dwarven tongue. Lastly, a treasure chest overflowing with silver and gold of different mintings. Most bear the seven stars of the Andantine Isles, but dwarven coins from under the mountain bearing the hammer and sickle are mixed into the hoard as well.”

Dark Souls isn't everybody's cup of tea, but the way that it delivers its lore through a steady drip-drip-drip of item descriptions is fun. (I wrote a bit about this here.) To discover Dark Souls lore, you have to read through the ancient texts like a real life loremaster (through your item menu, hoping that some invader isn't about to shank you).

If you're a GM like me, I bet you are positively vibrating at an opportunity to tell the players some dope shit you've written in your world - some bit of lore you love but can't deliver organically. Guess what motherfucker? Your players want treasure. Give it to them that way. Like giving your cats a pill wrapped in salami. 

When describing treasure, specify:

  • The materials of construction
  • The people who crafted it
  • The artistic embellishments
For example: "The sword has runes running down its blade in Aklo, naming the blade 'Tailbiter.' The hilt is shaped like a peasant boy fighting a dragon."

Make magic active

Sara Kiplin


So the core of my complaint is that it doesn't feel magical to write another +1 bonus onto my sheet. 

Let me quote a GLoG principle that I like a lot:

> GLOG Design Rule #3: Never use small, passive bonuses. They're boring, easy to overlook, potentially confusing, and often lead to synergy. Use active abilities instead. (What Extra Credits calls "incomparables".)

What would a +1 sword look like if it didn't provide a passive bonus?

Just brainstorming, here are three options.

1. Activate the bonus

When you unsheathe and cry out the name of a magic sword, you add +1 to attack and damage for the rest of the battle. 

> Earthdawn had this concept of weapons that leveled up with you as you learned their lore. Learn a weapon's name? Learn who created it? Fight a battle against the weapon's chosen enemy? Each of those unlocks another power. I think that's pretty cool. I like this option because it evokes that feeling.

At the same time, this is still just a +1 weapon. Sure, there's maybe a little choice of "Do I cry out the name?" that's interesting if you're doing a stealth mission, but this is kind of like the Dodge feat from 3E. I forgot to invoke it 75% of the time. It wasn't active vs passive, it was "forgotten" or "goddammit, if I had said he was my Dodge target, he would have missed, goddammit, not again." 

OK, let's try again.

1a. Activate the BIG bonus

When you cry out the name of a magic sword, your next attack is a critical hit. The sword must be driven into a campfire and rest, like a human would, before it can use this ability again.

> OK, well, I'd probably remember to use this bonus if it was big enough. A critical hit is a nice level - one solid strike, maybe enough to kill a big beast. Making it 1x/day with a Dark Souls-y way to refresh it? That's fine.

2. Additional damage dice 

This sword deals +1d4 damage.

> A passive bonus? Josh what are you doing? Well. I think that rolling an additional dice feels different in a kinesthetic way. If a normal sword does d6 damage, but I'm rolling 1d6+1d4? That feels physically different at the table. I remember I have a magical sword because I have to pick up a whole other dice!

...Still, maybe a little boring.

3. Invulnerable sword

This sword is all but invulnerable to harm. It can hold open a dragon's jaws, or prop open a crushing trash compactor room, or dipped in acid. It cannot be destroyed by conventional means.

Even so, it is light as a feather. It only takes up one pack slot, if stowed. 

Moreover, if you learn the sword's name, it has a special property.

> I think this one is my favorite. An item that is straight-up immune to damage is great for OSR puzzle solving. Assuming you can retrieve it, you can use it to trip traps, bypass obstacles, and get up to all kind of shenanigans. 


Thursday, January 26, 2023

Songs of Power for the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game

This blog post is about an alternate magic system for the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game. The magic system is derived from the Rogue-like game Sil.

The Lord of the Rings Adventure Game and Sil are my two favorite licensed Tolkien games. Both are defunct, simple, and don't get the love they deserve.

I don't know why I spend my time on these things, either.

Songs of Power


For every +1 bonus you did not assign during character creation, your character can learn two of the following songs of power. 

To sing a song of power, roll the dice and add your Magical bonus against Δ 7. 
  • If you are successful, pay the Endurance cost listed in parentheses after the song’s name. 
  • If you are unsuccessful, you have attracted the Shadow’s Gaze. The GM immediately makes a random encounter roll. 
  • If you roleplay by speaking or singing a stanza at least four lines long that feels appropriate to the setting, either reduce the Endurance cost by 1 (minimum 1) or reduce difficulty to Δ5.
  • If involved in a fight, you can only sing a song of power when a missile could be fired. You cannot sing while engaged in melee. 
  • Most of the songs provide benefits for the entire fellowship, but a few require you to target a specific enemy or ally. In this case, you must be able to see them and they must be able to hear your song.
Song of the Stars (1 per round)
You sing a song of hope kindled in the darkness. As long as you sing, the fellowship is immune to fear.

Song of the Trees (1 per ten minutes)
You sing a song of the trees of Valinor, and a little of their light shines through the ages. As long as you are carrying a light source while singing, you cannot be ambushed by enemies.

Song of Slaying (1 per round)
You sing a song of battle and glory. While you are singing, the entire fellowship gains a +1 Offensive bonus against a particular type of foe (wolf, goblin, troll, etc.). This bonus increases by +1 every time your fellowship defeats that type of foe, up to a maximum of your Magical bonus. This effect lasts as long as you sing.

Song of Silence (2 per ten minutes)
When you make a Magical check to sing this song, failure does not attract the Shadow’s Gaze. Instead, you lose 4 Endurance instead of 2.

You sing a song of hiding and shadows. The next time the GM rolls for a random encounter, they roll two dice and take the most favorable result. If possible based on the results, your fellowship will go unnoticed.

Song of Smithing (5)
While camped, you sing a song of the fires of creation. Your campfire becomes as hot as a forge. You or another character in your fellowship can turn raw materials into crafted items, as if you were at a full-fledged forge, even if in the wilderness.

Song of Freedom (2 per ten minutes) 
As you travel, you sing a song of unbarred gates and wandering feet. While you sing, members of the fellowship have a +2 bonus to rolls to dodge traps, pick locks, or endure elements.

Song of Staying (4)
You sing a song of protection, laying a hedge around a character. That character gains +2 Defense bonus for the next five rounds, as if they were carrying a shield. This bonus does not stack with a physical shield.

Song of Sleep (4)
You sing a song of peace, that makes your enemies powerless before you. The target of this song may be any normal creature (man, elf, troll, goblin, animal, etc.). Roll the dice and add your Magical bonus vs Δ9. If successful, that creature falls asleep, and will not take an action unless they are attacked.

Song of Mourning (4)
You sing a song mourning the woes of the world. If you sing for a watch, the entire fellowship regains Endurance as if they had rested for the night. You do not benefit from this healing, as you take the burden of these sorrows on yourself.

Song of Sharpness (5)
You sing an iron song, causing swords to thirst for blood. Choose one melee weapon. It deals double the amount of wounds for the next three rounds.

Song of Mastery (6)
You sing a song of doom that makes your enemies powerless before you. Roll the dice and add your Magical bonus vs a Δ determined by the most powerful enemy set against you. If successful, all foes are routed and attempt to flee from you.
Δ 6 - Normal animals, like wolves or bears
Δ 8 - Evil animals, like wargs or spiders
Δ 9 - Mannish ruffians, goblins
Δ 11 - Uruks, trolls, mannish warriors
Δ 13 - Wraiths, un-dead
Δ 18 - Demons

Retrospective

I have made several magic systems on this blog. 

- Magic in Wilderland

- Magic in Wilderland part 2

- Earthsea-esque Truespeaking

Sometime, just for fun, I think I'll make a retroclone of the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game with the licensed property stuff hacked off. 

Again, I don't know why I spend so much time on this stuff.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Two mistakes

Cats give you a brainworm that makes you love them. How else do you explain letting a little yelling claw monster into your house?

Just look at her. The little terror.



Here are two monsters that operate on the principle of making people feel things. 

Hybrid animals 

Hybrid animals are made by wizards. They are almost never an end to themselves, but merely a product of magical experimentation. It is better to figure out how hybrid Clone + Reincarnation spells operate on animals before you try it on yourself. 

A few of these hybrid animals have escaped the magical laboratories where they were hatched. With no natural predators, their populations have exploded. They are an ecological disaster


The Owlbear

You've seen these before. And you hate them.

Owlbears emit a pheromone that generates intense feelings of loathing to anyone within smelling distance. Rangers and elves have learned that owlbears are nearby when they begin to get that gnawing feeling of dislike, with the pheromone just on the edge of their perception. When they think "You know who I really hate? Owlbears," they know it's time to take action.


HD 5
AC 13
Attacks 2 × claw (1d8), 1 × bite (1d8)
Morale 9
Alignment: Neutral
XP 175
Number Appearing 1d4 

Bear Hug: If a victim is hit by both paws in the same round, the owl bear hugs for an extra 2d8 automatic damage.

I Hate Owlbears: If there are any visible owlbears, any attack or spell cast must include an owlbear as a target.


Owlcats

Awww! Look at it! It's making a face! Wow, it's just like a little people. Ha ha, it's scratching me! How cute! I'm going to name it "Ramen Noodle."

Owlcats emit a mild toxin through their claws. Anyone scratched by an owlcat feels an intense feeling of affection towards all owlcats. Gnomes are immune. This has no practical combat effects, but does compel many people to keep owlcats as pets. No matter how poorly tempered the owlcat, infected people frame all actions of the owlcat in cherubic terms.

Owlcats favorite food is the glue used in bookbinding. They love to pull apart books to lick the spines. They are ruinous in libraries.


HD 1/2

AC 15
Attacks - 1 hp (claw), inject toxin (no save)
Morale 6
Alignment Neutral
XP 1
Number Appearing 1d12

Saturday, January 14, 2023

In search of a better gazetteer

These two books are the best RPG gazetteers that I know of. 

Example 1: Stephen Biesty's Cross-Sections Castle



(My colleague Dwiz also wrote on this.)

Example 2: Kingdom of the Dwarfs 




Everything below this point is pointless onanism. Read on at your own risk.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Natural-language game design

My favorite RPG rules are written in naturalistic language

What do I mean by this? Well, the easier it is to speak in-character about an effect, status, or ability, the more naturalistic the game's language.

Not Naturalistic: I have 1,000 experience points. I am level 1. 

More Naturalistic: I have 1,000 gold. I am a veteran.

The concept of experience points and levels probably doesn't exist inside the player character's mind, whereas gold and class titles do. The less a player has to double-think between the fictional universe and the game mechanics, the smoother and more enjoyable I find the experience. The more that a player character says exactly what the player would say, the happier I am.

This isn't just a criticism of dissociated mechanics like experience points and levels, though. Sometimes rules are written with so many clauses and sub-clauses, trying to prevent possible misuse or misinterpretation, that they become a complicated legalese. Sometimes rules are written in a "secret code" that takes up less space on a page but is nonsense to the uninitiated. When rules are written in a baroque way they work against their own clarity. 

(This is one of my most crucial critiques of 5E. The language of the rules seems to be written in such a way that it is trying to avoid the most diabolic interpretation.) 

Get this shit out of my rulebooks

So how do we move the needle from non-natural to natural-language rules?

Diegetic names for abilities

Bad: My character has a feat called "BFG," which lets them have a gun that does 6d6 damage.

Better: I'm packing a Yamaha Raiden assault rival. 

In a game like D&D, spell names are diegetic. That is, they exist inside the fictional universe. A character casting magic missile might say, "I'm casting magic missile," and everyone versed in arcana would say, "Yes, that is the spell we call magic missile." By contrast, feat names are not diegetic. If Drizzt shows up with two scimitars, someone wouldn't say, "Ah, he has dual wielder" in character. You might say Drizzt is a dual wielder, or knows how to dual wield, but the names "Dual Wielder," "Elemental Adept," or "Tavern Brawler" are not in-universe terms. I mean, hell, in D&D even class names might not be diegetic. If someone is a monk, would you call them a monk, or do those monk levels just represent them being agile or a bar-room brawler? 

Natural language rules provide diegetic names for character traits.

  • Consider making your class your actual job. A bard is a graduate of the College of Bards, having been trained to harmonize with the Ainulindalë and re-sing parts of the world. A fighter is a knight given the hereditary rights to demand a Trial by Arms and to wear armor.
  • Give all maneuvers or abilities diegetic names. Give them a history. Instead of "Displacing attack," consider "Tenkar's Bullrush," which is a specific martial technique developed by Tenkar during the Orc and Goblin War of Year 1001. 
  • Tie traits to life events and in-universe places. If you can change the elements of your spells, perhaps you were "Born Under the Sign of the Wheel." If you can ride large creatures, perhaps you were trained by the "Dragon-riders of Qarth."

Avoid abstract mechanics

Bad: I lost 3 HP. On the classic scale of 1-22, I am 19 healthy.

Better: I am Injured by the serpent's bite.

If you whisper the word "hit points" on an RPG forum, someone trips over themselves rushing to type the following: "HITPOINTS DONT ACTUALLY SIMULATE REAL DAMAGE ITS LIKE LUCK AND EXHAUSTION FROM A BATTLE READ THE BOOK ACTUALLY FOEGYG"

OK so sometimes hit points are abstract. An arrow to the face would kill you, but taking the maximum amount of an arrow's damage won't, so getting shot with an arrow and suffering the max of 6 damage is only being grazed by the arrow. But then what does the spell Heal do? Why is it called Heal if it just refreshes your luck? What if you fall and take 12 falling damage? Are you just getting, like, tired by hitting ground? And what if you're playing a game where a human can gain 100 hit points and survive 1,000 foot falls?

The conversation around what hit points represent is this Gordian knot of abstract mechanics. 6 damage represents a significant wound, enough to kill a normal person but probably won't kill a trained fighter. 1,000 experience points represents an a-ha moment for an untrained person but is obvious to master of the craft. Joey has 10 Strength and is weaker than Tammy who has 15 Strength. You can't use the terminology "hit points" or "experience points," and you wouldn't say "Tammy is about 15 out of 20 Strong" but your character understands what these abstract mechanics represent.

Natural-language rules avoid abstract mechanics in favor of more concrete one-to-one representations of the fictional world.

  • Consider making abstract mechanics more concrete. A wizard doesn't have 6 mana, they have "six bound daemons, each of which may be commanded to perform a single spell."
  • Consider defining what certain game procedures mean in the fiction. For a dice pool system, every dice rolled is a single swing of the sword. Every red defense dice rolled is a piece of armor. Every black defense dice rolled is your character dodging out of the way.

In-character language for abstract mechanics

Bad: When a dragon has lost 50% of their total hit points, they can use their breath ability twice per turn.

Better: When a dragon is bloodied, they can use their breath ability twice per turn.

OK, so some rules are abstract. There's nothing wrong with that. But the more in-character language you have to talk about them, the better. This lets you describe the flow of the rules in in-character terms.

Natural language ties abstracted mechanics to the fiction they're simulating. 

  • Choose flavorful terms for game concepts. Instead of saying "dungeon turn," consider a word like "watch." It's easy to say "I only have the strength to cast one spell per watch." A "first level spell" might be a "spell of the first rune." 
  • Consider providing in-character terms for milestones that are referenced frequently. If you can deal either 1 or 5 damage, you can call 1 damage "a hit" and call 5 damage "a critical hit." Have a list of class titles. A 1st level fighter is a veteran, a 5th level fighter is a lord. 

Use associated mechanics

Bad: I can cast a spell once per encounter.

Better: I can cast a spell once before I must rest and pray to my god.

Even better: The limits of this magic allow me to cast it only once before the sun next crosses the horizon. Once the sun sets, I can cast it once more. And then again once the sun rises.

"An associated mechanic is one which has a connection to the game world. A dissociated mechanic is one which is disconnected from the game world."

In Exalted, there is the concept of scenes. A magical effect might last for the rest of the scene, whether it's two rounds or two hours of fiddly combat. This adds to the narrative, cinematic flow of the game. 

In Gubat Banwa, gameplay uses a grid. A enemy combatant might be six squares away, but your effect only targets someone within a range of three squares.

Terms like scenes and squares facilitate easy play at the table but can be fiddly to transform into in-character concepts. Not impossible, just requires some double-think. 

Natural language rules use in-universe times, distances, and restrictions.

  • Tie game concepts to fictional space. If a square is 5 ft., consider using distances instead. If a dungeon turn is 10 minutes, consider using time.
  • Provide in-character justification for narrative abstractions. If spells only last until the end of battle, you can explain the physics of magic being tied to the ebb and flow of mana. Magic isn't science. Spells might last a minute or ten minutes or all day.
  • Discover unique ways to challenge characters by drawing these diegetic limitations to their natural conclusions. If a spell can only be cast once a day, why? Is it tied to the mana of the sun? Can some spells be cast only once a month? Once a year?

Human-readable crunch

"But wait! I like crunchy games! This is all well and good if you wanna play FKR or something, but leave my feat trees alone."

Oh gentle reader, I don’t think anything here precludes crunch! But I think there's a path to a better crunch - a human readable crunch instead of crunch that feels like a punchcard for a steam-powered computer.

Here, take these two examples from Gubat Banwa and Lancer. Both 4E inspired, grid-based, build-a-thon slugfests. But one rule block feels like it's written as example code in a Khan Academy tutorial and one feels like you're explaining what happens in the game's fiction.

Bad:









Better:





Natural language explains mechanics in a way that makes sense to normal people.

Fewer numbers

Bad: I have a +2 to Survival. I’m pretty good at survival. 

Better: I am Trained in Survival. 

Numbers are a sticky wicket. They are definitely human readable but they are difficult to talk about in-character. 


Fate allows you to say your skill's adjective instead of the number

Fate attempted to provide adjectives for their skill ranks, which is admirable, but I can never remember if +4 is Good or Fair or Superb or... It is just easier to say "I have a +4 Survival" than to say "I am Great at Survival." 

Let me give 5E some credit here. "Advantage" and "disadvantage" is simpler to calculate and more naturalistic language than calculating infinite +1s from different bonus sources (proficiency, magic, shield, feat, item, ad nauseum). Proficiency is another good gloss of having in-character language to describe a numerical bonus.

Natural language rules use fewer numbers and rely less on math.
  • A +1 sword is a boring magic item. You factor it into your attack bonus and forget it. It hardly feels magical. A sword that is invulnerable is more memorable and relies less on numbers. Use the sword to prop open a closing gate, hold open a dragon's mouth, fish something out of an acid lake, etc. 
  • Consider removing countables. Instead of having 20 HP, you might have each attack = 1 Wound. Each Wound removes something from the character sheet. Instead of having 1 gold = 1 XP, an entire golden hoard might count as "Treasure." Each recovered Treasure allows you to gain a level.
(One of my future projects eschews numbers completely.)


Conclusion

None of this means that I don’t like games with some of these "bad" elements. His Majesty the Worm has more than a few! But a few unnatural-language rules are easier to navigate around than many. My preference lies at the “natural language” side of the sliding scale, and I try to get there in my game design.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

His Majesty the Worm Update

On January 1st, 2022, I tweeted this twit:


This proved to be somewhat ambitious. So let's talk about what happened in 2022 and what's happening now!

What is His Majesty the Worm?

First, a little context. 

His Majesty the Worm is a new-school game with old-school sensibilities: the classic megadungeon experience given fresh life through a focus on the mundanities and small moments of daily life inside the dungeon.

  • Often-ignored subsystems, like food, hunger, light, and inventory management, are central to play and actually fun.
  • The game has robust procedures. Characters adventure in the Underworld, rest in role-playing driven camping scenes, and plan long-term actions in the City at the center of the Wide World.
  • The relationships between companions, called Bonds, powers the rest and recovery mechanic of the game. Role-playing literally drives the game forward.
  • Tarot cards are used as a randomizing element. Combat encounters are handled with an action-packed subsystem that ensures that all players have interesting choices every minute of combat: no downtime!

Here's how the book pitches itself.


What is the state of affairs?

In 2016, I started writing His Majesty the Worm. In 2017, the game was far enough along I could run weekly playtests. This weekly game is still going. (I should do a retrospective of running a five-year long megadungeon campaign at some point.)

In 2021, I began putting the game's appendices into a basic layout with some public domain art. I hosted these as pay-what-you-want titles on my Itch. Over the course of the year, this generated enough revenue that I commissioned all of the art I planned for the game.

By Marcin S

At the beginning of 2022, I had finished the game's text. The word count was a whopping 123,881

I scoped a quarter for an editor to edit the text, a quarter for me to implement edits, a quarter for a graphic designer to provide layout templates, and a quarter for me to implement the layout. 

This timeline was mostly successful! In 2022, I edited the entire book and finalized the layout of the core text. (I have not yet finished the layout of the appendices, roughly ~100 additional pages.)

All the stuff in the core book. Boy, page 111 has a lot of content.


I, uh, kind of forgot about everything that comes after that. 

I have never published a physical book before and there's a lot of stuff here that I'm working on. I've spent my whole life thinking about RPGs and kept myself perfectly ignorant of the industry of publishing.
  • The cost of physical books is incredibly high right now. What format should the book be in? How can I make it as cheap as possible so that people aren't priced out? How can I make it as nice as possible so the game is a treasure to own?
  • I've thus far avoided the hectic stress of crowdfunding. I wish I could avoid it altogether. How long can I put this off?
  • What mechanisms will people use to buy the book? How can you trade me dollars and have this book shipped to you? Do I set up a webstore? (I don't know how to do that.) Do I use another interface?
  • Once people have bought the book, who packages it and ships it? How much does this cost? How do you keep shipping costs low? How do I keep packaging costs low for this non-standard size I chose for the book? How do you accommodate for international shipping? How are taxes paid on imported media?

So...when can I buy it? 

Not yet. Soon.

"I call all times soon."

Despite some unanswered questions, after six years of development the game has never been closer to being fully realized. I am so excited to share it with you.

If you want to check it out, I hope you will:
  • Join my mailing list. I will only email you to give you updates about the game and let you know when it's ready.
  • Check out the appendices. I think each appendix has content that's applicable to any dungeon-based game you're playing. Every $5 thrown towards the game helps speed its development along. Plus, when they're ready, I'll upload the finalized, full-art version of the appendix on Itch as a free upgrade. 
I'll be talking a lot about the game here, doing a deep dive into the rules, to help you figure out if this is a game that you want to try out. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

23 Dungeon Features for #dungeon23

For Christmas this year, Sean McCoy has given me a community project to be excited about: dungeon23. There are a lot of people compiling resources for this project and all of its variations, so I won't attempt to cover that here. 


For my own projects, I'm planning:

  • Tarot-themed dungeon (78 rooms, potential future HIS MAJESTY THE WORM supplement)
  • Explore your eccentric halfling uncle's mansion depthcrawl (100 rooms, potential future Under Hill, By Water supplement)
  • Unknown???
(I even got the fancy daily planner!)

I plan on starting on January 1st to establish the habit, but to get the brain juice flowing, here are twenty-three dungeon features. 

1 Altar

An altar is a table intended for sacrifice. Altars are shaped in the semblance of the god to which they are dedicated. It is a conduit to a higher power, and prayers to the appropriate divinity carry more weight here. 

Example: The altar of the Black Goat is a table shaped like a standing she-goat, her back forming the flat surface of the table. On it, candles have burned down into wax puddles on top of goat skulls. It is blood stained. 

A sacrifice of a living creature on this altar will cure any magical curses or magical diseases of the celebrants on a 1-in-6 chance.

2 Cage

A prison, a hanging gibbet, a jail designed to constrain its prisoners. What crimes could they have committed to be bound to such a fate? Are they imprisoned unjustly or are there sins on their conscience that cannot be forgiven? 

Example: A hanging cage made of thin sticks lashed together with leather cords. The door is fastened simply with a knot of herb (monkshood). The cage looks like you could kick it apart easily. Inside, an old man named Zacchaeus claims to be brought here as food for vampires and begs to be let out. 

In truth, Zacchaeus is a werewolf. The monkshood (otherwise known as wolfsbane) keeps him so weak he cannot break the bars.

3 Circle of Power

Sites of power constructed where the leylines of the dungeon converge. These circles are designed as gates between the realm of flesh and the far realms--either to seal outside entities out or beckon such entities in.  They are dangerous things, whose magic is more than any single mortal sorcerer can master. 

Example: A glyph written on the floor crackles with obvious magical energy. The glyph is surrounded by five, five-pointed pyramidal stones. The side of each stone is marked with runes that read "AB-RA-KA-DAB-RA". 

If the PCs step onto the glyph without changing the set up, they are teleported to a deeper level of the dungeon turned inside out (instant death, no save). The glyph must be made harmonized by turning pyramidal stones so the runes facing the inside of the glyph read "Abrakadabra." This word can start from any stone, but should proceed in order until every syllable is used sequentially in a clockwise manner. When this is done, the teleportation magic is safe to use.

4 Elevator

Elevators are platforms or chambers that move around the dungeon (vertically, horizontally, or in stranger ways). Different levels of the dungeon may be connected by elevators that need to be activated. 

Example: The PCs step into the bottom of a deep pit. A colossal chain ending in a huge hook dangles from an unseen place high above. A giant earthworm is pierced by the hook, wiggly feebly. If the PCs manage to make a significant pull on the chain (requiring a total 18 Strength points), the giant at the top of the pit pulls hook and chain up to the upper level. He's not interested in the PCs and will discard them at this upper level as being "under his limit."

5 False Tomb

There are tombs down here. But there are also false tombs intended to baffle and punish grave robbers. These facades obscure the true burial chambers behind secret doors and deadly traps. 

Example: A mosaic depicts a bull-headed man holding a scale with a feather and a heart. Beneath it, two doors. Ancient writing on the wall (when translated) reads: "The just enter on the left to pass to paradise. The unjust enter to the right to meet their punishment."

The doors both lead to the same small chamber. About five seconds after the doors are opened, a two-ton block drops into the small chamber, crushing anyone within who doesn't succeed in a Dexterity save (or equivalent) to dodge back into the false tomb.

6 Fountain

Fountains in dungeons are often enchanted as the water flows past veins of mithril. Drinking or bathing or dipping items into the fountain activates their enchantments. 

Example: A merry face is carved on the outlet of the spring where this fountain flows. The face speaks simple phrases, welcoming travelers to drink from its waters. 

Drinking from the waters causes mild euphoria and hallucinations. If under any persistent negative enchantments, geasa, mind control, or similar effects, characters who drink the water are allowed a new saving throw to attempt to overcome them. However, characters who have drunk from the water always move last in initiative and cannot cast spells due to consistent giggling interrupting their incantations. This effect lasts until the PC sleeps.

7 Fungus

There are strange growths in the depths of the earth where the sun has never shone. Fungi, mushrooms, and molds bloom in dark places, often with unwholesome and uncanny effects. 

Example: A circle of yellow mushrooms with a little mouse inside. As the PCs watch, the mouse passes the circle of mushrooms and becomes a stirge, who flaps a few times before learning the trick of its wings and then flies away.

If the PCs step over the edge of the mushroom circle, they are transformed into a random creature. Roll for a random page on your Monster Manual. If there are multiple monsters on that page, let the player choose between them.

8 Hearthfire

This place looks safe enough for now. Here, other adventuring parties have encamped. An ember of their fire remains. Light it again to kindle some hope in this dark place.

Example: A small shrine with a campfire in which a ruined sword has been driven. Those who camp here regain full HP during a night's rest.

9 Idol

The Underworld contains giant idols of strange gods. Some say they were raised by ancient troglodytes. Some say they were gods that crawled into the veins of the earth and became fossils. In either event, there is still some strange power in these colossi.

Example: A giant statue of a seated devil with gemstone eyes sits. It holds a huge brazier of coals. Clerics can hear the statue whispering obvious blasphemies.

Attempting to pry out the idol's gemstone eyes causes the idol to tip the brazier over, pouring liquid fire into the room. The room's floor becomes lava. The would-be thieves are trapped on the statue with no obvious way out.

10 Lava Flow

Lava is the lifeblood of the earth. It flows, here, in the earth's veins. It is, of course, death for adventurers.

Example: Lava cascades from an unseen height like a waterfall. It flows into cut channels which feed into a forge's fire. Nearby, an anvil sits. The heat is unbearably intense.

The PCs cannot approach unless they have some defense against the heat. If they have fire resistance or similar, PCs can spend time here to transform mithril ingots into +1 weapons.

11 Library

Books and scrolls are hoarded by scholars, lore-masters, and wizards. Libraries house books that are written on papyrus, vellum, and wax tablets. Many things that are forgotten on the surface can be found trapped in letters here. However, it takes time to carefully pour over the tomes here, translating the antique dialects and shepherding the fragile pages. 

Example: The necromancer Crabbe made the Library of Heads: mummified heads sitting on concentric circular shelves in a circular room. If you pick up the heads and blow through their neck hole, they begin to recite their life's story in their native tongue. There are 102 heads here. Many have nothing interesting to say to an adventurer. A few hold some esoteric knowledge worthy of a researcher in a niche subject. At least three were rival sorcerers who speak eloquently about their forays into astral space.

12 Machine

Mechanisms made by ancient hands, the purpose and the logic of which are not known. Some machines are malfunctioning, producing imperfect results. Some are broken, but can be fixed (though not understood) by replacing an obvious part or providing a power source. Some work perfectly, but exactly what they do and why is beyond mortal ken. 

Example: The workings of the Unmaking Machine are hidden inside its body, which resembles a 40' x 40' x 40' Borg cube. 

The first time the Unmaking Machine is encountered by the PCs, there is a single, six inch, cube-shaped section missing from the left side of the cube. This missing cube can be found elsewhere in the dungeon and inserted like a key into it. The machine thereafter begins to function.

Once repaired, the only interface with which to operate the machine are two apertures, both square holes exactly 13" in diameter, both on the cube's "front." When an item is placed into the upper hole, it slides into the darkness as if drawn in by a hand. The cube emits a series of grinding sounds. Then, the component construction materials of the item issue out from the lower hole. 

For example, if a sword was entered into the top hole, the cube emits the following: an ingot of iron, small cubes of trace minerals involved in embellishment, a strip of leather and a solid block of wood (both from the hilt), a dollop of animal-based glue, and a single droplet of oil (residual from maintenance). 

If an item is jammed into the lower hole, it comes out of the top hole terribly mangled. 

13 Magic Wall

Magical barriers may be raised to gate certain sections of a dungeon. These could be magical force fields or walls made of esoteric energies, such as walls of fire or walls of ice. The key to these walls are almost always magical. Often, the artifact or structure generating the wall needs to be disabled.

Example: An archway of skulls bifurcates a room. The keystone skull once belonged to a giant bird. A malicious presence haunts the bird skull, whose evil will allows only those who bear the tokens of its master the Pigeon King to pass. 

This is not a physical barrier but a mental command screaming DO NOT FUCKING ENTER. It cannot be resisted by any sentient, living creature. Arrows and spells may pass under the archway. 

The keystone skull's evil will can only work on creatures it can see. Blinding the skull (with a Flare spell) or sneaking past while invisible will also allow passage. 

14 Merchant

Rule of Acquisition 34: War is good for business. Adventurers are a desperate sort, and their pockets are often weighed down with grave goods, golden idols, and other ill-gotten gains. Shrewd merchants have learned that you can make more selling a single candle to an adventurer in a dark dungeon than you can selling candles to a cotter's wife all year. That said, most merchants you find in a dungeon aren't the sort to go in for a brick-and-mortar business. 

Example: Grinnin' Grimnir is a goblin who hauls around a sleigh filled with assorted goods. He always sells balls of twine (1 gold), candles (5 gold), torches (10 gold), daggers (20 gold), and iron rations (30 gold). He also has 10 items from this table every time you encounter him. Put him on your random encounter table.

Grinnin' Grimnir is protected by a curse. Anyone who kills him will be cursed with vile luck for a year. For an adventurer, this spells certain death. Those who try to run away from the bad luck in remote townships undergo so much trauma they eventually resemble a little, constantly giggling goblin. They  are eventually seized with the strange compulsion to load up a sleigh and start a little trade in the local dungeon.

Additional dungeon merchants may be found at Goblinpunch. 

15 Mirror

Magical mirrors create aberrant reflections of the real world. They sometimes serve as traps, creating doppelgangers of the PCs. They also serve as portals, perhaps to an alternate dimension or pocket plane. These also might be the focal piece of a puzzle, where the mirror must reflect a ray of light in a different direction.

Example: A hall of twelve mirrors, three of which bear the frozen visage of an adventurer and three of which are broken. Those who look into an empty mirror see their own reflection frozen there. 

PCs who look into an empty mirror create a "save state." At any point, they can choose to reset their bodies directly to this point - same EXP, same HP, same stats, etc. This must be done consciously, i.e., before they are unconscious or dead. When this ability is activated, the image disappears from the mirror and the mirror breaks.

16 Oubliette

An oubliette is where you put someone to forget about them. Accessed only by a trapdoor, these deep pits serve as prisons for those now long abandoned.

Example: This oubliette contains two skeletons: one of a human (wearing the tattered remains of a once fabulous gown) and one of a dwarf. The human skeleton has tooth marks indicative of a cannibalistic end. Written on blood on the wall is a crude map of the dungeon. Careful inspection of the map reveals a small secret room.

Those who find the secret room find it empty except for an unmounted door. This is a magical door that can be hammered into any wall to create a permanent door there. 

17 Painting

Paintings, tapestries, frescoes, and mosaics provide more than simple dungeon decoration. They often hide secrets, carry an enchantment, or provide important context to nearby puzzles. 

Example: A framed painting of a door with no knob. Elsewhere in the dungeon are magical paints. Painting a knob onto the door will turn the painting into a functioning secret door.

18 River

Delvers beware! Underworld rivers notoriously have uncanny properties, and drinking even a drop of their water will rob you of your memories, plunge you into eternal sleep, cause ceaseless weeping, or deliver other terrible curses.

Underground rivers initially serve as barriers that restrict travel--how will the adventurers get across the rushing river? Once the appropriate vehicles or tools are discovered, these rivers can actually serve as connective arteries to deeper sections of the dungeon. Boats can be used to travel the rivers to hitherto inaccessible sections. 

Example: The River Phlegethon looks like a normal river but the water is acidic, earning it the nickname the "River of Fire." It exudes a noxious, sulphurous scent. Any normal item submerged into the waters is quickly destroyed. 

If the PCs can persuade Iago the Lion-Turtle to take them onto his back, he can wade and withstand the waters of this river, and ferry them to the other side.

19 Sepulcher 

Past the false tombs, sepulchers entomb the dead. Sometimes these dead are restless, sometimes they have are withered away to bones. Adventurers low in scruples and funds often loot these sepulchers in hopes of grave goods, but often find traps and curses instead.

Example: A sarcophagus whose stone lid depicts a snake-headed human. The lid is massively heavy and can only be moved with a combined 30 Strength; tools like a ten-foot pole used as a lever add +5 Strength, but usually snap the lever unless it is unusually sturdy. Inside, a mummy. 

The mummy is just a normal mummy, not an undead. It does carry a disease, however. If you handle the body directly without gloves, save vs disease to avoid contracting mummy rot.

The wrappings around the mummy contain ancient spells. Unwrapping the mummy yields two "scrolls" of random 5th level spells. 

20 Statue

These graven images bear the semblance of ancient kings, heroes, and mythological figures. They reflect the culture of those who shaped them, and provide clues to their creator's world view with regards to the local dungeon environment. A recent poll of dungeon delvers found that 70% of puzzles incorporated statues in some way. 

Example: A three-faced statue of the elven Tripartite - the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone - stands in the middle of a triangular room. Examination of the statue reveals scratch marks on the floor near its base, indicating the statue has been turned from its original position.

Two of the walls of the room are decorated with mosaics. One bears a crescent moon. One bears a white circle. The third wall is blank.

If the statue is turned so that the face of the Maiden is turned towards the crescent moon, the face of the Mother is turned towards the white circle, and the face of the Crone is turned towards the blank wall, the blank wall will become a misty portal that will teleport the party to a new location. 

21 Throne

The thrones of the former rulers of the Underworld still contain some power within them. Those who sit on them are often given a measure of control over some dungeon feature or a special awareness of a facet of the Underworld. However, thrones often possess magical curses or traps laid on them to ensure only the worthy sit upon them.

Example: At the top of a pyramid of stairs, each spaced too wide for the human gait, is a colossal throne. It is covered in dust, mice skeletons, and owl droppings. The back of the throne is sculpted like spread owl wings. The arms of the throne each depict a closed eye. 

Sitting on the throne with a light source causes the light source to suddenly flare and go out. The victim must pass a saving throw or be blinded until after they next sleep. 

Those who sit on the throne find their hearing greatly improved. They have blindsight for as long as they sit on the throne. Immediately, they hear the whistling of wind through a crack in a secret door on the north wall. Additionally, they hear whispering far above them. For each dungeon turn they spend concentrating, they hear one rumor about the current dungeon level.

22 Waterwheel

Waterwheels harness the power of the strange rivers of the Underworld. Adventurers may find the state of the dungeon changed if a waterwheel is stopped or started.

Example: The flow of the river is split into three waterfalls by a series of locks and dams controlled by levers inside the dungeon. When the water turns the northern waterwheel, the colossal door to the necropolis is raised. When the water turns the eastern waterwheel, the lamps inside the Castle of Crossed Destinies are lit, allowing adventurers to forego carrying their own torches. When the water turns the western waterwheel, the bridge extends from the castle towards the City of Ruin. Only one waterfall can flow at a time.

23 Well

Wells in the Underworld contain bizarre things: wine, treacle, oil, pudding. Almost anything but water. Moreover, wells often have some denizen who lives off their contents, either dwelling at the bottom of the well or guarding it from interlopers. 

Example: A tiny blue dragon lives at the bottom of a wishing well. He demands you throw coins down and he'll grant you wishes. He is a liar. However, for each coin thrown, the dragon will cast bless.