Friday, November 24, 2023

Gods are high level PCs

Listening to Between Two Cairns about Caverns of Thracia, and I was thinking about Greek-mythological elements in the hodgepodge mélange of D&D. 

I realized: Greek gods are just high level PCs. 

Greek elements in D&D

A preponderance of fantastic elements in vanilla D&D are Tolkien-esque, North/Western European. Old-school D&D is definitely more of a melting pot, with a Saturday morning cartoon blending of dinosaurs, samurai, and spaceships thrown in the mix. But even in the most vanilla D&D have these decidedly Greek mythological elements: hydras, harpies, medusa, minotaurs. 

Gods in vanilla D&D have a Greek pantheon vibe. They have these very Greco-Roman spheres of influence - Raylor is the god of the sun, good, human fighters, and archery. There's usually a ruling hegemony of major gods and dozens of minor gods. In major cities, you can find temples to any god. Gods can be patrons to a particular race or people. When you say, "I worship the god of the sun and you worship the goddess of the moon," nobody blinks.

(This is often very boring. The endless iterations on this theme, with vaguely different names and groupings, are so tedious to read. Not to yuck anybody's yum, but there should be public decency laws  where you go to jail if you make me read your re-coloration of the Faerun pantheon.)

It would be more interesting if the gods in D&D acted more like the gods in Greek mythology. And the gods in Greek mythology act like high-level player characters, overloaded with magical items, zipping around and causing trouble for everybody.

Rethinking the gods

People say "Greek gods are more human." I guess that's true. But they don't act rational, like normal humans. They act irrational, like a 14 year old boy playing "Mars, God of War" who asks for his PC to bang every bar wench the adventuring party encounters.

They are not omniscient. When you pray to them, you hope they or their messengers are nearby in shape-changed form or invisible. You offer them things not abstractly, but in the deliberate hope that you're luring them to your altar.

They are not omnipotent. They are powerful beings who wield technologies invisible to humankind: weather, seasons, disease, emotions, birth, death. 

When gods act for or against you, they do so very directly:

  • They give you magical items - a helm of invisibility and a mirror shield - to slay Medusa. 
  • They summon a monster to devour you.
  • They summon veils of mist to obscure you from your enemies in battle. 
  • They cast Clone on you so that your eidolon can take your place in an unpleasant situation.

Gamifying this

Anybody can pray. When you make a prayer to a god, you have a 1-in-20 chance of having your prayer fulfilled. 

  • +1 if you make a significant offering (at least 10% of gold value to advance to your next level)
  • +1-3 for doing something awesome that that god likes (feats of battle for war gods, clever plans for wisdom gods, good deeds for good gods, etc.) since your last prayer

On a successful prayer, call a friend that's pretty good at RPGs but isn't part of this particular game. Tell them they have a level 20 PC, with any build they want. Tell them they're given a quest to do X (where X is the other PC's prayer). Ask what they do.

That's how the god reacts to your prayer.

Sunday, November 19, 2023


(Hey look, I can make posts that aren't just His Majesty the Worm shilling. I still am playing games and thinking about them!)

For my current Dolmenwood game, my players said they wanted to all play witches. To play to this gimmick, I wrote a magical familiar subsystem. Rules below in a His Majesty the Worm parlance, but can be adapted to any OSR system without difficulty. Lots of inspiration for this system came from the unparalleled Goblinpunch

A thing I really like about this subsystem is how it creates trouble for the players. Each familiar wants something weird and outrageous, which pushes the characters into interesting/dangerous situations to try and keep the little shit happy. 

Also, because this system creates such interesting little personalities, the players never have the "Oh right, I have a pet I forgot about" moment. Actually, they're penalized with an in-character justification if they ever have that realization as the familiar has felt neglected and slipped away into the dreaming world (see below).

The one big con about this system is that I have to talk in a lot of funny voices to handle the bonded NPCs that the players all have now. Exhausting on my vocal chords. 

Binding your Familiar

To bind a familiar to your service, you must go on a vision quest into the lowest realms of Dreaming (the parts that are tangent to the upper levels of Hell). Find some drugs that can get you there, if you have no spells that can do it.

Creating your familiar is like going to Build a Bear Workshop. Choose three representative pieces of the familiar and combine them together. (The art I made for my players for this is amateurish, but was accepted with applause, which made me feel good.)


In my heart, I know my familiar is:

  1. Toad with teeth, speaks in a deep baritone voice (my dear boy!)

  2. Blind crow, flies backwards

  3. Black goat, always stands on your shadow, causes discomfort on places where it's hoofs touch

  4. Shoulder imp, smug as Hell (literally)

  5. Fat hare, walks like a man, fond of eating bones and skin

  6. Moth, tiny crown, everyone gets goosebumps when it appears, speaks like a king


I most desire:

  1. Ghost. Can teleport you (only) to the nearest graveyard. 

  2. Fat. You can tickle it and it opens up to reveal an extradimensional space 1 slot large (does this for free, no need for a favor). Can burp out 1-21 gold coins, but these fade away during the next full moon. 

  3. Circle-Square-Triangle. Can conjure 1 random spell component every month. 

  4. Spellbook. Can ask it a question about the future: “If I do X, what will happen?”

  5. Silvery. Your familiar is white. Once a month, it can speak to the moon. The moon can see anything that happens out of doors during the night, except for nights of the new moon. Can tell you where something is or how something went down.

  6. Bat wings. Your familiar gains bat wings. It can lend them to you, allowing you to fly. 


For this, I would trade:

  1. Silver lantern. The familiar seeks new frontiers (especially of the mind and/or other planes) and cosmic truth

  2. Gilded birdcage. Familiar craves political power to rule the world and become a leader of men (preferred: starting a cult, marrying royalty)

  3. Cookie jar. Strange, dangerous, and terrible things to eat. 

  4. Cage carved of a single ruby. Money. Give it treasure.

  5. Doll-sized wizard tower. Familiar desires the construction of a vast object, built for some distant, undefined purpose (preferred: tower, ziggurat, ship)

  6. A mirror (familiar appears as a reflection). Familiar wishes for your ego-death through dissociative drugs, anomie, and constant exposure to danger.

Lastly, each familiar is unique. Roll on the 1d100 Familiar List to see how your combination is different from every other familiar. This also gives your familiar a random name.

Feed your familiar a portion of your own blood mixed with milk and honey to bind them to you. 

Familiar Rules

Once a familiar has agreed to work with you, it is your familiar for life. You and your familiar may fall out, get into fights. It might leave. It’s still your familiar, but until you come to mutually agreeable terms, you won’t be able to work together.

When you have a bound familiar, you can ask it to dwell with you in the dreaming world or the waking world.


When in the waking world, your familiar is physically present with you. It rides on your shoulders, trots at your side, sleeps in your sleeve. 

Familiars don’t like to be ignored. Every time you—as the player—mention it, describe what it’s doing, talk to it in-character, the familiar is pleased. It can feel it is being noticed.

Every time the GM has to say, “Wait, what is your familiar doing while you do that” the familiar feels hurt. You’ve forgotten about it. When this happens, it slinks off into the dreaming world. Summoning it is done with disfavor.

Familiars go into the dreaming world when they’re hurt. They rest there for 1-21 days.

You can dismiss a familiar to the dreaming world whenever you want, if it would be dangerous or inconvenient to have them around.


When in the dreaming world, it appears to you in your dreams. You can talk to it here, if you want. 


Whenever you attempt to summon your familiar from the dreaming world to the waking one (or vice versa) make a Wands test. Success means that the familiar arrives immediately. Otherwise it arrives in 1d4 watches. If you have annoyed your familiar, you automatically fail this test, while familiars that are extremely pleased will always arrive promptly.


Familiars can perform services, but never more than 1/day. However, for every service it performs, you owe a favor.

1. Familiars can use one of their special powers at your behest.

2. Familiars can give you a spell slot.

3. Familiars can do just about anything that a normal animal could do—and then some! They could fly away, spy on a bandit’s camp, and report back. It can even give its opinion about plans on how to ambush the bandit leader. 

4. You can ask a familiar to fight with you. This counts as one service. In His Majesty the Worm, use Cups cards to command them during a Challenge.

5. Familiars can save you from a violent death—but only once ever.


Each favor is always something that the familiar can call in immediately, or at a later date. 

If you perform the favor that the familiar requests, that's the end of it. But if you refuse, that is a violation of the contract with the familiar, and deserving of a roll on the Breach of the Covenant table.

Playtest Note: There's a bit of extra mental load with keeping track of all the familiars, their names, and their desired favors. Write a notecard with all this information to keep next to your campaign notes. At the start of each session, go over who owes their familiar a favor, and think about nearby things the familiar would be interested in. You can have the start of a session be a familiar demanding something troublesome nearby.

Breach of the Covenant 

1. random curse 2. random mutation 3. -1 to a random attribute 4. lose 2-8 XP

Bonus Picture

Friday, November 17, 2023

HIS MAJESTY THE WORM Deep Dive - The Adventurer Sheet

 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. This post is part of a series of deep dives into the mechanics of the game.

The Adventurer Sheet

Here are two mild takes:

1. I think you can figure out what an RPG is about by looking at the page count dedicated to discussions of that subject.

2. I think you can figure out what players do by looking at the character sheet.

Here is the adventurer sheet* from His Majesty the Worm. 

Click here to download a copy of the adventurer sheet. What do you think players do in this game?

The front of the booklet is who your adventurer is at a glance. Their name, kith & kin, their motifs, attributes, their relationships with other characters. 

The back of the booklet is a rules reference for players. The book is a shared resource. Pull as much commonly-referenced information out of it so people don't need to hog it.

The inside of the booklet (page 2) is where the stuff you track is kept. On the left page, you track your talentsconditions, and animal companions. Talents can be wounded, so they're included near the status tracker. On the right page you track your equipment, separated between what you're carrying, your pack and your belt. (It's easier to grab things from your belt than your pack!)

Read on to learn more about the design decisions involved here.

* I think "adventurer" is the more natural-language sounding word for a player's character (as opposed to the insurance-salesman-sounding acronym "PC"). 


First, let me call out the people who actually designed the sheet. One of my players, M. Finch, designed the initial version of the sheet in more-or-less its final form. One of the contributing artists, Michael Strange, gave this sheet a nice design. My graphic designer, Pete Borlace, iterated on and finalized the sheet.

Design Decisions

First, the adventurer sheet is designed to be printed double-sided and folded into a booklet. (I don't know if this is the first game with a booklet-based character sheet, but I have not seen one in the past.) It is aesthetically and tactically pleasing (to me) to have a pretty little folded booklet in my hands. It's appealing.

There's a subtle visual language to the sheet. Circles tend to signify resources being taxed: damage taken, light flickering out, Resolve weakened. Squares tend to signify resources gained: Bonds charged, Arete triggered. Your light source is carried, as shown by the etched line connecting that section of the sheet to your hand slots.

If you have the Beast Master talent, an animal companion you have can be upgraded to a familiar and learn five commands instead of three. Notice how the 4th and 5th command slots are slightly rolled up to show that they're non-standard. 

You have four belt slots and twenty-one pack slots. This was done for a game design reason: it allows the GM to randomly target a piece of equipment. Either glance at the suit (1 of 4) in the minor arcana discard pile to target the belt or in the major arcana discard pile (1 of 21) to target something in the pack.

When I say that "His Majesty the Worm focuses on the human elements of dungeon exploration," tracking what's in your hands is sort of what I mean. It's important to think about what's in your hands. It changes as you adventure. If you're carrying a shield and a mace and you say, "I want to cup the moth in my hands," the GM can follow up to see how you're trying to do that. Do you put your weapons down? These things feel important to think about.

Want to learn more about His Majesty the Worm?

If this sounds interesting and you'd like to check the game out, please sign up for the mailing list in the sidebar of the blog. I will email you to tell you when the game is ready for purchase. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

HIS MAJESTY THE WORM Deep Dive - Characters

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. This post is part of a series of deep dives into the mechanics of the game.

What do characters do?

Players take on the role of adventurers. Adventurers descend into the Underworld in search of impossible things that can never exist on the surface world. They explore collectively as a guild—a  chartered union of adventurers. Adventurers fight monsters, avoid traps, get treasure, spend it all on drink, and maybe live long enough to do it twice.

This is all pretty bog standard stuff for folks used to games with dragons and dungeons.

I do think there are innovations in His Majesty the Worm that I want to talk about, though. There's something about the character lifecycle that's really compelling to me as a player and a game master. That's what this post is about.


Adventurers walk one of four paths. 

  • The Path of Swords is that of violence.
  • The Path of Pentacles is that of slyness.
  • The Path of Cups is that of learning.
  • The Path of Wands is that of sorcery.

Your attributes are the four suits of the tarot. Think about them like jobs - fighter, thief, scholar, wizard. By putting points into them, you determine which job is your focus and which jobs are your back up. Your highest attribute determines your path. 

When you select your path, you gain access to a set of talents that define your special abilities.


The GM creates the underworld - an exciting megadungeon to explore. The players create their quests

Quests are your reason for going into the underworld. Normal, healthy-brained people don't want to go there. That place sucks.

The GM places your quest somewhere in the underworld. There, it sits fermenting, gestating, and shaping the world around it--sending out rumors like satellite signals to lure you towards it. 

You get 3 XP for agreeing to help one player with their quest. 

XP is spent as a resource to use talents that you do not have mastered. You get XP at the start of an adventure to help you use new talents during the adventure.

You get 3 XP whenever you complete a quest.

You also get 1 XP (much less) for taking on assignments for NPCs and for blowing all your coin on drink at the City. Little incentivizers. 

When you have finished your quest, you're encouraged to retire your character. You've done what you've made that character to do. Retire them to the City and have the fun of playing a new type of dude for a little while.

In the last quest before we called the playtest "finished" (after 7 years!), one player defeated the Locust Lich that ruled the first level of the Underworld, rescued her dryad girlfriend, married her, and carved her tree into a figurehead for her pirate ship so the two of them could return to the surface and sail together forever. 

That's the sort of stories I want to be a part of.

Wide, not deep growth 

It’s worth noting that adventurers in His Majesty the Worm grow “wide” not “deep.” That is, XP allows you to use and master more talents, broadening the options available to you. You do not gain bigger numbers, +1s, more hit points, etc. 

You can learn any talent in the game. Your path determines what talents you start with, but you can train with your other adventurers or NPCs to learn their talents too. 

In my current campaign, I've put like 30 more talents into the game and seeded their trainers around the map. I'm having fun with players trying to find the right dude to teach them X talent. 

Arête and beyond

In addition to XP, there are two other types of growth that adventurers benefit from. The first is arête, a feature of your kith. 

Each kith (your larger racial group) has three arête triggers. For example, here's the ones for the fay kith:

When you check all of your arête, you gain a new talent specific to your kin. These unlockable talents are the only example of "deep growth" in the core game.

The second is “weirdness.” As you journey through the Underworld, you get weirder. You accumulate scars, mutations, magical items, pets, mutilations, phobias, etc. There are no rules governing the latter. Finding out how your adventurer gets weirder is essentially the whole game.

To be continued

My next deep dive is going to discuss the tech of the character sheet. What better way to learn about what characters do in the game? Stay tuned!

Want to learn more about His Majesty the Worm?

If this sounds interesting and you'd like to check the game out, please sign up for the mailing list in the sidebar of the blog. I will email you to tell you when the game is ready for purchase. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

What I'm Listening To

Despite the fact I GMed for an AP podcast, I've never really liked podcasts. I've found them difficult to listen to. However, luckily, local millennial with beard has gotten into podcasts. (I also enjoy the works of one "Modest Mouse.") Rejoice. 

I've gotten into a few podcasts that talk about the theory of RPGs (especially indie/OSR play). This is my jam. My jim jam. 

Here's what I'm listening to.*

Between Two Cairns

Local dudes Brad Kerr and Yochai Gal talk about modules (NOT SETTINGS) in Between Two Cairns. I'm hooting and hollering. Yochai talks about the folklore and background of modules, and I say "Ha ha yeah, that's right." Brad does a long form joke. I laugh and say "Ha ha yeah! YES!"

Blogs on Tape

I already read blogs. But someone has done the hard work of aggregating them for me, and read them to me aloud? So I can listen? At the gym? THANK YOU NICK LS WHELAN OF BLOGS ON TAPE

Into the Megadungeon

So few genres of RPG are as close to my heart as the noble megadungeon. Ben L's deep dive into megadungeon theory, Into the Megadungeon, is a super helpful, super insightful look into the place I've spent - shucks - I guess most of my time. Every episode has some new insight. 

* The fact that I'm on a few of these has no** bearing on me recommending them.

** It has enormous bearing.