Thursday, October 28, 2021

The Wyrding - an OSR class

Uh, yeah so I just watched Dune so...

The Wyrding

Saves and levels as a Magic-user

A scion of an ancient breeding program to produce an heir to the line of wizard kings. However, you were never trained in spells. All your sorcerous blood turned inwards, pumping around your body. 

You manifest wyrding powers -- an incredible mastery of internal alchemy and utmost physical conditioning. These are almost magical, but are not. This means they are not affected by things like magical resistance, dispel, or anti-magic fields. 

Only a few wyrding powers have a limit on the number of times that you can use them. 

At first level and every level of wyrding thereafter, toss a dice onto the Wyrding Die Drop Level Table (Table 1) to determine what wyrding power you gain. 

Table 1

Wyrding Powers

If you get the same result twice, gain the + benefit instead. 

The Hand

You can move any object that you can see and lift one handed by intensely gesturing at it. 

+: You gain +1 Strength.

The Foot

You have perfect balance and are essentially weightless. You can walk on rice paper or tree boughs or clotheslines. 

+: You gain +1 Dexterity.

The Stride

When you move, you can ignore the intervening space and teleport to any space that you could have walked. You essentially move too fast to be seen. You do not trigger pressure plates or other types of traps by this type of movement.

This does not give you the ability to traverse environments you couldn't normally (you cannot walk over acid or lava or through walls), but you can "blink" between two points in space. 

+: You gain +5 feet of movement.  

The Heart

Once per real-life hour, you can ask the GM this question: "If I do X, will Y happen?" The GM will answer you honestly and you will feel its truth in your heart. 

+: You can use this ability an additional time each hour.

The Tear

If someone falls in combat, before you check and make sure they're dead, you can cry over their body. This has a 2-in-6 chance to restore them to life with 1HP. You can only do this once per battle.

+: You gain an additional pip in this ability. You can use it all at once (3-in-6 to resurrect the person you're crying over) or split it up (2-in-6 for the first body, 1-in-6 for a second). 

The Eye

If you close your eyes, you can send your vision roaming. If your eyes are closed, you can see any of your companions, your lord, and your children. You see them as if you had a security camera hovering over them.

If your eyes are closed, you are automatically surprised by ambushes unless you're "other eye" is looking in that direction.

+: You gain +1 Intelligence.

The Nose

Once per real-life hour, you can ask the GM any specific question about your immediate environment and receive an honest answer. 

For example:

  • Is there a hidden passage here? (You can smell the draft.)
  • Is there anybody waiting in ambush? (You can smell their sweat.)
  • Is there gold hidden here? (You can smell the metal.)
+: You can use this ability an additional time each hour.

The Ear

Whenever you hear someone speak in a language that you understand, you can ask the GM what emotion the character is truly feeling. The GM will give you one of the following responses: interest, joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger. 

+: You gain +1 Wisdom.

The Seed

Whenever you have sex, you gain two abilities. 

First, you can ask your partner any one question and they are compelled to answer you honestly.

Second, you can choose any of the following:

  • Whether to impregnate/become pregnant
  • If impregnation happens, you choose what features you want the baby to have
  • If you choose the baby's features, you can even make a physical clone of yourself 
+: You gain +1 Constitution.

The Tongue

With just a drop, you can determine if something is poisoned. With just a drop, you can determine what a potion does. 

You can also choose to break down the chemical compounds of a poison or potion once per game session, ignoring any one potion/poison's effects.

+: You gain +2 HP.

The Whisper

As an action, you can issue one syllable irresistible commands to a single person. They are aware of being controlled (and hate you for it). The command can only take a moment to complete -- but can be very dangerous. The subject interprets the command in the way that is most advantageous to themselves -- but you cannot be ignored. 

For example:

  • s̴̩̤̋p̶͚̆͝ͅę̴͙̏̅a̸͍͗k̶̞̈́̚!
  • k̷̬̑n̵͔͋e̷̪͝ͅe̴̛͉̩͋l̸̻̹̀!
  • j̷̭̐́u̸͍͑͝m̶̫̕ͅp̷̢̖̈́!

+: Your commands can be +1 syllable. 

The Shout

Your voice itself is a weapon. You deal damage as a dagger just by shouting. In combat, this just counts as an attack action -- but you can never be disarmed as long as you can speak. 

+: You gain +1 Charisma.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Safety Tools

I have a weird relationship with safety tools. On the one hand, I absolutely see their usefulness and think they are important for a certain type of game. On the other hand, I don't play with explicit safety tools during my weekly games with my friends. 

I have played lots of games with safety tools. Sometimes they have been successful and helped me and strangers navigate some tense role-playing scenes and weird situations. Safety tools have also failed me. I have had painful experiences despite careful inclusion of safety tools and a thorough discussion of how to use them prior to each game session. 

An analogy that seems apt to me is safety tools (like safe words) in sex play. RPGs have a lot of similarities with sex, really. Sometimes you have someone you trust be your dungeon master. Sometimes you pay a stranger to dungeon master for you. Sometimes you play with people that you've been playing with for years; the tools you use to feel safe aren't more complicated than a conversation. Sometimes you're playing a game that's new, is both exciting and a little scary, and everybody benefits from having a discussion about what's coming and setting hard lines not to cross. 

All that said, I have been moonlighting a little writing for a horror adventure game called The Manse of Bad Memories. As a horror game, I think having safety tools to be important due diligence. As I sat down to write this section, though, I had to confront my complicated experience with safety tools. Saying something generic like "Use the X card" didn't seem like it was sufficient. 

This is what I came up with. It is the corollary to the horror post I posted last week. Making everybody feel safe is everybody's responsibility. 

Safety Best Practices

Do you know why it’s fun (for some people) to watch a scary movie or ride a rollercoaster? It’s thrilling to experience frightening situations while knowing that you are, in fact, safe. The catharsis at the end of the experience makes our brains squirt serotonin. 

Did you catch that? Horror is fun if you know you are safe

So you’re sitting down to play a horror game you want to feel both scared and safe. 

Here are some techniques that will be worthwhile to have at hand. 

Sometimes, just knowing they’re there can be helpful. 

Do: Encourage an Environment of Openness 

Playing a horror game together is maybe a little different than sitting down at a dungeons & draughts night at your local pub. Everybody at the table should be invested in making sure every other person there has fun.

This isn’t to say you can’t have meaningful, supportive experiences with strangers. Of course you can. But there should be a feeling of mutual support that’s different from a beer and pretzels game.

An environment of openness means that players who have hard lines or triggers feel comfortable sharing these with the LM and other players. An environment of openness means that when players uncover new upsetting feelings they have the opportunity to work through those without feeling like they’re derailing the game. 

Don’t: Ask for a Sharing Session Prior to Game

We don’t consider it a best practice to put each and every player on the spot and have them share a definitive list of sensitive subjects to them. Putting players on the spot can, itself, be a negative experience. 

Maybe a player just wants to play the game. The game says “horror” on the cover and they feel gung ho. They don’t feel  that sharing a list of their triggers is a healthy experience for them. 

Relatedly, having an exhaustive list of hard lines doesn’t provide room for the fresh experience of new negative emotions arising during play. An LM who says “What, I didn’t do any of the things you told me not to” is not encouraging an environment of openness. 

Do: Check in Regularly

The best way you can tell if other players are having fun is to ask. Here’s what we do:

  • Cross your fingers to signify you’re out of character
  • Ask “Are you okay?”
  • Ask “Is it okay if we go in this direction?”
  • Clarify “This NPC is about to do something really nasty along the lines of what he’s hinting at. Do you want to move forward?”

You can be having a really intense roleplaying scene and still pause to make sure everybody is invested in what you’re doing. Checking in always helps, it never hurts. 

If you check in and someone expresses they’re not okay, say Sorry. (It’s simple, but it’s important.) Ask what they want to do next. 

Don’t: Rely Overmuch on Objection-Based Tools

It is everybody’s job to check in and make sure that your fellow players are having fun. It is not one person’s job to stop the flow of the game to object to something that is stressful, either player or LM. 

Tools like the X card can be helpful. If you and your group like using these tools, please do! 

The caveat is that some players are hesitant to use “objection” tools because they feel like they’re ruining someone else’s fun. If, after the fact, they confess they had a bad time, they can be faced with the jarring question, “Why didn’t you just use the safety tools?”

It can be more positive to check in regularly. If you see that someone is having a hard time, check in and make sure they’re having fun too. Take some of the burden off of them to object. 

That said, an environment of openness allows players to articulate mid-game what is fun for them and what is not.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Advice for Running Horror Games

 The advice here was written for a side project I struck up work on this week called The Manse of Bad Memories. After chewing on what "horror OSR" looks like, I think this advice is broadly applicable. 

Advice for Everyone

If you sit down and play a horror game, you’re making a commitment to your fellow players that you’re going to try and make the experience downright horrific. In the same way making the game comfortable for everyone is a shared responsibility, making the game scary is a shared responsibility. 

Aleksandra Waliszewska

Buy In

The single most important part of a horror experience is universal buy in. If somebody at the table wants to play another type of game - a heroic game, a silly game, or just look at their phone the whole time - the tension necessary for horror evaporates. 

Think of it like being in a play. You’re part of the cast. Focus on saying your lines, broadcasting your expressions, and hitting your cues. 

If everybody is invested in the experience, the pay off can be huge. 

Play to Lift

If you’re playing a board game like Monopoly, you’re playing to win: get the most money, get the most properties, block your friends’ progress. If you’re playing a horror game, you’re playing to lift.

Playing to lift means that your roleplaying choices elevate the experiences of other players. Creating special moments for the people at the table with you will be your primary motivation.

Some guidelines:

  • Do put the spotlight on another character when a particular scene, conflict, or test is in their wheelhouse. If one character is particularly strong, ask them to make a test requiring strength for you. If you need help with something, ask the character best suited for help.
  • Don’t intrude on another character’s scene unless they ask you to. If the baron has pinned another character against the wall and offered them a Faustian bargain, see what they say before you try and “rescue” them. Let other players’ moments play out.
  • Do put yourself in a position to fail. The consequences of failure can be dramatic and interesting to play out. Lean into the consequences of your actions. 
  • Don’t tell other players what they “should” do. You can strategize and brainstorm your plans as a group, but nobody is the boss in an RPG. Collaborate with other players to figure out what everybody is going to do. 
  • Do interact with the horrific environment. You can’t get out of the manse unless you dig into its guts. You can be cautious but you cannot turn away from the evils here. 

Practice Decorum

Not every moment can be tense. Some moments can be even funny. I mean, think about your favorite horror movie. There are moments of dialogue, moments of relief, moments of advancing plot, moments of backstory revelation—all culminating in those sweet scenes of shocking content. 

However, there are behaviors that minimize other players’ experiences. Practice decorum by avoiding some common anti-horror pitfalls. 

Minimize Out of Character Chatter: When you focus on the game, the game world becomes real. When you chat about things out of character, the real world intrudes. Stop reminiscing about the renn fair last year. Stop making Monty Python jokes (I beg you). Only talk if you’re talking in character.

Note: This is very different from talking about the game or encouraging an atmosphere of openness. Checking in is not “out of character chatter.” 

Appropriate Jokes: I’m only friends with my friends because they make me laugh. But a joke at an inopportune moment can ruin the feeling of tension that everybody has been working towards. When stakes are high, don’t make jokes. 

Advice for the Referee

(Note: The Referee is called "La Manse" or LM in the game text.)

Concerning the factors of silence, solitude and darkness, we can only say that they are actually elements in the production of that infantile morbid anxiety from which the majority of human beings have never become quite free. - “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud

The vampires are not nice. They are not heroic. They are not romantic. They are horrible. 

The players might expect a tragic backstory or humanizing factor to be found among the residents of the Manse. There are none. These are villains and they want to literally eat you. 

It’s your job as La Manse to make the castle and its residents feel scary to your players. 

Stephen King provides us the following three definitions of three kinds of fear:

  • Gross-out is a feeling of revulsion at something disgusting—a pile of maggots or a dismembered body part
  • Terror is the feeling of dread that proceeds horror—the lights suddenly go out and everything is unnaturally quiet
  • Horror is a feeling of shock at something transgressive or unnatural—a spider the size of a Volkswagen or a head spinning all the way around

Here are some dirty tricks for stimulating each of these emotions.  

Being gross

Cheap tricks to evoke disgust.

Aleksandra Waliszewska

Spit out stuff

We are grossed out by things that were once joined with us but have become separated. 

For example, imagine that you take a bite of bread, chew it up, and swallow. Totally normal. Now imagine that you take a bite of bread, chew it up, and spit it out. Imagine putting that chewed up piece of bread back into your mouth and swallowing it. Gross right? 

You can elicit gross-out with all sorts of similar stuff. Basically anything that was once inside you and is now outside of you. For example:

  • A clump of greasy hair
  • A chewed up piece of steak fat 
  • Extracted teeth 
  • Flakes of dried skin
  • A blood clot pulled from your nose
  • Shit, mucus, spit, vomit, tonsil stones, breast milk

Signs of disease

We have an evolutionary disgust response to stuff that encourages sickness and disease. This includes things like violations of hygiene norms, disease-ridden animals, signs of infection, and contaminated food.

Make the players feel “unclean” and unsafe by placing these sorts of events into their path:

  • Asked to eat something decaying or contaminated: partially decomposed rabbits, sharing food with an animal
  • Asked to eat something culturally taboo: fish heads, human meat, living maggots
  • Pus in an abcess in your throat 
  • Open, infected wounds and lesions 
  • Chewed on, sore, bleeding lips
  • Bitten off fingernails, raw nail beds, long strips of missing skin on fingers
  • A plucked crow, can’t fly, piteous
  • A deer covered in tumors

Being terrifying 

Cheap tricks to evoke dread.

Aleksandra Waliszewska

Describe, don’t name

Knowledge, as is so often said, is power. Knowing what something is gives you a sense of control. Not knowing what something causes tension and terror. 

Player characters can obviously recognize things that are part of their mundane world: crows, horses, children, elders, tax collectors, clergy, etc. Player characters will not be able to recognize things that are part of the dark world of the Manse. 

Don’t name the monsters the players encounter. Don’t say “You see a werewolf.” Say “A huge wolf stands in the hallway. It seems to straighten like an old woman sitting up from the spinning wheel and walks towards you comfortably on two feet. Less a wolf and more like a monkey with a wolf’s face. In one of its five fingered hands is the dangling arm of an infant. Its muzzle is wet with blood."

Use vague descriptions

Relatedly, frame your descriptions in shadow. Give players just enough information to understand the scene but show they don’t yet have the entire picture (see “horror” below). 

Do this by engaging all five senses. Humans can only experience a narrow band of reality. Highlight what people can’t see, can’t hear, can’t smell, etc. 

  • You look out of the window and see something moving across the castle grounds far below you. It glides like a waterfowl through the water but across the ground itself. It’s human shaped, but you can’t see any details.
  • You look into the hole and can see nothing. It is pitch dark. You hear something breathing inside the hole. You hold your breath to listen better, and the thing holds its breath too.
  • You press your ear against the locked door. Inside, you hear the sound of something wet suddenly dropping—like a trash bag full of spaghetti falling.
  • You smell the baron’s cologne nearby. Is he outside your door? Has he been listening to your conversation this whole time?
  • You hear something moving inside of the walls, like rats but larger.

Note: Being vague is not the same as not giving players enough information to make decisions. Games are fun because players make choices. The LM should always give the players enough information to make informed choices; this is what makes the game “fair” and the consequences of player actions thrilling. However, your description can hint at dark truths in a way that elicits a terror response.

Exploit the real-world environment

A lot of horror RPG advice forefronts making an environment similar to a child’s Halloween party:

  • Low light
  • Candles
  • Atmospheric music

All of that stuff is good. Do that. 

Next, kick it up a notch.

  • When something startling happens in game, blow the last candle out.
  • Have a queued up sound effects for things in the environment: a scream, a squelch, a whisper. Use them as tools as you describe the scenes.
  • The LM should curate their music list: maintain different looping songs for the different areas of the Manse. 

Being horrifying

Cheap tricks to evoke the fear of the uncanny.

Aleksandra Waliszewska

Subvert expectations

The key to horror (or any art, really) is surprise. Players who encounter unexpected and terrible things will feel the thrill of danger that is the essence of horror. (The thrill of disgust is the essence of gross-out, above.) 

The Manse of Bad Memories is genre schlock. It attempts to provide surprise by subverting genre expectations. Clever LMs can build on these themes. 

  • The Rumors set some (known) false expectations. Players attempting to exploit an untested and unproven rumor will be in for a bad surprise.
  • Fantastic creatures can be recast as having grounded realistic elements that make them disgusting. Mermaids now all look like the Fiji mermaid. 
  • Creatures you assume to be evil can be benevolent. Creatures you assume to be kindly can be malevolent.

Wrong body

Body horror consists of grotesque violations of the human body. It is immediately recognizable as a danger and provokes the thrill of fear. For example:

  • Too many body parts: a second mouth at the nape of the neck, a swollen eye with two pupils competing for space, a single long eyelash that grows infinitely long the more you pull on it
  • Too few body parts: a face with smooth skin where the mouth should be
  • Reversed body parts: a face with upside down eyes and mouth, legs that bend backwards
  • Wrong size body: long fingers with an extra joint, a smile that literally extends from ear to ear, a face with all of its features “smooshed” to the left
  • Inhuman body: body swiss-cheesed with honeycomb holes, eyeless face with spider living where brain should be, human body with a beehive head
  • Body ignoring natural laws: a person walking around despite the cannonball-sized hole through the middle of their face, person “crabwalking” backwards

Wrong behavior

Psychological horror presents unstable, unexpected, or outsized reactions in non-player characters. Because the actions of the NPC are upsetting and don’t conform to the players’ expectations, the game takes on a nightmare logic quality. For example, the ghosts of the manse unwilling to accept the existence of vampires, despite the obvious evidence, strains the players’ ability to understand the world around them. Other examples you can introduce include:

  • Rat bashing its face against a stone—just bashing and bashing until its little rat head is wet meat
  • Person eagerly, happily, hurting themselves as they perform extreme actions, e.g., leaping down from a second story window, driving themselves headlong onto a spear to grab at you
  • Mother deer biting and killing its fawn 
  • A child smiling and laughing at a gory scene

Uncanny situations

Freud describes the uncanny as an unfamiliar item in a familiar house. For this game, you can introduce elements of the unnatural into your narration or transitional scenes to add to the suspense, drama, and unhappy feelings of the players. For example:

  • A character sees their doppleganger proceeding them out of a room, turning a corner, and disappearing. 
  • A character has a dream of their dead mother pleading with them to do something, but they can’t seem to hear or understand her. 
  • A character sees their image in the mirror as a dead corpse. 
  • A character is suddenly beloved by spiders. The spiders bring them things, little presents and wrapped up bugs, make webs across their fingers and toes as they sleep, snuggle into their boots, etc. 

Sidebar: Be Respectful

You’ll note that none of the horror suggestions are based on real world situations. Play up the explicitly preternatural, don’t stigmatize the bodies of real people. Avoid casting real world speech impediments, handicaps, phobias, disorders, or medical conditions in a dehumanizing light. 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

In Search of Better Travel Rules

Humphrey Carpenter's biography of the Inklings recounts one of my favorite anecdotes about those old dudes. It goes something like this:

C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams liked to go for hikes from one village to another. They'd start at one pub and end in another pub: stay the night, drink some beers. One time they made the mistake of inviting Tolkien. When they wanted to be walking Tolkien was fumbling into the underbrush off the track and pointing out interesting trees. Lewis and Williams did not invite him again.

I don't have the full text with me so maybe I fucked that up. The essential bits are there, though.

from the Witcher comic
Like the Inklings, I do a lot of walking around in the woods. Putting shit into a pack and going from Point A to Point B is one of my main hobbies. During these long stretches I think a lot about walking in the woods and I think a lot about RPGs. 

Ever since the days of Mr. Spends-Too-Long-Looking-At-Trees wrote a trilogy about just waltzing into Mordor, journeys and travels have been a fantasy staple. As such, we have long tried to include this essential fantasy element in our role-playing games. Often, these RPG experiences fall flat. 

Here is something I've noticed: 

Most Travel Rules Suck

The State of Affairs

Sometimes I go into threads on RPG forums where someone asks: What is a system that has good travel rules?

The top comments are always someone recommending The One Ring or Ryuutama. These comments have such overwhelming support that it almost seems like they can't be wrong. These are two systems entirely focused on travel and they're so charming and have such good art, ipso facto, these are two good systems for travel. 

These threads usually end with a hearty congratulations all around, handshakes, people agree to try out these two luminaries, and the threads die. 

Here are two facts:
1. I like both The One Ring and Ryuutama. I think they are pretty good games. If I had time, I'd like to play them and I'd like to run them. 
2. I do not think either game has good travel rules. 


The essential travel rules for both systems essentially boil down to this procedure:
1. The players decide to go on a journey
2. The Referee calls for a skill check or test from a certain PC for some in-universe reason: they're getting lost, the journey is strenuous, they need to set up camp, etc.
3. The PC makes a skill check
4. Based on the skill check, the Referee says that the PC must spend some resource: they lose Endurance, misplace an item, gain a condition, etc.

That is fucking boring

That is essentially the same procedure for traps in a bog standard D&D3E game. "I walk down the corridor." "Make a Perception check." "Uhhh, 12." "You fail. Darts shoot out from holes in the wall. Make a Reflex check." "OK, I got a 16." "You fail again. You take...9 damage." "OK, well, we continue down the corridor."

Games are fun because it is fun to make choices. Systems that boil down into pure skill checks where no choices are made are boring. People in the OSR community have long railed against the Perception check -> HP tax. 

So why aren't we doing more to improve the way we handle long journeys?

What are Travel Rules?

There's a bundle of things here. Let's disentangle them. 

1. Movement Procedures

There are rules a game uses to articulate how PCs move across the landscape.
  • How far can you travel each day?
  • How many days of rations/water can you carry?
  • What happens if you go hungry/thirsty?
  • What if you have horses? Are on a boat?
  • Can you get lost? How do you orient yourself?

2. Travel Encounters

There are rules to simulate a living, internally consistent world - things that happen to the PCs as they travel:
  • Encounters with the denizens of the wild: wild animals, wild people, monsters
  • Natural hazards that challenge the characters' progress: snowstorms, avalanches, acid rains, thick fogs
  • Misfortunes that befall travelers: broken wagon axels, rock in your shoe, leak in your water skin
  • Fortunes that shine on travelers: edible mushrooms on the path, generous local shepherds, opportune logs across treacherous rivers

3. Player Actions

Lastly, there are rules that adjudicate the actions of the individual players:
  • "Can I hunt? Can I look for water?"
  • "I want to keep an eye out for any rare herbs as we travel."
  • "I want to make sure I'm always on the look out. I have my sword half drawn in case we come across those bandits I heard about."
  • "If the forest spirit is angry, can I make a sacrifice to them before we enter the wood?
I guess I'm talking about all of these at once. I'm most interested in 2 and 3 because 1 seems like a solved problem.

Good Movement Procedures 

There are many hex crawl rules that are perfectly serviceable as "movement procedures." 
Use the movement procedures you like best. 

The other parts of travel rules are a thornier problem.

Bad Travel Encounters

I see a lot of bad travel encounters out there. Hang out in RPG forums long enough and you will see this piece of advice:

A grim example of Reddit advice

(This piece of advice is corollary to this one: "Don't track monster HP. Once the players have almost died, make the boss die first." This is bad advice, gentle reader. Please do not invite me to games that you run like this.)

Here's another travel encounter I also hate (from a game I otherwise enjoy):

From The One Ring 1st ed supplement Journeys and Maps

The similarity between "Walk past the same rock 5 times" and "Make a Corruption test as you think about home"? Neither encounter provides the player any choice nor any opportunity for input. The Referee could have played this game solo. 

Good Travel Encounters

In many ways, traps and travel encounters are the same thing. The only difference is the matter of scale and narrative framing. Chris McDowall has a good read on what makes games interesting: information, choice, and consequences.

To extrapolate, good travel encounters have the following attributes:

  • Good travel encounters are broadcast clearly. Some part of the encounter should be visible. The head of this pimple should be able to be interacted with and interrogated. 
  • Good travel encounters have multiple possible solutions. There should be no obvious solution but there should be many ways to bypass the encounter. Testing a player's ability to make a character, roll a high number, or pack the single perfect item aren't as interesting as testing a player's ability to think through open-ended, difficult problems. 
  • Good travel encounters have consequences. There should be something lost or gained by successfully interacting with the encounter. These consequences do not need to be negative. If you lose your fiddle in the spring and you turn down the fiddle of gold that the fairy offers you, you can get the fairy's special reward for honesty. 
    • Obstacles that are "just off the path of the woods" that the PCs walk around aren't encounters, they're hex features. In the real world, there are situations where you can only go left or right. Consider Caradhras versus Moria. The players can't get past the mountains so they have to go under them.

Brent at Glass Bird Games has put together a list of 50 Travel Encounters, many of which seem to fit into my conception of "good." 

A problem:

Most players don't do enough long-term trekking to ask them to be knowledgeable about it. In the same way that asking players how to handle archaeological procedures or computer science questions isn't fun at the game table, challenging someone's out of character knowledge about the best practices for long haul hiking isn't really fair. Games are about decision making but it's hard to make informed decisions about a niche subject. 

A solution:

Players also don't know a lot about medieval warfare but the rules you provide them help them make informed decisions within the constraints of the game. Here are a few ways to equip players with information about the sorts of travel encounters they'll deal with:

Tools: Consider these two tool writeups: 
  • Cordage - Put this into your pack to tie up canvas to keep the rain off of you or pull your food into trees to deter bears. Useful for 100 other things.
  • Scarecrow - Put this outside your tent to make sure undead scarecrows don't try and come in seeking shelter. Scarecrow are quite polite, so won't come into a tent they know another scarecrow is already occupying. 
By putting these two tools into your RPG book, you're telling players something about the world: the existence of rain, bears, and zombie scarecrows. 

Clear framing: The Referee can simply tell the players the stakes. "OK, you can probably just push through the Swamps of Ill Omen, but I'm going to make each of you make a saving throw versus poison to avoid getting swamp fever. You'll cut a few days off of your journey but you'll be a risk of disease. What do you do?"

Player Actions

'There is food in the wild,' said Strider; 'berry, root, and herb; and I have some skill as a hunter at need. You need not be afraid of starving before winter comes. But gathering and catching food is long and weary work, and we need haste. 

Maybe you don't need special rules for player actions while traveling. Maybe good Referee adjudication and your standard resolution mechanic is enough. However, for the sake of argument, let's talk about special actions for players while on the road. 

As PCs travel, they are working against time. Can they get to the next town before dark? Can they get to the archdruid's grove before they run out of food? Can they get to Big Evil Mountain before Big Evil conquers the world?

Player actions thus fall into two camps: long actions and incidental actions. 

Long actions eat up a significant portion of daylight. This includes things like "Walking 8 hours" but also "Hunting" and "Camping." Basically, any of the Travel Turn actions in Errant qualify as a long action.

Incidental actions can be done while travelling. You can think of them as a PC's role in the wagon train.  Most incidental actions utilize an X-in-6 resolution mechanic. 

When a PC says "Hey, can I do this?," it's the GM's job to make a ruling about what kind of action it is and what odds they'd give. Some examples to use as guidelines are below:

Rules for Common Actions

Cook: Cooking is a long action. A cook has a 1-in-6 chance of providing an additional +1d6 HP recovered during rest. Each additional item increases this chance by 1: cooking gear, fresh water, rare herbs and spices. Halflings are expert cooks and increase this chance by 1. 

Guard: Guarding is an incidental action. A guard has a 1-in-6 chance of crying a warning before an ambush - if successful, the combat proceeds as normal; on a failure, the ambushers gain a surprise round. Gnomes have big ears which increase this chance by 1. Additional guards increase this chance by 1 (to a maximum of 5-in-6). 

Guide: Guiding is an incidental action. In the trackless wilderness, guides have a 1-in-6 chance of leading their party in the chosen direction. Additional guides increase this chance by 1. Maps increase this chance by 2. Navigation checks of this sort are not needed on a road. 

Hunt: Hunting is a long action. A hunter has a 1-in-6 chance to find 2d4 rations of food in the wild. Each additional hunter increases this chance by 1. Especially well stocked hunting grounds (such as the king's hunting wood) also increases this chance by +1-3. 

Scout: Scouting is an incidental action. When the PCs enter a new hex, the GM draws on the Meatgrinder table. The first time a particular Encounter is drawn, a scout has a 1-in-6 chance of spotting spoor instead of encountering the creature. Each additional scout increases this chance by 1. Elves have sharp eyes and increase this chance by 1.

Spoor is a sign that this creature is near - a howl in the woods, claw marks on trees, scat on the trail. Successfully spotting spoor allows the PCs to avoid the creature this time. If this Encounter entry is drawn again, the PCs will definitely encounter the creature regardless of how many scouts are in the party.

Sing: Singing is an incidental action. Singing adds +1 to the Morale checks of hirelings and retainers if a random Encounter is rolled for this watch only.

Thursday, August 19, 2021


Games are an exchange of questions and answers. "Can I do this?" "How are you trying to do that?" The GM adjudicates the reality of the world based on this exchange. "Sure, you can climb a tree, no problem" versus "You're trying to climb the tree before GORTHMAK THE UNDECEIVER catches you. Uhhh, roll a d20 and try and beat your Dexterity."

One of the most essential questions of "Can my character..." is "Can my character know this?"

  • Have I heard of Medusa before?
  • What does my wizard know about dragons?
  • I feel that, like, as a fighter I'd probably know about wars and tactics and stuff.
OSR games do not have a de facto resolution system for what a character knows (as opposed to, say, making a Knowledge Local test in D&D 3E). This is a feature not a bug. However, if you would like some guidance for adjudicating what a character knows, you can use this system. Bolt it onto the game of your choice. 

by John Howe

What do I know?

Character knowledge follows similar rules to what characters can see. There are essentially two levels of knowledge.
  • Obvious knowledge (level 1): Stuff everybody knows and sets the general expectations of the encounter. Giving players a lot of information makes sure that both players and the GM are on the same page and lets players make intelligent choices.
  • Obscure knowledge (level 2): Some specialist subjects would only be known to certain people. Obscure knowledge might include the habits of mythical creatures, the likes and dislikes of specific people within an organization, or the metaphysics of the planes of reality. In these cases, the GM should only give information to a player who has bid lore (see below). If a player bids lore and the GM accepts the question, the GM should give as much information on the subject as they know—keep talking and riffing until you run out of material. 

Bid lore

“They are wrought of ithildin that mirrors only starlight and moonlight, and sleeps until it is touched by one who speaks words now long forgotten in Middle-earth. It is long since I heard them, and I thought deeply before I could recall them to my mind.” – The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien 

Lore represents things that your character knows that you, as the player, might not. This might include a vulnerability of a particular monster, taboos or habits of a foreign people, or the special properties of a particular plant variety. 

When you bid lore, you are essentially asking “Would my character know this?” 

When a player bids lore, a GM has three potential responses:

  • “Yes, you know about this.” The GM then gives a detailed answer. If the GM says "Yes," the GM will answer your question as thoroughly as they can.
  • “No, you wouldn’t know about this with that lore.” 
  • “I don’t accept this lore bid.” The GM then tells the player why the lore bid question wasn’t fair game. The player may rephrase or re-frame the question and try again. 

You may bid lore a number of times per dungeon turn equal to your Intelligence modifier (minimum 1). 

Lore bid questions are discrete 

The name of the lore your bid must be part of the question that you ask. 

You cannot ask, “Have I ever seen anything like this?” The question is too broad.

You may ask, “Since I know Dragon Lore, are any of the monsters on the bas relief dragons?"

Lore bid answers are thorough

The GM cannot say, “You’re not sure, but you think they might be related to dragons.” If an answer is this vague, the player does not need to spend a lore bid. GMs should simply tell them this hint. 

The GM may say, “You know that these are dragons because you’ve seen their iconography before. As an expert in Dragon Lore, though, you recognize that these are fire drakes. These dragons are flightless and live in rivers of lava under the earth. They are famous for their uncontrolled rages.”

Lore bid questions aren’t a replacement for clever thinking

You cannot ask, “How do you defeat a dragon?” This question is too broad and too subjective. 

You may ask, “Do I know if a drake has any special vulnerabilities?” 

List of Lores

Each character begins the game with 1 + Intelligence modifier lores. 

You gain new lores by studying under loremasters. These loremasters might require coin or quests to teach you what they know. Studying under a loremaster should be considered a long action (taking a season).

The list of lores you give your player should be campaign specific. Here's just a sample one to get you started.

Bard Tales
Brendylian City-states
Beyseth Republic
Drax Protectorate
Elemental Planes
Shennite Empire
Tek-Lan Empire
Verdan Council
Verdan Exodus
War Strategy
Web of Life
Xur Dominion

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Name this Alchemical Book

My next project for HIS MAJESTY THE WORM is the alchemical system. It will be a product roughly equivalent to the Sorcery is a Sword Without a Hilt.

I have not and will not name this project. 

You will. 

Download the cover to see how it works. Click on the different Zodiac signs to generate different names.

How did you make this?

I tried a lot of different ways to create this effect and found a lot of dead ends, so I might as well write down what worked. I used the Adobe Creative Suite.

  1. In InDesign, create several different layers. In my case, the base layer has the white background and the instructional text. For convenience, name the different layers something recognizable. 
  2. Create buttons (Object -> Interactive -> Create buttons) out of boxes or text objects. In my case, I used invisible rectangles around the Zodiac symbols. 
  3. On each layer, add different colored backgrounds and text. Essentially, create the different layouts you want for your different final projects.  
  4. Turn off the visibility of all the layers except your base layer. This will set the default visible layers for your final product. 
  5. Export to Interactive PDF. Ensure that the "Create Acrobat Layers" box is checked.
  6. In your PDF, go to View- > Show/Hide -> Navigation Panes -> Layers to view the different layers. Select a layer that you want to display when a button is clicked. 
  7. Go to Tools -> Content -> Select Object to select the individual buttons you created. Double click on a button.
  8. In the Actions tab, select "Set layer visibility" and click Add. This makes the button Show/Hide the exact configuration of layers as you currently have it set. (For example, if you have Layer 1 visible and Layers 2-12 hidden when you set this action, the end user will only see Layer 1 when they click the button.)
  9. Repeat steps 6-8, setting different buttons to different layer configurations. 
  10. Save and voila. 

Monday, August 9, 2021

Cross-Section Castle Character Creation

(or CCCC for short)

Do you remember Stephen Biesty's Cross-sections books? I had them as a kid. I think there's something very compelling about pictures you can get lost in - ones that demand your attention. RPGs should have more of them. 

Anyway, I made a d66 table of level 0 characters for you to use for games like DCC, LotFP, GLoG, or whatever using one of the pictures from the Cross-Section Castle book. 

Click for larger picture