Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Here's Your Lump of Coal

If you asked the Humbug, it would tell you that it doesn’t want to hurt anyone really, but has had to defend itself countless times and just wants to be left alone. It won’t mention (and probably isn’t really even aware) that witnessing joy in others triggers an emotional escalation that, unless appeased successfully, ends with the Humbug entering an uncontrollable rage. Of course that’s assuming you’re able to get a word in at all.

It looks like either a child with the features of a grey-skinned old man, or an old man whose growth has been severely stunted. It has functional insect-like wings, and antennae, dresses in shoddy looking but functional clothing, and (when grounded) leans heavily on a gnarled cane that’s taller than he is. The Humbug is likely to be found living in any sparsely populated and isolated dungeon or wilderness area.

When first met, it demands to know what the PCs are doing, but doesn’t really care once it figures out that they aren’t from around wherever it is they find it. The Humbug then introduces itself and starts complaining about the area in a way that reveals useful and reliable information to the PCs. It keeps complaining about anything and everything that occurs to it without letting anyone else get a word in, and follows anyone who tries to walk away in the middle of a “conversation”. This will continue as long as the PCs tolerate it, with useful intel sprinkled in generously. If the PCs engage in combat (including trying to attack the Humbug itself), it will simply fly out of the way until it’s over, grumbling about how tedious combat is the whole time.

The Humbug will not say much about the occasional groups of 3-5 adventurers’ remains, all of which have had their skulls bashed in. Just that it takes the right outlook to survive and these poor saps didn’t have it.

The Humbug will not try to stop anyone who tries to silence it with a gag, but will still continue to go through the motions of speaking as if it hasn’t noticed. This will muffle the sound well enough to allow for stealth. Otherwise, every enemy within 20’ of the party will be aware of their presence (or at least of the Humbug’s, and that it’s talking to someone). It shouldn’t take long for a clever party to realize that they can just gag and un-gag it as needed and have half of what’s going on explained to them.

If any the players express joy in-character, the Humbug turns visibly red, rips out its gag (if it’s wearing one) and starts angrily pointing out the dark lining to every silver cloud, demanding that the PCs see things its way. If they “admit” that it’s right, they still need to make a charisma check to convince it they’ve genuinely changed their minds (even if they actually have). If they succeed, it turns back to its normal shade of grey and starts complaining about all the infuriatingly naive adventurers it’s met in the past, and how they all turn out to be such huge disappointments in the end.

If the PCs fail to convince the Humbug of their sincerity (or tell it they think it’s wrong), its rage intensifies. It grows a deeper shade of red and flies out of reach while shouting about how disappointing the party is and shaking its cane like a madman. All of a sudden, its shouts turn into an incoherent war cry as it starts zipping around at 6x the speed of the PCs. First, it trips them all with the hook of its cane and tries to disarm them if there’s time, then it spends a whole round smashing in one victim’s face while the rest of the group recovers. The Humbug repeats this process until they’re all dead and keeps screaming the whole time, not even stopping to inhale.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Nice Streets Above

I’m just about done writing and laying out my Kellerlabyrinth project, which I’m calling Nice Streets Above, after a song by Wire. The song is an expression of rage generated by upper class pricks. The title is relevant to the adventure both in that sense, and in a purely literal one, as the tunnels beneath the streets are inhabited by refugees and the human parasites. It’s a dungeon and a slum at the same time, and several conspiracies with unique goals and methods are based there.

I can see no reason why horror, science fiction, superhero fiction and fantasy shouldn’t all be the same thing, and NSA reflects that aesthetic. There’s also a little bit of history, which is basically horror anyway. The supers influence shows in some of the choices that PCs may find themselves faced with; the abilities they might gain, and the prices that must be paid.

I’m designing this to be played with any edition of D&D, but mostly with Lamentations of the Flame Princess. NSA is set in the tunnels under Oppenheim during the 30 Years War, so that ruleset is the most obvious fit. It would also be really easy to fit this and Better Than Any Man into the same campaign. I’m not including many stats in NSA though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to convert to whatever RPG rules you prefer. One of these days I wanna try running it with FASERIP and probably also one of the Dr. Who RPGs.

I figured out what to print on the back cover as a teaser. It’s super pretentious and I’m not fucking changing it. Imagine it being read to you by that movie announcer guy:

A war over a decade old.
A city under foreign occupation.
A refugee crisis with no end in sight.
A rebellion brewing beneath the streets.
A privileged society abusing mystic abilities.
A cult of the hopeless and their gods of decay.

Welcome to Oppenheim.
Corruption is power.

And here’s a couple of illustrations, from a page of potentially recurring NPCs. One set of three basically normal humans, and one set of weirdos with secret powers.

It would be pretty funny if repeating the acronym NSA over and over got me put on a watch list of some sort.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Halloween Dungeon: Candle Cove

This link leads to Candle Cove by Kris Straub, read it if you haven't before, then come right back. It's short, it won't take more than a few minutes. 
I think that story is pretty cool so I based a one page dungeon on it. No monster stats or anything, you can figure those out yourself. I may or may not have ruined the original story, depending on how you look at it. Kris Straub would probably say I fucked it up by explaining too much. To be honest, trying to come up with a motivation for Horace's behavior may have been a step too far. I won't be sad if you to cross that part out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Roll All The Dice Generators (as opposed to tables)

I made these largely to create more white space in the Kellerlabyrinth room descriptions, hopefully encouraging DMs to add stuff and make the dungeon their own. The goal is to randomize all the necessary (but generic) elements in a way that still produces variety and even occasional surprises for the PCs.

At least a few of the generators are appropriate for general use with OSR systems. I'm assuming ascending armor class because that's what I use. If you prefer descending AC, change the (+10)s to (10-)s & the (+12) to a (7-) and you should be fine.

Most of these are pretty closely based on one of the die-drop tables in Vornheim. I love the immediacy of those things, but they take up too much room on my tiny and already cluttered gaming table. This is my solution for people who think die-drop tables are peachy keen but can't fit them on their D&D tables.

d4 1-cutlass 2-war axe 3-morningstar 4-halberd
d6 (+12) armor class. on a 1 or less, has a barbarian-like rage ability
d8 hit points per level. on a 1, has a musket
d10 level
d12 morale*
d20 silver pieces

*For the other two classed NPC generators, I have morale attached to level. Separating it for the fighter sort of implies that fighters are more likely than the other two classes to be crazy bastards who think they're invincible. A low-level fighter with 12 morale is probably a zealot of some sort, but that's up to whoever's running it. Not sure if I'm keeping it that way yet, but I like it in theory.

d4 hit points per level
d6 1-trickster 2-blast mage 3-druid 4-necromancer 5-oracle 6-cleric
d8 (+10) armor class
d10 level. also morale
d12 on a 1, has a blunderbuss
d20 silver pieces

d4 1-smoke bomb 2-poison 3-haste potion 4-trap kit (already set up)
d6 hit points per level
d8 (+10) armor class
d10 level. also morale
d12 on a 1, has a pistol
d20 silver pieces

Private Guards
d4 hit dice (+8=hit points, combat bonus)
d6 (+10) armor class
d8 (+4) morale
d10 1-hammer 2-halberd 3-cutlass 4-axe 5-flail 6-cestus 7-morningstar 8-bolas 9-whip 10-mace
d12 number of guards
d20 sp between them

Cathouse, Gambling Hall, Tavern or Opium Den
(roll separately for guards)
d4 (-1) Usual Suspects** present
d6 (-1) employees (other than owner and guards)
d8 door quality (subtract from lockpick and bashing attempts)
d10 drinks for one gp
d12 revelers present
d20 (x4) gp value in
(mostly cp and sp)

**What I've been calling a list of 12 NPCs with (what I hope are) interesting hooks for the players. I'm not gonna post the list right now but if you're reading this, you're probably deep enough into the hobby to come up with your own NPCs (or find some online) if you need to.

d4 lock quality (subtract from lockpicking attempts)
d6 door quality (subtract from bashing attempts)
d8 on a 1, dead drop with a secret message
d10 on a 4 or less, the door is trapped
d12 (x5) sp of low-value household goods 
d20 gp of luxury items

Waste Room
(it takes at least 10 min of searching and a saving throw against plague to find anything)
d4 on a 1, this is a nest of vermin. If the room is bricked up, they’ve dug out some escape routes. If there’s a mold patch, they’ve been eating it and mutating.
d6 on a 1, a dead body
d8 on a 1, larval mold patch
d10 on a 4 or less, the room is full to the waist and the doors are bricked up
d12 on a 1, a living human baby. If there is also a vermin nest, the baby is currently being chewed on and bawling its eyes out (audible outside the room).
d20 cp scattered about

Vermin Nest
d4 1-rats 2-mosquitos 3-spiders 4-bats
d6 (/2) number of mutants (if fungus is present)
d8 hit dice per swarm
d10 morale
d12 (/3) number of swarms

d20 sp worth of shiny trinkets

Refugee Camp
d4 elderly present
d6 adults present
d8 children present
d10 on a 1, a pet bear
d12 on a 1, a crotchety old fart with a blunderbuss
d20 sp worth of valuables between them

Thugs’ Hideout
(all these numbers added up equals how much in sp they charge refugee camps for "protection” per week)
d4 enforcers present (2 HD)
d6 (+3) HD of leader
d8 on an 8, one of the thugs is a mad bomber
d10 on a 10, 1 war dog (2 HD) for every 2 thugs
d12 thugs present (1 HD)
d20 (x5) gp value of hoard

Friday, August 14, 2015

Muspel: basically a shitty rumor table

David asked me to brainstorm some ideas on the nature of Muspel, the underworld in his New Troy project. I have no idea which ones he's planning on keeping, aside from the ones he explicitly mentioned in that post, but I can show you the list of semi-coherent thoughts that I emailed him. Some of these are more not good than others.
-Muspel is a realm of permanent warfare between the fire giants and the frost giants.

-The nature of Muspel depends entirely on whether the Frost Jarl or the Fire Jarl currently sits on the Throne of Muspel.

-Whichever side is currently losing is at a severe disadvantage, due to the hazards surrounding them matching their natural weaknesses. This means each side needs to find a clever/opportunistic way to stack the odds in their favor every time they become the underdog.

-Fire is mania, loud and furious. Frost is depression, quiet and cruel.

-Dragons of Muspel are in tune with their surroundings. Fire wyrms become frost wyrms when the Ice King takes the throne. They technically owe allegiance to whichever King sits on the throne, but only serve him when they believe it to be in their best interest.

-Both giant kingdoms enslave dwarfs, forcing them to serve as builders, miners and sappers. 

-Slave revolts are especially common immediately after changes in season, since the jailers are suddenly at a huge disadvantage.

-Free dwarfs are those that have escaped and their descendants. The rooms and passages of their fortresses are too small for the giants to assault directly, but not for the younger dragons, who are rewarded with the largest shares of the dwarves’ hoards.

-After a successful raid on a dwarf fortress, the surviving dragons battle fiercely over the treasure they find. Only two or three at most usually survive this. These dragons often retire with their newly found hoards to isolated corners of the newly ruined fortress.

-Dwarfs build their fortresses near veins of precious minerals and gems whenever possible. Hoarding is in their nature, and mining is central to every dwarf culture that has ever formed. No one knows exactly why, including the dwarfs, who frankly couldn't care less.

-Gremlin spawning pits are natural features that produce fire gremlins or frost gremlins, depending on the season. Out-of-season gremlins establish a well-hidden spot to hibernate. The favorite activity of in-season gremlins is capturing and torturing dwarfs and their mortal cousins. Their elemental abilities affect metal objects, such as the weapons and armor of their victims.

-Wraiths are the spirits of those mortals who die in Muspel, and therefore cannot find their way to Elysium. Their powers and personalities reflect the state of Muspel at the time of their death. Their lairs are elaborate tombs that they build as shrines to themselves. They often have valuable information from their lives that they’re willing to trade for offerings.

-Wraiths can leave their tombs, but don’t often, because they are only at full power within their tomb. The tomb reflects the nature of the wraith; it’s always summer in a fire wraith’s tomb.

Like I said, I don't know which ones he's going with or how he's elaborating on (or completely subverting) them. Which ones do you weirdos like?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

You snorted my brother. Prepare to die.

The Oppenheim Kellerlabyrinth is haunted by the ghosts of four Catholic saints, known collectively as the Four Holy Marshals. The Knights Templar had their remains moved to the tunnels centuries ago, to contain a then-recently discovered infestation of hyperdimensional fungoid aliens. The order currently has no information on just where these demons came from, they only know that this threat to their world must be contained at all costs.

Several intelligent fungoid species inhabit the lowest levels of the kellerlabyrinth. Although their adult body types and abilities vary greatly, all of these species go through a roughly similar life cycle, which has three stages: embryonic, larval, and mature. All three stages, if harvested and consumed properly, have potion-like effects on the user. The corpses of mature molds yield a great deal more doses than the embryonic and larval

They periodically produce reproductive spores, which are released into the air and immediately abandoned by the parent. Spores that randomly find themselves in ideal environments (damp, cool, presence of nutrition, etc) continue to reproduce, forming into molds that produce temporary effects in most animal species (including humans) when consumed. 

Embryonic Mold: Potion-Like Effects
orange mold: size doubled (+4 to damage rolls, +2d6 temporary HP,  -4 AC penalty)
grey mold: healing (must be applied directly to wound)
blue mold: visions (must be smoked; there’s a secret society that's sprung up around this substance but that’s a whole other post)
red mold: double movement and number of attacks (must be dried, powdered, and snorted)
purple mold: etherealness (must be consumed as a tea, can walk through walls, +4 AC bonus, clothes and equipment also become ethereal)

There’s a weird old lady that lives in the kellerlabyrinth and sells potions, powders, etc. distilled from these embryonic molds. She knows more about these creatures than anyone except the Four Holy Marshals, but is a little crazy and any hints she lets slip will be cryptic in nature. She’s also been experimenting with the combining of molds to produce new effects, to varying degrees of success.

The inquisitor hates her and wants her to burn, but she makes clever use of her potions and keeps making a fool of him every time he tries to fuck with her.

Whenever one of these embryonic molds grows to a sufficient size, it begins to develop specialized structures with similar functions to those of our brains and sensory organs. Molds at this stage are capable of producing weaponized spores, but not reproductive ones. These spores are the only natural defense of molds in this larval stage. Larval molds are completely immobile, but have achieved basic sentience and are constantly learning during this period.

Larval Molds: Weaponized Spores
(PCs get a chance to roll an appropriate saving throw for all these effects. Obviously.)
orange mold: size increases beyond the size of the room, bones start getting crushed
grey mold: out-of-control permanent constitution-draining tumors 
blue mold: confusion and/or suggestion
red mold: possibly fatal heart attack, survivors are still incapacitated for 1d6 rounds
purple mold: PC (but not clothes or equipment) becomes completely ethereal and floats up to the surface over the course of 3 rounds per dungeon level between the PC and the open air.

If PCs find an embryonic mold to be useful and keep returning to its location to harvest more, there is a 1/6 chance for each day it’s been since the room was last visited (maximum of 5/6) of the mold having advanced to the larval stage.

Once these fungoid neural structures have been completed, the molds begin to focus on producing limbs (1d6-2 trunk-like legs, 1d8-1 tentacles, minimum 0, roll again on a result of no limbs). Within a few days, these limbs are usually large and strong enough to be useful to the mold, and the creature is considered mature. Molds with legs can walk around and perform slam attacks, and ones that have tentacles can use them to manipulate objects as well as grabbing and constricting enemies.

All mature molds can produce the same weaponized spores as their larval forms at will, as well as empathic spores which allow a basic form of universal communication, and reproductive spores (produced involuntarily whenever the adult mold consumes enough extra nutrition). They also have intrinsic, always-on abilities that correspond to the effects of consuming each mold type in its embryonic form.

I'm writing this for low level characters, so it makes sense to me that these creatures should have about the same stats that whatever game you're playing uses for let’s say a cave bear (aside from the unusual limbs and spores and intrinsic qualities). If your party averages around level seven or higher, you should probably think about upping the hit dice (but you hopefully know that by now if you've been running a campaign that long).

Mature Molds: Intrinsic Qualities
orange mold: size doubled, +4 HD, -2 AC penalty
grey mold: regenerates 1d4 hp/round
blue mold: can see a second into the future like a jedi (+6 AC)
red mold: double movement speed and number of attacks
purple mold: ethereal (can’t be physically harmed by non-ethereal creatures or objects, but can attack others and walk through walls) 

They don’t have anything resembling an animal’s mouth, but it takes about twelve hours to completely grow around an adult human corpse, digest it, and eject perfectly clean bones. Mature molds need to consume more than four adult humans (or an equivalent amount of non-human animal meat) to produce reproductive spores.

This means that if a mature mold causes a Total Party Kill, and the replacement characters find their way back to that room, it will probably still be full of bones, and partially covered in mold colonies in their potion-like embryonic stage.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Library is a Very Dangerous Place

Paper Tigers - A lost tribe of human ex-cataloguers gone feral. Originally brought to serve the in the Madgod's Library, they were replaced with the mechanical shelving units when they inevitably went completely bugfuck crazy. They attack visitors for food, treasure and equipment whenever they believe they have an advantage.
- They shave each other completely, usually go around wearing a loincloth made from pages torn out of the books, and use scarification to create tiger stripes all over their bodies.
- Physically, these lunatics have the statistics of ordinary human civilians, but they are not to be underestimated within the confines of the Library. This is because:
- They know the contents of every book in the Madgod’s Library before pulling it off the shelf, and can choose the effect of opening the book instead of having to roll for it randomly. Also:
- One in four Paper Tigers have eaten Library bat guano and undergone a random mutation. (see Library Bats below)
- Their equivalent of the Dewey decimal system is a series of nonsensical pictograms scratched into the bookshelves. Any character who tries to cast read magic on the symbols must save or go permanently insane, effectively becoming a Paper Tiger and running off into the depths of the Library.

Shelving Unit - A horse sized, steam powered automaton with eight long claw-tipped legs. The claws are articulate enough to grasp and manipulate books and sharp enough to shred your average suit of chain mail.
-These bastards are quick and have two attacks per round.
-They can produce puffs of steam that obscure vision (which they do not rely on) in a 15 foot radius, as well as causing 1d6 fire damage to anyone in a 5 foot radius. Shelving units are immune to this particular attack, but not to fire damage in general.
- They don’t usually bother anyone, but anytime a book is moved, a shelving unit will sense it and show up in 1d3 rounds to return it to its proper place. They aren’t programmed to be rude, so they won’t interrupt readers until they put the book down somewhere, but they will follow anyone who continues to walk around with one or more books. Shelving Units will not allow anyone to leave the Library with any of the Madgod’s books, unless of course the character can present a Library card (which entitles them to borrow one book at a time). Attempting to physically damage a Library book will also incur a shelving unit's wrath.
- They can’t talk, but they can understand all spoken languages, and their body language is cartoonishly expressive.
- Shelving units viciously attack bookworms on sight, but are afraid of the entropy moths that bookworms metamorphose into, and will not approach them willingly.

Bookworm - A two-foot long caterpillar with the face of a madly grinning human.
- They can spray a 15 foot cone of goo that causes paralysis to anyone it touches (save to avoid), and usually flee immediately after. This doesn’t immediately affect shelving units, but it does dry quickly (1d4 rounds) and gums up their joints at that point, immobilizing them.
- When fleeing, they can move faster than their appearance implies (half again the speed of an unencumbered human).
- Bookworms are usually found in groups of 3d4 worms. This usually allows a lucky few to get away, if a group of shelving units gets the drop on them. Larger groups can be found during serious infestations.
- Once they've eaten enough books, they create a cocoon for themselves, which is clearly visible but naturally camouflaged against the shelving units' (non-visual) sensors. At the end of its gestation period, an entropy moth emerges.

Entropy Moth - About the same size as a bookworm, entropy moths are mostly covered in pearlescent fur. They have the unblinking and expressionless face of a human mannequin, but with the nose and mouth replaced with a curled proboscis resembling that of any other moth.
- When these creatures flap their wings, they radiate waves of chaos in a 15 foot circle. All inanimate material in this radius begins to break down. Metal weapons and armor rust, organic material deteriorates, and mechanical devices immediately stop working, then fall apart 1 round later. This does not affect the Madgod’s books, but does affect normal books. Magic items (including spell books) can save to avoid this damage.
- The entropy field also alters spell effects that enter it. Roll on the table to determine how the spell is altered.
1 Spell is deflected towards a new, randomly chosen target.
2 Reverse the effect of the spell; if it would normally cause damage, it heals instead, etc.
3 All numeric qualities of the spell (intensity/damage, area of effect, etc.) are tripled.
4 Spell is replaced with a random spell of one level lower.
5 All numeric qualities of the spell (intensity/damage, area of effect, etc.) are halved.  
6 The spell is absorbed by the entropy moth, which becomes impregnated and uses its next turn to hook its proboscis onto someone's bare flesh and implant an egg sac in its victim. The eggs hatch 1 hour later (unless the character expels them by making a successful save or a relevant healing spell is cast), and the character experiences crippling pain while 1d4 larval bookworms make their way to the brain. Bookworms eat their victims’ brains, but only digest the actual information, expelling the rest as waste. Bookworm hosts die horribly, by puking out their brains and shit.
- There are two small glands near the base of an entropy moth's head which are highly prized by alchemists and artificers. They can be used to create effects such as spell resistance, reflection, and absorption (in order of increasing difficulty).
- These moths' antennae are specially adapted to constantly detect traces of magic on items and creatures. They are attracted to magic and other manifestations of chaos like their smaller cousins to a flame.

Library Bats - Since the paper tigers were impossible to control and the shelving units were incapable of dealing with entropy moths, the Mad God brought a colony of giant bats into the Library to serve as a natural predator for the moths. Because the bats’ diet consists mainly of animals that fuel increased randomness, the rate of mutation in the bats was increased. Within a dozen or so generations, they developed evolutionary adaptations to the unique dangers of the Library.
- The ears and related neural structures of Library bats have become attuned to the energies radiated by magic, madness, and chaos, and the creatures can intrinsically understand and vocally reproduce any spell or magical effect that they have recently (past half hour or so) observed. This even applies to non-vocal sources of magic, such as Library books. If the effect's intensity is determined by caster level, treat the bat as having the same level as whoever it observed creating the effect. 
- Eating the guano of a Library bat will make any character that can digest it extremely ill (disadvantage to everything) for 24 hours. At the end of this period, the character gains a random mutation, which has roughly even odds of being beneficial in nature. One in four members of the Paper Tiger tribe have undergone this transformation.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

DIY and/or Die

Zak S. just swept the Ennies with Red & Pleasant Land, an indie RPG setting that has raised the bar for the whole industry. He also wrote a post that every tabletop gamer who is thinking about how to get some cash for all this work they do on their hobby should read. Go read it if you haven't and then come back here. Don't worry, it's short.

If you didn't do that, the main point of the post is that this is the ideal time to put out whatever weird thing you've been pouring yourself into, instead of trying to worry about what people will pay you for. Just keep the team small and you'll get a big enough chunk of the profits that you'll end up doing better than you would working directly for Hasbro or Paizo, and they wouldn't let you get away with doing what you want to do anyway.

I have a few of those projects going on (though none of them have good names yet). I've posted about a couple; the Kellerlabyrinth and the last stand of the Maya are playable at this point, but not publishable. Kellerlabyrinth is closer, mostly because it's smaller.

There's also a desert city that I've been dicking around with for YEARS now because I knew I wasn't that good a DM when it occurred to me, and it felt like too good an idea to not get right. Petra is a ruined city carved into a desert canyon in Jordan by an ancient people called the Nabateans. The one I'm designing is the city of which Petra was a pale reflection, built by enslaved elementals for a society of sorcerers. They disappeared when they were imprisoned in a time loop centuries ago, and are only just now beginning to escape back into the players' timeline. I've been working on random tables to come up with individual sorcerers and their vaults, which function as microdungeons that are a bit like a community of less detailed seclusiums (that I'm pretty sure actually CAN be built in a half hour or so).

My youngest solo project is the hyperdimensional library of an insane god that I get to fill with all the mindfuckery as I can come up with.

I'm also working on a new project with David McGrogan and Matthew Adams (I think? David says "He is definitely interested") that I don't know if I'm supposed to say anything specific about yet. In Yoon-Suin, I only did the map (easily the least impressive part of a great project) and told David what font to use for the headline text, but this time he's got me doing all of the graphic design (which was probably the second least impressive aspect of that book) and I'm stoked about it.

Time to get to work.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

FASERIP of Future Past

I’ve been spending my free time for the last couple weeks learning to run Marvel Super Heroes RPG/FASERIP, and getting ready to run a Days of Future Past style campaign for some friends. As anyone reading this is surely aware, the story depicts a possible future in which the Sentinels have taken over, killing pretty much every hero of our time and setting up an anti-mutant police state.

There’s a couple reasons I chose that setting instead of Marvel's contemporary stuff:
it facilitates sandbox play by forcing players to take the initiative in order to survive (making my job easier), and it means there aren’t a whole lot of contemporary characters running around, giving me more room to improvise.

Also it helps that there’s a series of four very easy to find modules written specifically to emulate the story. MX1-4, starting with a setting book called Nightmares of Future Past. I’m not sure how closely I’ll be sticking to the series; MX1 is basically a sandbox and MX2 just introduces a major complication to shake things up and lets the PCs do whatever they want with that, but the last two get pretty railroady. Even those two have some pretty good ideas, so I’m not ruling out using or cannibalizing those adventures. It just depends on what the players get up to on their own.

A few other settings that would make for a good superhero sandbox:

Sakaar a.k.a. Planet Hulk is fucking made for it. It’s essentially a world built around the idea of the Hulk being Conan in it. The TPB even has an appendix with a sort of gazetteer for the whole region, with special focus on the capital city. There’s plenty of oppression for Good Guys to take on, and the order is fragile enough that villainous types can probably figure out a way to make a power grab. 

Evan at In Places Deep went into some detail about a city completely controlled by crime lords, where street-level masked crimefighters are relatively free to do their thing.

At the opposite end of the power scale, cosmic-level heroes could be a lot of fun in a Stars Without Number style sci-fi sandbox. Either Galactus appears to be dead and the PCs are his ex-heralds or the PCs are the last surviving members of the Green Lantern Corps. Or you could do basically the same thing with Dr. Strange in a multiverse setting.

Post-nuclear wasteland. Maybe super-powered mutants first appear as a natural result of the irradiated hellscape, maybe they were always there and the final battle in Kingdom Come went really really badly. Either way, humanity has become an endangered species and splintered into tribes like the ones in Fury Road but each with their own super-powered champions/god-kings.

You could go back to WW2 and do an Inglorious Bastards starring Captain America type thing, where the PCs are dropped somewhere in France and ordered to just give the Axis a headache however they see fit. Throw in some super-scientists and occultists and you’ve got yourself a party. If the morality there isn't dubious enough for you, try doing the exact same thing with Vietnam.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Birds, bats, bees, pteranodons. Two spells.

This post will eventually have something to do with RPGs. Probably.

To the best of our knowledge, true flight has only evolved a few times on Earth. Bats, birds, now-extinct pterosaurs, and flying insects have all filled similar evolutionary niches, and it's likely they all got there in similar ways.

We understand the evolution of birds the best of those four groups (or at least think we do), due to well-documented fossil evidence uncovered in the 20th century. Tiny cousins of Velociraptor started climbing trees and ambushing whatever walked underneath. The ones who could jump farther from their hiding spots were less likely to starve and more likely to reproduce, so scales gradually grew into longer and softer feathers that produced a gliding effect. All the climbing made forelimbs longer and stronger, until they became capable of making the transition to true wings.

Bats followed a similar evolutionary pattern, starting with a tiny tree-dwelling mammal, and making the transition from climber, to glider, to flier. A minority of biologists believes, based on similarities in the brain structure of Megachiroptera (flying foxes) to that found in primates (and no other mammals), that these giant fruit bats might be more closely related to us than to the brown bats we have throughout North America. It's a bit of an odd hypothesis, but if it turned out to be true, it would mean that the traits necessary for flight evolved twice within the class mammalia, through an identical series of adaptations, arriving at close to the same result. These separate lineages would also explain why Megachiroptera are the only bats that don't use echolocation.

Flying squirrels aren't closely related to bats, but could they be on their way to becoming bats?

Pterosaurs presumably evolved from tiny lizards under similar environmental pressures, but paleontologists can't come to an agreement on which tiny lizards they evolved from.

The first animals to master flight on this planet were the arthropods that would later become flying insects. Insect wings were once thought to have developed from gills like those found in mayflies, but a general consensus is forming that the first flying insects descended from the trees in a similar progression to those of birds and bats.

Flying squirrels aren't the only animals currently at the gliding stage of this process. Flying snakes are well documented in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, (where the tallest trees are less densely packed than the ones in South America, an environment which seems to favor prehensile tails and other climbing adaptations over gliding adaptations) and have the ability to flatten themselves by sucking in their abdomens and spreading out their ribs, allowing them to slither absurd distances through the sky like flexible, elongated frisbees. They're able to produce lift and even change direction slightly, in a way that the Department of Defense is spending money to try and understand. If their descendants ever work out how to turn around in mid-air, actual flying vipers will suddenly be a thing. Their scales may even soften and elongate like theropod scales did, eventually becoming feathers.

I want to know how obvious the ability to fly would be to a biologist looking at a flying snake's bones. I want to know if this adaptation once existed elsewhere, among other snake species in similar environments, and paleontologists just haven't caught on yet. I want to know if there was a time when the tree canopy in South and Central America was much thinner than it is today. I want to know if ancient Olmecs were used to looking up to watch feathered serpents trace strange paths through the sky.

Archaeologists don't agree on how important the feathered serpent concept was to the Olmecs. The Mayan version, a deity known as Kukulkan to the Yucatec Maya and as Q'uq'umatz to the K'iche Maya, doesn't appear to have reached its eventual level of importance until the Post-Classic era. The Aztecs called it Quetzalcoatl, this time one of the three or four most important beings in their religion.

Think about a telephone game that goes on for more than two thousand years, starting with sightings of what looks a lot like a mysterious kingdom of magic flying snakes (which are eventually outcompeted by their much larger climbing cousins and go extinct). Written language exists for at least part of that history, but knowledge is tightly controlled and mystified by the religious class.

At some point, other serpent deities showed up. All of them could fly. Vision serpents were said to dwell in the topmost branches of the Maya version of the world tree, and acted as conduits between the physical world and the spirit realms. Lots of Maya rituals involved getting the attention of vision serpents by bleeding all over specially prepared paper, which was then burnt. The bleeding man or woman (probably experiencing drug and endorphin induced hallucinations) would then watch the smoke from the offering form a serpent, and either a god or an ancestor would pop his or her head out of its mouth to tell the bleeder something crucially important.

There's also the fire serpents, or Xiuhcouatl. The Aztecs saw them partly as weapons of Huitzilopochtli, their patron god of war and the sun. Fire serpents were also revered by Post-Classic Maya warrior cults, who also depicted them as weapons of the sun. Two really obvious ways to use fire serpents in a D&D game would be to reskin salamanders as Xiuhcouatl and/or the spell meteor swarm as rain of serpents or something like that.

My JOESKY TAX is a pair of spells or rituals related to vision serpents:

Call Vision Serpent (Level 1)
This ritual is performed whenever some needs to contact the dead or divine for advice in some dilemma or other. The spellcaster prepares a pile of papers with arcane diagrams and secret names, as well as the name of the spirit or deity being summoned. Whoever wishes to commune with the spirits must offer up the majority of their blood, allowing themselves to be drugged, and then piercing and cutting themselves in the most painful ways availabl, allowing their blood to pour onto the papers. The visionary must save or die from blood loss during this process (okay if you wanna be a big softy about it, drop 1d20 from their maximum HP instead; this still might kill them or nerf them forever, but this ritual isn't meant to be performed lightly). Even if this save succeeds, the bloodletting process reduces the character's current HP to 1.

The papers are gathered into a bowl when it looks like the visionary is getting ready to pass out from blood loss (and drugs), and lit. The plume of smoke takes the shape of a serpent, visible only to the recipient. The serpent, having fed on the blood of the recipient, calls forth the spirit or deity that was specifically asked for. This entity will patiently listen to the dilemma of the vision's recipient, then respond in one of the following ways (referee's choice or random):
>the entity will share the location of an object or NPC that will be crucial in solving the problem.
>the entity will reveal hidden information about what's going on behind the scenes.
>the entity will directly advise the recipient to make a particular decision (usually good advice).
>the entity will reveal one or more secret weaknesses in the recipient's enemy.
>the entity will angrily accuse the recipient of wasting their time, and vanish without helping at all. This only happens if the entity feels it is being called upon to address something below its station (a king to settle a gambling debt) or outside of its divine portfolio.

Serpent Road (Level 1)
Spellcasters are also able to convince the vision serpent to act as a planar gateway for the subject of a nearly identical ritual, though a fresh human heart from a willing donor must be added to the sacrifice. Assuming the aspiring planar traveller makes their save during the bloodletting, they are devoured by the serpent, which appears to them as a vast smoke-walled tunnel. To observers, a plume of smoke appears to completely envelop the traveller and then disappear, taking the traveler with it. The serpent then spits out the traveler (along with any possessions being carried) in whichever supernatural realm was named in the blood-soaked ritual papers. The subject will be weakened (1 HP) and somewhat disoriented from the ritual, but the experience is sobering enough that the character won't be too high to function.

This ritual is a two-way ticket, and the vision serpent will facilitate the subject's return as soon as some condition, predetermined by the spellcaster preparing the ritual papers, is met. It's worth noting that the diagrams and names on the papers are incredibly complicated, and that it would generally be pretty easy for the the spellcaster to lie to the traveller about either the destination or the return condition.

The spell can also be used to provide simultaneous travel for a group, by providing one sacrificial heart for each traveller. All group members must perform the bloodletting portion of the ritual, including the saving throw and HP loss.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


When the Shattered Isles appeared in the world of the gremlins, these bat-like creatures were in the middle of a war that prevented them from forming an effective defense against the saurian raiders. Many gremlins were taken as slaves, and others made their way to the Isles on their own, seeking to rescue or avenge their own.

Centuries later, there are almost as many gremlins living deep in the jungle in their tree-towns, as there are enslaved in the saurian cities. Skilled trades are considered to be as honorable as the arts of trickery in their culture, and these towns often include blacksmiths, alchemists, and other specialists.

Gremlins favor a weapon called a hook-chain, consisting of a miner’s pick attached by a 15’ chain to a heavy steel claw that doubles as a grappling hook (yeah I know but I don't think it counts as a kusari gama unless it has a solid weight at the end where the claw is on these). Sometimes, when stealth is required, the chain links are individually wrapped in leather; an industrious gremlin can accomplish this task in a single night. These elaborate weapons are justifiably prized by gremlin heroes and adventurers.

Gremlins are some of the most individualistic people on the Isles, possibly resulting from their relatively short lifespans. They feel that life is literally a test, and those who find a way to prosper are said to be One With the Shadow. Throughout their history, gremlin cultures have worshipped the Shadow in the same way that human cultures have worshipped the Sun. It’s the Shadow that protects them and keeps them hidden from predator and prey alike, and judges the lives of gremlins upon their deaths. Those who are found worthy, are permitted to spend eternity in the shadow’s embrace.

They make daily devotions to their shadow deity at sunset, which usually begins the day for those free gremlins who aren’t making accommodations for vision-dependent companions. Slaves, of course, are forced to keep the same sleep cycle as their saurian masters.

It’s much less common for enslaved gremlins to legally earn their freedom than their goliath peers, but those who do often find themselves too enamored with the luxuries of the big city (as well as disconnected from their people’s traditions) to join their jungle-dwelling kin. Others choose to operate out of the cities when working to liberate their brethren. These freedom fighters must maintain absolute secrecy or face public execution by torture, which has been known to last for days.

>average height/weight: 4’6”, 80 lbs
>adventuring age: 8-45
>4d6 AWR, 4d6 AGI, 2d6 END, 2d6 STR
>echolocation & supersonic speech
>sound-based attacks do double damage to gremlins
>extremely loud noises (explosions and whatnot) can cause paralyzing pain
>+1 bonus with chain weapons
>backstab as thief
>HP, combat, and skills advance as thief

Saturday, April 11, 2015


The saurians were the only intelligent life form on the Shattered Isles before the place became unstuck from its original universe. They call themselves the One True Race and dismissively refer to everyone not from the isles as ephemerals. The fact that several other races have immigrated to the isles and not disappeared along with their worlds annoys saurian philosophers to no end, but the rest of their society is quick to capitalize on the opportunities this represents whenever possible.

The first immigrants to the islands were the equally xenophobic insectoids, many of whom never meet anyone from outside their own massive tower-hives. While these powerful psychics aren’t trusted by the saurians (or anyone else for that matter), their chitin weapons, armor, and tools are highly valued in saurian culture, so the insectoids are left alone for the most part. 

In their original hives, the insectoids form a hive mind dominated by the queen of that tower-hive. The insectoid worldview is, if anything, even narrower than that of the saurians. Beyond the hive itself, there is nothing worth caring about except threats to and opportunities for that hive. No two hives have ever been known to work together against a common threat.

These beings are often sent by their queen to trade goods with the saurians for food and other useful items, but they’re hardly ever comfortable with the task, and are highly anxious to get back. Insectoid adventurers usually come in three varieties: those performing some function for their queen, those whose hives have been destroyed, and those who’ve been exiled for some truly heinous act (a fate much worse than death).

Note: This is intended for the type of ruleset that uses race as class. If you're using some other D&D that has half orc bards or whatever running around, you can either: 1. let this be the only racial class in your campaign or 2. just ignore the part about automatically advancing as a mage.
>Avg. height/weight: 6’/160 lbs
>Adventuring Age: 10 — 30
>Ability Scores: 4d6 INT, 2d6 END, 2d6 STR
>mantis-like forelimbs are natural weapons, flight at normal walking speed, natural armor as chain mail
>natural weapons act as scythes, or if you use damage-by-class, natural weapon attacks do fighter-level damage
>hit points, saving throws, and other mechanical stuff advances as a magic user (ignore the spells per day chart)
>psychic powers instead of vancian spells
>using powers requires a successful willpower saving throw (or save vs. magic or mind save or whatever); if the save fails the power still has its effect as normal, but costs 1d8 HP (1d2 in my house rules which use super low hit points in comparison to normal D&D)

Telepathy: Allows the insectoid to communicate without speaking at a distance up to 1 mile or to read surface thoughts of unwilling targets (they notice a tingling sensation). Once formed, the connection lasts for one hour. This ability can also be used to detect the presence, number, and relative location of intelligent and semi-intelligent beings in a 60’ radius.

Telekinesis: Allows insectoids to pick up objects weighing up to 50 lbs per level with their minds. These objects can be “thrown” to do 1d6 damage per 50 lbs, using INT for the attack roll. This ability can also be used to perform delicate operations like picking locks. This would probably require some sort of a skill check but every version of this game seems to have it's own version of that mechanic so every DM will probably have to figure out their own thing. If your game usually uses DEX for lockpicking, use INT instead. In my game you already use INT combined with something called cunning (advances kinda like a reflex save), so I have insectoids use insight (advances kinda like a will save) in conjunction with INT.

Psychic Shield: Protects the insectoid from hostile psychic powers and provides a +4 bonus to armor class. Lasts 10 minutes.

Hypnotism: A chosen victim must save or obey the insectoid’s every command. Victims are allowed another save once per day, and any time they are ordered to do something against their personal moral code. This only works on intelligent beings, and only one being can be hypnotized at a time.

Phantasm: The PC describes an illusion that fools all the senses of any creature, in normal range of those senses, that fails its save. If it seems reasonable that the targets would be scared off by the illusion, then they're saving to avoid running away in terror. The phantasm is under the control of the insectoid (who has no problem maintaining the illusion while fighting or even walking and chewing gum) for 10 minutes, at the end of which it dissolves into nothingness.

Clairvoyance: The insectoid can see and hear through solid objects at a distance of 60’. This ability is blocked by 2’ of solid stone or any thickness of lead. This ability is only active as long as the PC is actively concentrating on it, rather than moving or performing any other actions.

Precognition: The insectoid can see what would happen to it up to one minute in the future, as a direct consequence of performing a particular action. If the answer is unclear to the DM, so is the vision the insectoid receives.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


The elephant-headed goliaths make up one of several intelligent species found on the Shattered Isles. These eight-foot tall nomads are the accidental exiles of an ephemeral kingdom which actually tried to conquer the One True People. As laughable as that may seem, the islands were in danger of being overrun when the world of these giants, as well as the supply chain for their invasion, came to an abrupt end (from the point of view of the saurians, anyway). Now, most of the great-grandchildren of these warriors survive by hunting the largest dinosaurs on the island. While most goliaths prefer to follow the movements of their prey, rather than to build permanent homes for themselves, they are known to build elaborate underground shrines to their ancestors, which they return to on a regular basis.

Goliaths revere their living elders as well as the spirits of their departed ancestors, and both are often looked to for advice and protection. It’s unclear to outsiders whether or not any communication is actually happening, as the initiated tend to think of every dream and minor hallucination as a message from ever-watchful ancestors. The greatest tragedy imaginable, from their perspective, was the day their entire people was cut off from the generations of ancestral spirits that remain in their home world. Many goliaths have responded to this horror by replacing their traditional faith with messianic cults. These cults agree that a chosen one will arise or arrive one day, though their beliefs differ sharply in whether this savior will return them to their original world or deliver them from this living hell by bringing about the End of All Things.

Smaller groups of goliaths are sometimes overtaken by slaving parties, which sell them off for heavy labor or to fight as gladiators in saurian fighting pits. It’s not unheard of for goliaths to earn their freedom, at which point many decide to continue to work or fight in the cities, this time for a good deal of pay. 

While most goliaths detest slavery on principle, that doesn’t mean they’re above bullying smaller, weaker peoples into cooperation (for their own good, of course).

Note: This is intended for the type of ruleset that uses race as class (Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess spring to mind). If you're using some other D&D that has gnomish priests of Thor or whatever running around, you can either: 1. let this be the only racial class in your campaign or 2. just ignore everything after the natural weapon attacks.
>Avg. Height/Weight: 8’/400 lbs
>Ability scores: 4d6 STR, 4d6 END (PCs should only roll their attributes after choosing to play as goliaths)
>Adventuring Age: 20 — 90
>+1 to attacks with natural weapons (tusks & trunk)
>advantage to dirty fighting
>free attack on kill, up to a number of attacks equal to level.
>Use the stats for a fighter or a barbarian (if your game has barbarians) for mechanical stuff (hit dice, combat bonuses, etc). If you’re using weapon-based damage, tusk attacks do the same damage as a spear.