Monday, August 29, 2016

Glass Rook Tower & the Astral Spellhold

I'm really happy with the theoretical structure I laid out in this last post, but I needed to see how parts of it would work in practice. So this map right here is basically a rough draft of the glass rooks’ first configuration, the only one that connects directly to the material world. Since it’s configuration 1, the room numbers are presented in a sensible order, but the rest of the configs will be shuffled up as thoroughly as possible.

It’s also my first attempt to depict lateral distance using the same color-coding system I normally use for vertical depth. I think that aspect turned out pretty well.

I must be some kind of idiot, because it didn’t occur to me that the color thing would work until I started sketching things out. I thought it was going to be a standard metroidvania style side-view like the one I did for Peridot,* how dumb is that?

Also, it looks like I forgot to draw stairs between rooms 6 & 7, but I left them out intentionally. You just can’t get to 7 unless you can fly, at least not in this configuration. Or climb I guess but I’d make the walls too smooth and slippery for that to be likely.

Oh and most people reading this have probably seen my posts on G+ and/or Facebook about it, but for those of you who haven’t: I released a pay-what-you-want pdf on DriveThruRPG a week ago called Escape from the Astral Spellhold.

It’s a short, ruleset-neutral trick/trap/puzzle dungeon with a house rule on almost every page and a tiny bit of worldbuilding thrown in for good measure. It’s got clockwork robots, a cranky old wizard, and a completely gratuitous dick monster attached to a Michael Moorcock reference. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever put a dragon in any Dungeons & Dragons adventure I’ve run and it totally ate a dude during the playtest.

Full disclosure: I really just wanted something I could use to showcase my layout skills, but a few people seem to really dig the actual content so there you go.

Download it. Talk about it. Gimme money if you want to and can. If you have a project in the works, and you want it to use functional graphic design that actually improves the game, hit me up.

*this is the one I mean. with the spiral staircase that was apparently designed for people under 3 feet tall. whoops.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Glass Ravens, Combination Locks, and an Unseen Terror

If Blogger’s pageview counter thingy is even slightly accurate, then people reading this are aware that Patrick Stuart has again taken this glass dungeon mapping style (coined by him) I’ve been fucking around with and run with it.

Several features of this new concept jump out at me and scream MAKE ME REAL AND COMPLETE ME I MUST LIVE:

1) The dungeon changes completely based on the characters’ actions.
  -(corollary) The main navigational challenge is figuring out how those changes work and how to direct them with specific intent.
  -(corollary) Certain areas would be impossible to access from certain others, depending on which configuration is currently active.

2) At least one of the dungeon’s reasons for being is to imprison a powerful demon at its center. This is a trope, obviously, but combined with some other elements of the concept, it hits a very particular nostalgic note for me. I’ll explain this in a bit.

3) Whenever the dungeon shifts around them, the party remains stationary in relation to it. As Patrick explained it, room 12 is still room 12.

4) Despite this, the overall nature of the dungeon changes so drastically that the usable features of room 12 in one configuration will be different from its features in any other configuration.
  -(corollary) This concept would require a greater variety of maps and mapping styles than any single adventure location I’ve ever seen. A tower might work better, in terms of clarity, as a cutaway side-view, for example. Which means the whole thing will be super fun to map out.

5) There’s an implicit timer involved, because there’s a chance of some terrifying outsider finding its way into the dungeon every time everything shifts. An adventuring party could theoretically just wander around in there getting more and more confused forever, but in practice they’d eventually be overwhelmed by all the crazy monsters they’re letting in.

Some of the points that occurred to me while I was reading his post:

1) Variable topology can be used to make the entire place function as a giant combination lock, in which every dungeon shift basically maps to a number in the combination lock metaphor. This is related to the nostalgia I mentioned.

2) Whatever features the PCs have to interact with to change the dungeon can be made possible in only one possible configuration, and merely hinted at in all the others. These “switches” could be designed to match the configuration they work in thematically, so they act as clues as to which configuration allows you to use each switch.

3) This whole concept can easily incorporate Patrick’s original glass dungeon post, simply by using that concept for one of the configurations.

4) These mechanics can be used to forcibly split the party and make reuniting them into another challenge all its own. For example, let’s say they want to get from configuration 4 to configuration 10 for some reason or other, but they can’t do so directly because of my second point. They need to activate some sort of switch in room 3 configuration 4 to get to configuration 6, where they can reach configuration 10 using a switch in room 8. But there’s no path between rooms 8 and 3 in configuration 6. So they’d have to split up, with one or more of them (let’s call them team A) moving to room 8 in configuration 4 while team B goes to room 3 to shift over to configuration 6, so team A can hit the switch in room 8 and move everyone to configuration 10.

I’m not sure I’d understand that example at all if anyone said it to me so here’s a quick topological diagram:


So here’s the nostalgia thing I promised to explain. The name of my blog and the banner at the top are references to the shared universe of Zork and Enchanter, two series of text adventures published by Infocom in the 80s. These games did a MUCH better job of simulating the most interesting aspects of D&D than any computer games TSR or WOTC ever published.

They did this by focusing on the real core mechanic of every single TTRPG ever made: the DM (or in this case the computer) describes your characters’ immediate surroundings, and prompts you to take some action. You couldn’t get far without gathering more information by examining just about everything your in-game avatar saw. The games are all available to play for free these days, and walkthroughs are a google search away if you get stuck. You know, if you’re interested.

Anyway, there’s one particular puzzle in Enchanter (probably the easiest and trope-iest entry in either series, if you’d like to try these games out and are wondering where to start) that I couldn’t help thinking about, reading Patrick’s post.

As I remember it, there’s a hidden area under a castle that contains 1) a powerful spell you need to learn to win the game, and 2) an invisible apocalyptic threat known only as the Unseen Terror. This area was a complex of several identical rooms, cut off from the room containing both the spell and the Terror.

There are an old scrap of parchment and a well-used pencil on the floor of the entrance room to this complex. Examining the parchment reveals a flowchart-style map of this small area, with connections between the rooms drawn in pencil. The map shows the treasure room with the spell and the Terror, and is really the only way you’d know that room was there at all. The pencil and its eraser are both nearly spent, with only three uses left of each.

the map on the parchment or paper or whatever it was as viewed through a modern emulator
If you connect the treasure room (P) to the rest of the complex (which you must do to get the spell you must learn), the Unseen Terror immediately takes advantage of this and tries to escape, moving from room to room at the same speed you make your own moves. This, plus the worn out pencil, means you have a very limited number of moves in which to connect that room, get the spell scroll, and re-imprison the Terror without also trapping yourself. Variable topology as a combination lock.

Now, I haven’t played this game since I was a little kid. I couldn’t tell you exactly how old I was, but I was young enough that I was playing the game with my older brother because I couldn’t read very well yet. And I don’t remember much of anything from my childhood. And I didn’t need to look up any of that description except for the screenshot of the map. This puzzle made such an impression because it left me wanting so much more.

And this Glass Ravens concept of Patrick’s can be built up using a much more complex version of the same basic puzzle mechanic as a framework. Fuck yeah.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Nested Things

This is a thing that is part of a thing which will eventually be part of another thing. More info on these things to follow.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Keeping Towns Weird

Every D&D town should have a couple of weird NPCs that use some sort of magic or super-science as part of their trade and daily routine. This is a True Fact and is not up for debate.

For the hexcrawl I’m running now, I was initially planning on writing up a couple of those weird NPCs and then assuming everything else in town was fairly normal (well, normal for a town of pseudo-Japanese dinosaur people anyway).

I was also only planning on including two settlements. With this default method, more settlements = more prep work.

Instead, I’m testing out this subroutine where I have a list of skilled trades that are represented in each of these towns, writing up some sort of weirdness for ALL of the trades I’m listing. Each NPC tradesman has a 1 in 6 (maybe 1 in 4 we’ll see) chance of being weird, rolled when the PCs first meet that NPC. Otherwise, their businesses operate pretty much how you’d expect. I’m sure there’s going to be plenty of trades I forget for now, so this list might grow. I’m intentionally leaving out food producers for the sake of my own sanity.

Between this method, the philosophy table (from which I can pretty effortlessly extrapolate the personality of the ruler and the laws of the town), and the events table (which, for me at least, tends to impact the game a lot more directly than a traditional rumor table, which is good), more settlements = more emergent complexity (another good thing) without any extra prep work at all (even better).

Also it occurs to me that if I was running a game in a borderland area between two (or more) dominant cultures, prepping one set of those three tables for each culture would be a really easy way to make sure they’re distinct from each other, while still baking enough variety into the towns themselves to keep them interesting. 


Slave Merchant- Possesses a gateway that leads to whatever location in the world is currently experiencing the most human(oid) suffering. She doesn’t like to go through it herself, but is always sending groups through, and there’s always plenty of citizens who could use the money. In my game, the continent is currently in 16th century Earth (nicknamed the General Crisis by historians), so the gateway could lead to pretty much any place I feel like.

Gunsmith- In addition to regular flintlock weapons and ammunition, produces exploding “dragon shot” bullets that explode on contact, doing an extra 2d8 damage in a 15’ radius. A critical failure would mean the bullet explodes inside the firearm instead, destroying the gun and hurting or killing the marksman. They also have a chance to explode if the person carrying them takes fire damage. Dragon shots can be used with slings, but don’t gain enough speed to explode on contact. I could see clever players setting something/someone on fire and then using these with a sling— in that case I would rule that they explode every time.

Blacksmith- His magic hammer, which allows him to work at a superhuman pace, has been stolen. He suspects his estranged brother, the master blacksmith in another settlement, of being behind the theft.

Gardener- Grows three varieties of lotus, each of which is a save-or-die poison when eaten but can be distilled into potions.
Tiger Lotus (black & orange): Hallucinogen that allows the drinker to see into the 4th dimension for 2 hrs, but forget most of it when they come down. The PC essentially sees their entire life laid out before them at once. Save vs magic to remember one useful thing from either the future or the past. The player gets to choose what it is but it must be something that their character could potentially learn or experience at some point in the future. This can be presented as a statement (there’s treasure buried under a tree in the town square) or a question (fuck you dm how do i open this stupid magic door). Since this information is remembered from the PC’s past or future perspective, it also has a 1 in 6 chance of being completely wrong.
Fire Lotus (red & yellow): X-ray vision that can’t be turned off for 4 hrs.
Midnight Lotus (black & purple): 150 lb telekinesis for 30 min.
She also sells these potions for 500 sp each.

Beekeeper- The honey produced by this beehive can be rubbed into open wounds to heal all HP damage the character has taken in the last day. Does not cause limbs or organs to grow back, just heals over the stump or eye socket or whatever. The patient also permanently gains 2 points in a random physical attribute (STR DEX CON) and loses 2 points in a random mental attribute (INT WIS CHA). No known alchemical process can reproduce these effects, even starting with the same unusual mixture of pollen the bees gather in this area. Always leaves badass scars.

Chandler- A holy man whose candles incorporate incense, dyes, and carved sigils to reproduce the effects of certain spells (beneficial first or second level divine spells) whenever they are lit. Users need to spend at least ten minutes holding the candle (the dripping wax hurts in a narrative sense but causes no actual HP damage) and meditating on the flame to receive the spell’s effects.

Silk Farmer- Whispers to his specially bred and trained silkworms, who follow his direction to weave their own silks into finished garments of the finest silk, dyed in impossibly intricate patterns. He cannot cast or even truly learn magic, but can direct the worms to weave spell effects directly into the fabric under a spellcaster’s close supervision.

Printer- In addition to the usual weekly propaganda rag, she can produce monoprint maps that change based on the viewer’s location like the GPS on your smartphone. They do not show secret areas unless it’s one of those deals where the door itself is obvious but the way to open it isn’t.

Fletcher- His arrows have been imbued with a sort of intelligence, and will change course to fly toward anyone whose name is written on their shafts. The name ritual must be performed by a magic user at the end of a ten minute ritual. Some of his arrowheads are specially forged to carry poison, but he keeps those in the back and doesn’t show them to customers he doesn’t trust.

Jeweler- His grandmother was a sorcerer of some power, who left him with a set of twelve iridescent luckstones. She also showed him how to turn them into jewelry that grants the wearer a +1 bonus to AC and all saving throws. Bonuses from multiple luckstones stack. He’s only made a few of these over the years despite many offers from would-be customers, and still has 5 of the luckstones left.

Beastmaster- Breeds, trains, and sells a (mostly) randomized dinosaur species. The animal’s size is tiny, it is about as intelligent as a human child, and can speak and even learn new languages.

Watchmaker- Has been experimenting with clockwork robotics. Could use the help of a magic user in researching artificial intelligence (treat as assisted spell research) and would offer that magic user a serious discount on these steampunk golems in the future. In addition, the grateful watchmaker would count any money spent by the magic user on this research towards the first purchase.

Glass Blower- Her elaborate, sculptural hookahs take advantage of hyperdimensional geometry and their compositions seem to change depending on the angle they’re being viewed from. Every time someone smokes stardust out of it, roll to see what happens to them. 

  1. PC becomes host to their own future self. The entity refuses to directly reveal secrets of the future to their hosts, but sometimes whispers hints to them about how best to deal with their immediate situation. Once per day, the host can try to commune with the entity. This has a 2 in 3 chance of one roll automatically achieving a critical success. The number of uses per day increases by one each time the host levels up without the entity being banished or dispelled in some way. Each use triggers a save vs. madness with advantage; failure means the entity has partially taken over and the host must save to avoid it taking over during any period of increased danger or stress (as defined by the dm). If it takes over, it decides to proactively kill the viewer’s allies, since it remembers them betraying it at some point in the viewer’s future.
  2. Mirror image, six images with no duration limit. These are alternate versions of the smoker pulled from adjacent realities, like the LotFP version of the spell. They’re usually annoyed about their predicament and they argue with each other and the PC a lot, but they have no choice but to follow until they all die horrible deaths one by one. The PC needs to make a wisdom save each time this happens or permanently lose one point of wisdom (because it’s driving the character slowly insane). If you’re using something like Arnold K’s insanities table you can have the player roll on that instead.
  3. The PC is physically transported to the upside down or the loud side of voivodja or carcosa or whatever for the duration of their high (4 hours). If the rest of the party wants to follow, each PC that takes a hit automatically gets this result. If anyone dies there, their bodies and possessions immediately return to wherever they were when they smoked.
  4. The PC gains the ability to sidestep between this and other possible worlds for the next hour, dragging their companions with them, but does not have complete control of the ability. Each time the PC decides to use the ability, they may change one thing about the world, but the DM also changes one thing, and doesn’t tell them what it is. Whatever version of reality the PCs wind up in at the end of the hour is where they’re stuck, i.e. all changes made by the high PC and the DM during this hour are permanent.

There are more I'd like to come up with something for but this is taking too long to write and you get the idea.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Tale of Potential Poop

In Sunday night's Black Hack game, the party (Allison the 12 year old 21st century alice, Kalasso the wandering saurian priest, and Chevalier d'Eon the mage) made their way to one of the saurian towns in the Hojo Mori rainforest. I didn't have any specific NPCs or events in mind, so it was pretty much all driven by the players and the dice.

The guards stopped them on the way in, and Kalasso almost immediately asked if anyone inside needed healing. It turned out that there was something wrong with the local lord's heir. Before approaching the castle though, they wanted to go find a beastmaster and see about incubating this rotjaw egg they'd acquired previously. After a brief discussion, they elected to have a sort of coffin-cart made, in which they'd simulate a rotjaw nest by filling it with dung and mulch, and bury the egg in that. Then they got distracted by a crazy-eyed fortune teller.

Once some gems were sold off and a deal had been struck with a local carpenter, they went up to the castle. Inside, they learned that the hatchling had been in a coma for a week now, and the court healer was stumped. Kalasso examined the patient but failed to make a concrete diagnosis, even with the comprehensive book on jungle diseases that Allison suddenly realized she had stashed at the bottom of her backpack.* Then Chevalier thought to cast detect magic, and discovered that this was actually a curse designed to look like a disease. The party went to ask the crazy fortune teller what to do, and she told them to talk to the spirits in the caves at the other end of the map.

*If you aren't familiar with the Alice class from A Red & Pleasant Land, they have this "exasperation" ability where if they get really stuck, the situation changes in their benefit in some randomly determined dream-logic kind of way.

So the plan at this point was to stay the night at the inn, then go pick up the completed incubation wagon from the carpenter's shop, find some farmers to fill it with fertilizer, and start a three day journey to the spirit caves. This plan was derailed when I rolled for that morning's weather and got "flash flood." When the PCs got to the carpenter's shop, he and his family were bugging out in high quality canoes. The PCs found a boat in the attic that was big enough for them and the (still empty) wagon and got out alive, but headed in the opposite direction from where they wanted to go.

So now I have a group of players with "gather a big pile of shit and rotting plant matter" as an explicit short-term goal.


1 The local lord's hatchling has been in a mysterious coma for 3d4 days. The healers in town are all completely stumped because it's actually a magical curse. The hatchling will have a 1 in 8 chance of dying every day after day 14.

2 The town is about to begin its week long Festival of Ancestors. The sequence is: opening procession, drug fueled partying, ceremonial defeat of death & peak partying, final night devoted to somber reflection.

3 A famous acting troupe is in town. Their play recounts the events of one of Hojo Mori's legendary exploits and takes advantage of illusion magic. The conquest of the goliaths and the binding of the cave spirits are popular subjects.

4 The town is currently besieged by whichever of the other local lords likes this one the least. The two sides are evenly matched and waiting for each other to make a move when the PCs show up.

The town is celebrating the hatching of the lord's healthy new heir. The egg has been secretly been exchanged with the offspring of a sorceress and a powerful demon.

6 Slave revolt! These towns usually keep a variety of species as slaves. If the lord of this town doesn't believe in slavery, the saurian citizens are rioting.

7 The majority of a hunting party has been slain by a jungle tyrant. Their funeral is today. The ceremony is a sky burial on the roof of the castle's tallest tower, with the whole town watching the sky lizards in mournful silence.

8 The local lord is hosting a Tournament of Champions tomorrow. The prize is an amulet that gives its wearer a +2 bonus to all saving throws. It also has the secret, nearly undetectable power to act as both eyes and ears for the lord.

9 An ambassador is here, with servant and bodyguards, representing one of the other lords in the region. There is a 1 in 3 chance that the ambassador is a spy and/or an assassin.

10 Grisly murder scenes are the work of an unsuspecting saurian were-raptor.

11 The town is currently rebuilding in the wake of a flash flood. Expect all goods to be sold at 1d4 times their regular prices. 1 in 3 specialty items simply aren't available right now.

12 The eggs of four peasant families have gone missing over the past three weeks. The party may enter but no one may leave until the culprit has been found.

13 The whole town is convinced that a local hatchling is some kind of messianic figure, loudly agreeing that obviously mundane, routine occurrences are miraculous portents.

14 The local lord's financial advisor has been assassinated. His three potential successors are the only current suspects; each has a 1 in 4 chance of being guilty (leaving open the possibility of a conspiracy or another killer with a different motive).

15 The PCs arrive in the middle of an execution. The condemned tradesman's wife is convinced that he was set up. She's right, but no one wants to hear it. The man is being executed for possession of heretical documents that were planted in his desk.

16 One of the local tradesmen is trying to unite the rest of them into a guild. The various business owners in town have agreed to hold a vote one week from today. The local lord is opposed to this, but must allow the vote or risk an uprising.

17 A goliath enslaved as a pit fighter has become so successful that he's almost ready to buy his freedom. His master would see him die before allowing that to happen, but would risk a riot if this charismatic fan favorite was openly murdered.

18 Slaves and citizens alike have been falling prey to a brain-eating plague. Every day in town, each PC has 1/12 chance of contracting the disease via mosquito bite. INCUBATION 24 hrs, DURATION 7 days, INCREMENT 6 hrs, EFFECT 1d2 permanent INT damage.

19 A power-hungry mage has recently failed to take the stronghold, causing lots of collateral damage. Expect all goods to be sold at 1d4 times their regular prices. Everyone is suspicious and resentful of all visiting spellcasters right now.

20 The local lord has recently had a mystical experience that caused them to add a core belief to their personal philosophy, possibly calling one of their previous beliefs into question. Conversations in town are dominated by this paradigm shift and its implications, which are still trickling down, slowly, to the general populace.

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Shadow of Hojo Mori

There is a continent with many names. Many of them are spoken in the language of its native inhabitants, an ancient race of saurian bipeds. They are all descriptive names, if you understand that language, and many of them are contradictory.

It is indisputable that this continent exhibits certain unique properties, but there are different points of view regarding the precise nature of these qualities. As a result, what the dwindling highland empire refers to as the One True Land, some others call Exodus or the Wandering Isles, and still others call Nexus.

There are other sentient species there too, from what may or may not be other places, depending on whether other places truly exist, which the saurians consider a matter of debate. They tend to assign this place the name of their cultural concept of hell.*

There is a dense rainforest on this continent, named for the saurian who once ruled it with an iron fist, Hojo Mori, whose kingdom died with him. His descendants seem incapable of working together, and only only hold any authority within their own isolated settlements. They are feudal lords who only promise protection to those within their own city walls, and there are many dangers in the wilderness.

The place is overrun not only with dinosaurs (or rather, what the dinosaurs may have evolved into if they had escaped extinction eons ago), but also traces of the many outside cultures that Hojo Mori brought here long ago to enslave and exploit.


Abandoned Mining Colony
  • Emerald mine, abandoned 30 years ago when the earth into which the mine was carved was granted sentience and mobility by magical eco-terrorists. Anti-bodies formed in the shape of earth elementals and slaughtered anyone who couldn’t escape in time.
  • A few of the gems are in easy-to-spot locations on the first level. The elementals, stomping around below, sound like the faint echoes of heavy industry at a distance.
  • Lower levels contain more gems guarded by elemental antibodies. The elementals are incredibly loud, and have no chance of sneaking up on anyone who isn’t deaf. They exist as part of a hive mind that allows them to co-ordinate their attacks and defense, effectively adding +2 HD in combat whenever two or more elementals are present.
  • The lowest level contains a hive-mind crystal. Destroying it triggers a massive earthquake that collapses the mine.

Bronze Jungle Tyrant
  • Inspection of this huge, elaborate statue of the regional apex predator (basically like a t-rex but more so) reveals that it’s actually a vehicle with six seats in the head.
  • The activation gem (glows a brilliant white, is the size of your head, probably being worshipped by some feral tribe of filthy humans or elves or something) is missing.

Frozen Pond
  • A mace is half-buried in middle of a wide, frozen pond. The air here isn’t any colder than the surrounding rainforest, except within a foot or so of the ice itself.
  • There’s the skeleton of a sea monster visible, trapped underneath the ice.
  • Dislodging the mace requires a successful strength check and causes the pond to instantly melt, freeing an undead two-headed plesiosaur that attacks immediately, and dropping whoever’s standing on the surface of the pond into the water.
  • Three trigger words are inscribed on the mace’s handle, in the personal cypher of a long-dead saurian artificer. When these words are muttered before striking a contiguous body of standing freshwater, the mace causes the water to change phase as appropriate. The trigger words are codes for “liquefy,” “solidify,” “vaporize,” and “condense.”
  • the trigger words can also be used to cause additional elemental damage. When attacking a human, for example, the “vaporize” trigger word would cause 1d6 fire damage as the water content of their blood turned to steam, and the “solidify” would cause 1d6 cold damage as it became ice.

Bone Dog Encampment

  • Semi-nomadic escaped slaves taken from a universe where canine bipeds naturally grow partial exoskeletons. Only females are present.
  • PC bone dogs have hit dice and combat abilities as fighters, have advantage to wisdom tests related to scent and hearing, natural armor as chain, and a bite attack (but cannot use manufactured armor). Typical NPCs have from 1–4 HD and are usually armed with clubs or spears and bolas or slings. Their leader, Argluff, has 6 HD and wields a katana.
  • Their community won’t survive past this generation on its own, as the males were all killed in a unsuccessful insurrection attempt.
  • They need help to accomplish at least one of three goals: to get home or, failing that, to find some means of perpetuating their society here; either way, they also desire genocidal vengeance against their saurian ex-captors.

*The rare exceptions are usually those that have actually proven somewhat successful in this environment, such as the insectoid hive-minds, whose name for the place translates as Newhome. The individual hives have no names — the insectoids simply think of them as either This-Hive or Not-This-Hive, which are more similar conceptually to me/you than to here/there.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Glass Caves of Carcosa

This is me fucking around with layers and stuff, trying to refine a concept I was playing with a while ago (that Patrick "Maze of the Blue Medusa" "Deep Carbon Observatory" "Fire on the Velvet Horizon" Stuart riffed off of riffed off of on his blog; odds are good that you've already read that post if you're here. if you haven't you should cause it's way better than anything I would have thought of). I wasn't planning on sharing the map originally, so I didn't give the colors much thought as I was drawing it, but now it looks like it belongs under some weird sword & planet setting like Carcosa.

I might extend it in the four cardinal directions in the next few weeks. There's a slight chance I'll get ambitious about it and start illustrating individual chambers. I might never get to any of it. WHO FUCKIN KNOWS NOT ME

Saturday, June 11, 2016

What a Hack

I like The Black Hack. I like it enough that it's become my go-to game, but not so much that I don't feel the need to change parts of it.

Mostly so I can throw away the piece of scrap paper I wrote this stuff down on, I present to you my house rules for The Black Hack. My personal Black Hack Hack, with short explanations of just what the fuck I'm thinking. If you haven't read TBH, these might not make any sense.

Rather than the d8 table in TBH, I prefer the bell curve you get from the classic 2d6 reaction table, and also would prefer charisma to be factored in. So I did the math to work (roughly) the same probabilities you get from the 2d6 into TBH’s core d20 mechanic:

Any time an NPC's reaction is in question, roll 1d20 and subtract your charisma score from that. Assign advantage or disadvantage based on particularly smart or dumb roleplaying.
-10 and lower: helpful
-9 — -5: friendly
-4 — 4: neutral
5 — 9: unfriendly
10 and higher: hostile

Notice that this makes the relevant ability score (CHA) way more important than it is in other D&D games, just like everything else you can do in this game.

I like that TBH’s “system” for advancement is more freeform than traditional XP, but it goes a little too far in that direction for me. This is my compromise:

PCs gain a level every time they complete seven distinct challenges. Challenges include any task with a legitimate chance of failure and adverse consequences. They include, but are not limited to:
  • combat, when total HD of opponents is greater than or equal to character level
  • obstacles and hazards negotiated
  • manipulation of NPCs
  • secrets discovered
This allows PCs to advance more quickly than in D&D. You could slow it down by making it every 13 or so challenges if you wanted to.

There are none. This negates an advantage of playing a fighter (or warrior or whatever), but the next thing kinda makes up for it.

This is any attack that puts the enemy at some mechanical disadvantage rather than doing direct hit point damage. This includes attempts to stun, push, trip, or disarm opponents, among other things.

Fighters roll with advantage when making or defending against this type of attack, unless their enemy shares this advantage and they cancel each other out. This is to make combat marginally more tactical for players who like that sort of thing, without forcing anyone who isn't interested to learn how it works.

I assigned abilities to specific tasks, in some cases changing the ability’s function entirely. The biggest change is reinterpreting wisdom as awareness of one’s surroundings and nothing else.
  • Strength: saves vs. paralysis, melee attacks, athletics (sprinting, climbing, etc.), breaking shit
  • Dexterity: ranged attacks, acrobatics (jumping, tumbling, etc.), stealth
  • Constitution: saves vs. poison, death, disease, and fatigue
  • Intelligence: spellcasting checks (for both arcane & divine casters), languages (which works like the skill in LotFP), tinkering
  • Wisdom: saves vs. deception & illusion, reflex saves, dodging physical attacks, perception, initiative
  • Charisma: saves vs. charm effects, reaction rolls
This is the biggest change really, because some of it contradicts basic assumptions that apply across editions. Suddenly your low intelligence, high wisdom cleric is an untouchable duelist but useless as a spellcaster. I kinda don't care though? My rationalization here is just that I like it better; mapping the ability scores this way makes sense to me. I guess I could let players rearrange their stat line if this was ever a source of confusion.

And that’s it for now. I might get rid of clerics and start using a different magic system at some point, but I’m leaving that stuff alone for the moment. I'm using the equipment lists from LotFP for stuff that's missing from TBH but that doesn't really count.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Forsaken in the City

Sometime way back in the 21st century, cities became entirely self-sustaining. Urban agriculture had progressed to the point where the farmlands they once relied on were no longer necessary. Those who lived outside city limits were offered the chance to integrate, but most of them chose to pass up this offer, as they came from long traditions of rejecting the highfalutin’ ways and booklearnin’ that urban centers demand of their Citizens. The Forsaken, as they and their descendants came to be known, were ignored by the Citizens and left to their own devices.

The Citizens had already begun to transcend their humanity through cybernetic enhancements by the time the domes went up. Within a couple short centuries, even they no longer recognized or referred to themselves as human, adopting the formal classification homo machina. They had come to understand magick as a scientific phenomenon, and were beginning to incorporate it into their technology.

Meanwhile, the Forsaken’s culturally motivated rejection of both large-scale hierarchy and scientific study resulted in grotesque mismanagement of natural resources. Despite the carbon footprint of the cities having essentially disappeared, the lands beyond them were becoming more barren and poisonous than they’d ever been before  a scarred desert wasteland of mutants and madmen.
I live I die I take you with me

While the Forsaken fought amongst themselves over dwindling resources, the Citizens walled themselves off from the rest of the world with nearly indestructible domes. They continued their march of progress unhindered by the vast changes outside their bubbles.

Over the next century, many Citizens took to hunting and killing the Forsaken purely for sport (“eating” was no longer a thing that Citizens did). This predictably intensified the Forsaken’s perception of them as horrible demons or even gods. They weren’t all that far off, really; the Citizens’ new abilities were terrifying and their lifespans were now around a dozen times that of the average Forsaken. Even those Citizens who didn’t participate saw no ethical dilemma in the culling of clearly inferior and obsolete (but not dangerous to the Cities, only to the ecosystem and each other) lifeforms. It simply wasn’t their hobby of choice.

Fast-forward half a millennium. The dwindling population of the Forsaken still passes down their stories of the Godhunts, but none of them have seen a Citizen in living memory. The heroes among the Forsaken didn’t know what to expect when they defied the stigma against approaching the Cities, but they certainly couldn’t have expected what they found.

Giger's Trumpets of Jericho
The machinery of the Cities themselves was still in operation, but the Citizens were nowhere to be found. This was three years ago. The philosophically inclined speculate and argue about what happened to the Citizens or where they could have gone. Had they, as a group, transcended their need for physical forms? Did they sleep in the depths of the undercities? Were they all dead somehow, or had they uploaded their minds into the circuitry of the cities themselves?

The more practical among the Forsaken have collected near the dome, forming temporary settlements bound by fragile truces, with the purpose of exploring the city and salvaging whatever tools, artifacts, and secrets they can. Many don’t come back quite the same, and many more don’t come back at all.

Those who are strong and clever enough to survive these expeditions with their sanity intact speak of mechanical nightmares, disembodied voices, and an environment that is utterly beyond their experiences in every way. The fear these tales provoke is only matched by the greed inspired by the wondrous treasures that always feature in the stories. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Die-Drop Jungle Terrain

Wilderness exploration can be just as detailed as a dungeon crawl, if you know the terrain well enough to give it a variety of tactically useful features as the DM. Generally speaking, you’ll be interpreting symbols on a map and relating that information to your players. These symbols are general in nature; just knowing that you’re in a forest isn’t as useful or interesting as knowing that you’re on one side of a deep but narrow ravine in a forest. If there happens to be a random encounter, the ravine will probably be tactically important. Even if there isn’t one, this gives players something less abstract to think about than just making wilderness skill rolls.

If you happen to be someone who spends a lot of time out in nature, in a wide variety of climates, and thinking about how to describe what you see, then this kind of improv is easy. You could probably do pretty well faking it if you read enough of the right books, which would probably have to include both fiction and non-fiction. I can’t do it though. I need a prompt.

So I’m making die-drop tables for various terrain types that fold all that into the encounter check roll, starting with jungle because that’s what I’m running at the moment. Pretty basic layout, obviously riffing off the inside cover tables in Vornheim. Whenever the PCs enter a new hex, I roll a d6 and a d12 on this (printable download here).
sized to be cut out and stuffed in the box that a 12 pack of ramen comes in, as all
die-drop tables should be. apologies for the shitty typography. consider this a draft.

The position of the d6 determines the geological terrain (down the left edge) and vegetation (across the top). The position of the d12 determines the temperature (across the bottom) and current precipitation (down the right edge).* So far it seems to still work when I’m drunk but this aspect requires further testing.

An encounter occurs on a 1 in 6 as usual. The d12 is there because I like using d12 encounter tables. If I ever wanted to use a 2d6 or d100 table instead, I would use three different colors of dice and ignore the position of the encounter check die. Or something.

One weakness of this system is somewhat unrealistic weather that doesn’t connect precipitation to temperature shifts, but I really doubt anyone I play with is going to give any shits about that. One strength is that the weather is unrealistic in a way that's kinda crazy and fun. It tends to change, sometimes wildly, every few hours. Most weather results have mechanical effects associated with them, so they’re usually relevant to gameplay and harder to ignore.

Same thing goes for the terrain; some features can be obstacles in and of themselves, some give the players something to explore** or exploit, and others create tactical opportunities. You know that type of tactical thinking where the intrepid dungeon explorers lead the orcs into an ambush that makes use of that pit trap they found? This sort of detail lets the players do the same thing in the great outdoors.

*this layout won’t always apply; when I do one of these for deserts, it’d make more sense to do something for wind speed & direction where precipitation is on this one.

**okay so you’d still have to come up with something to be in the caves they found but that’s something I’m a lot more comfortable making up as I go along.

Thursday, March 24, 2016


Rotjaws are quadrupedal therapsids about the size of buffalo. They have pronounced nasal structures, powerful jaws, long limbs and short, stubby tails. These carnivores have evolved an immunity to almost all diseases. This allows them to cultivate bacteria in their mouths which they transfer through bite like how a komodo dragon actually doesn’t as it turns out.

When they hunt, their goal is not to kill their prey outright, but to infect a victim then retreat into the underbrush. As such, they are relatively slow-moving and well camouflaged with dark scales. Their powerful sense of smell is fine-tuned to detect disease at a range of one mile (weather permitting), allowing rotjaws to follow the infected creature for days if necessary. Once the illness has finally rendered the victim helpless, the rotjaw catches up and eats the creature alive, because intense fear and pain triggers the production of delicious hormones.

Sometimes, rotjaws that pick up the scent of other rotjaws’ victims are hungry and desperate enough to challenge the original hunter for the kill. Infected prey are often forced to watch, paralyzed, as two or more of these creatures do battle for the right to devour them. These contests rarely go to the death, with participants often retreating after they’ve sustained a single hit. The scars possessed by most rotjaws are a testament to the frequency of these battles.

Rotjaws build nests in caves one mouthful of mud at a time, in which they bury clutches of 4-8 eggs. The parents spend two weeks taking turns guarding the nest while the other goes hunting, then abandon it and go their separate ways once the eggs have hatched. Hatchlings start out the size of an average housecat and grow into full adults within a month; at least one or two out of every clutch usually makes it.

Rotjaw bites spread what’s known as rotjaw fever, even though it’s less a single disease than a blend of all the nasty microbes that the animal’s been able to cultivate. Rotjaw fever always drains the strength of the victim, but other symptoms can vary widely from case to case.

HD: 2+14
AC: as leather
Movement: 1/2 unburdened human
Attack: bite (1d6 + disease, save to avoid)

Baseline Rotjaw Fever
Duration: 3 days
Incubation: 1 hour
Increment: 2 hours
Effect: Save or lose one point of strength. A strength of less than 3 means total paralysis. Infected creatures also emit a stench of decay that attracts rotjaws but repels most other predators. This scent also temporarily decreases the victim’s charisma to 3, an effect which lasts as long as the infection does.

Rotjaw Fever Variations
Roll 3d12 on the following table when a character catches rotjaw fever. If you roll the same number twice, don’t re-roll it; that just means this instance of the fever displays one less special quality than usual.
1 Completely unaffected by healing magic.
2 All disease related damage is permanent, even if the disease itself is cured.
3 Lose dexterity at the same rate as strength.
4 Lose two strength points every interval instead of one.
5 Periodic hallucinations (last for 1d10 minutes at every interval).
6 Constant hallucinations, unless the most recent save vs. disease succeeded.
7 Lose constitution at the same rate as strength.
8 Disadvantage to saving throws against rotjaw fever.
9 Deduct 1d4 maximum hit points every increment.
10 Full-body cramps that cause total paralysis for ten minutes every increment.
11 Increments and incubation time are half as long as usual.

12 Duration is twice as long as usual.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dart Plants

by Anne Hufnagl from here
Dart plants are mobile plant creatures that appear in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Those who’ve stopped to dissect the dead ones claim to have found complete animal skeletons deep beneath these masses of bark and vine, suggesting a parasitic nature.

Colorful flowers grow at irregular intervals on the dart plant’s surface, in which they form tight clusters of dart-like thorns, each carrying thousands of microscopic spores. When the cluster is ready, the flower closes, forming an airtight tube that acts as a blowgun.

As the spores travel through the host creature’s bloodstream, they multiply and feed on the nutrients intended for the host’s own organs. Treat this as a disease that slowly drains the constitution of host creatures and eventually kills them, at which point the dart plants consume the corpse from the inside out.

This constitution drain occurs at a rate of one point every six hours (or one HP per HD, if it’s a monster and you’re playing an OSR game). PCs and important NPCs are entitled to a saving throw vs. poison at each interval to temporarily avoid the effect, but the infection continues.

If a creature is still alive after a week of this, its immune system naturally kills off the infection. Cure disease spells and potions remove the infection as normal, but they don’t restore the victim’s constitution score to its previous level. Survivors of dart plant infection can be identified by their unnaturally pale skin, scales, fur, or feathers.

Mature dart plants are just a little bit bigger than their host creatures were. They have the same number of hit dice (including character levels) and can move at half the original creature’s speed. Each dart plant only has so many clusters ready to fire at any given time, but they also have a slam attack that does damage dependent on the size of the dart plant. The number of readied dart clusters is also dependent on the size of the plant, and uses the same table the slam attack does.

small: 1d4
medium: 1d6
large: 2d6
huge: 3d6
gargantuan: 4d6

When the dart plant eats the brain of its victim, it also absorbs the creature’s memories and intelligence. Dart plants that grow out of sentient beings try to use this ability to gain the trust of the victims’ friends and companions. Even with less intelligent animals, this usually at least tells the dart plant where to look for more host creatures. The host creature’s personality has never been known to overpower the instincts of the plant itself.

One major limiting factor on the dart plant population is their high calorie intake. These plants’ unusually active lifestyle requires that they consume twice their own weight in animal matter per day or face starvation. Since their first dart clusters take a couple of weeks to form, many dart plants starve to death before they ever get a chance to procreate.

This meat is stored in whatever space is made reasonable by the animal’s anatomy — in most vertebrates, this would be the stomach and chest cavities. An internal root system digests the dart plant’s prey while the plant retains its ability to move around (provided that its prey is at least one size category smaller than it is). What this means to you is that if this area were to be sliced open from below, piles of bloody half-rotten body parts would come tumbling out like it was a piƱata at a GWAR show.

Any flowers that still contain readied dart clusters can be distilled into a potent drug that causes intense hallucinations. The drug can be imbibed like a potion, or administered intravenously by applying it as a poison to an edged or piercing weapon. The affected individual must save vs. poison or hallucinate for two hours (if the imbiber is willing, no save is necessary), during which they are not in control of their actions. Roll 1d12 every half hour until the end of the effect to determine the nature of the hallucinations and the actions of the affected creature. After the hallucinations end, the character will feel nauseous and generally not up to adventuring, and every roll they make during the next six hours suffers from disadvantage or a -2 penalty or whatever, while attacks against the character are made with advantage or a +2 bonus.

1. You are one with the intertwining root systems below you, granting knowledge of a hidden location.
2. Everyone around you is delicious meat and you are carnivorous and hungry so so hungry.
3. You are a talking tree and will not willingly allow yourself to be moved, screaming if overpowered.
4. Decay is nutrition. You must seek and devour any decaying flesh, plant matter, or feces you can find.
5. You are a leaf on the wind. Wander aimlessly, fleeing from anything that tries to touch you.
6. The sun is life. Fight your way to the nearest direct sunlight and fight some more to stay there.
7. Everything is fractals. Stand in open-mouthed bewilderment, allow self to be led by hand.
8. You are a thistle bush and everyone is a goat. You have legs for some reason and need to get away right now.
9. Find some insects (there are always some insects and many of the ones on Exodus are dangerous) and rub them all over your genitals.
10. You are a fruit (hurr hurr shut up) that must find an animal to eat you so it can spread your seed when it shits.
11. Shit, termites. Madly clawing at yourself does 1d4 hp per turn unless you’re successfully restrained.
12. Something’s wrong with this dose. Begin the slow transformation into a dart plant as if shot by one.

The drug is incredibly dangerous and hardly ever any fun at all. However, the potential reward is legendary. Dart plant venom is commonly available in any place where adventurers gather, but usually not allowed to be taken there or anywhere other place where the recipient would pose a danger to the public. The venom’s desirability stems from tales of friends of friends who took it and experienced visions of fantastic treasures, the locations and some of the nature of which these brave fools awoke knowing.

In game terms, this means that if a player on dart plant venom rolls a 1 at any point during this horrible trip,* they must write down three elements of the location they saw. Everything else is up to you to fill in with whatever the hell you feel like, but the three statements the PC wrote down are 100% true. If a PC rolls a one more than once,** If multiple PCs are tripping together and both gain secret knowledge, they learn of different locations.

This shouldn’t exactly be a Monkey’s Paw scenario, where there’s no real benefit at all, because you want the PCs to actually try it at some point. Still, the temptation is too strong to not give in at least a little bit. Pick one statement out of every three; you still have to follow the letter of the law but it leaves out something important and dangerous. If a magic sword is demanded, you could decide that it’s cursed. If the players state that there aren’t any traps in the dungeon, you could make the entire dungeon a trap and turn escaping from it into a puzzle.

*There’s a 1/3 chance of this occurring, if you’re curious. 

**1/9 chance. There’s a 1/81 chance of someone getting to make nine demands about the same place, which is less than 2%.