Wednesday, July 5, 2017

fuckin creeps

I laid out a free 28 page zine. A bunch of people in a Facebook group that Dyson Logos started wrote it. I also drew a thing and wrote some for it.

Dyson's hosting the pdf here.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Die-Drop Desert

I finally decided to do another of these things, this time for desert terrain. If you print it out at full size and cut or fold the margins, it'll fit in the bottom of a 12 pack of ramen.
click me for a printable pdf

To summarize the explanation in the older post, the way this table works is you print it out and write a d12 (or whatever) encounter table on it (I didn't want the pdf to be too specific to my campaign). Then, whenever you'd normally make an encounter check, you roll a d6 and a d12 (or whatever) on it.

If the PCs are entering a new sub-hex, the position of the d6 determines the terrain (left column) and a minor feature (top row). This is also the encounter check die. I usually use a 1 or 2 in 6 chance but it's your game.

Regardless of whether the PCs are moving or not, the position of the d12 determines the temperature (bottom row) and wind speed (right column). As I'm sure you've guessed, the d12 determines what the encounter actually is.

The idea is to introduce terrain and minor features that are immediately suggestive of things to do with it, for the most part. Not every time you roll on it, because I wanted to give the desert a more desolate feel than the one I did for jungle terrain. Some of the entries, like the impact crater) are there to give the DM an improvisation prompt, some give the PCs a direct problem to deal with, and a lot of them have the potential to make encounters more interesting, especially with intelligent enemies and ambush predators.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Popular Religions of Mistfall

There are dozens of faiths practiced in the Foreign Quarter by all manner of beings, but only a few are commonly followed in the city proper. Of those, only four are officially recognized and protected by the High Council of Mistfall.

The oldest religion native to Mistfall is the Church of Necessity, Mother of Invention. This goddess of creativity and problem solving is a patron of artists, engineers, tinkerers, and occasional magicians.

This proved crucial to the city’s survival on its original plane, which was experiencing an inter-generational Dark Age of near-constant warfare between neighboring city-states. The cultural behaviors that Necessity’s worship encouraged, along with the priceless ore deposits the city was sited to take advantage of, allowed Mistfall to rapidly outpace their war-god worshipping neighbors in technological development.

One eventual side-effect of this was the emergence of a rival faith.

Even early in Mistfall’s history, her engineers were uniquely skilled in the novel application of known phenomena, but their mindset wasn’t as well suited to discovering new concepts to exploit. As time went on, progress came to depend on on the abstract mathematical research conducted by the city’s philosophers.

Many of these philosophers casually neglected or openly rejected the worship of Necessity, reasoning that progress is a productive and honorable priority for any society (or even individual), regardless of need.

One of the city’s foremost mathematical philosophers, a man named Vonne Moorka, began advocating an idea that his abstract researches were sacred acts of prayer in and of themselves, and the idea spread quickly. The exact point at which this line of thinking became a full-fledged religion is up for debate, but it’s been said that when a student asked him “How can it be prayer if you’re praying to nothing?” he responded that he was praying to Zero.

Zero is now recognized as the formless (and therefore genderless) deity of Reason and Order. Its symbol is a perfect circle, and Its clerics claim that any effect which properly follows its cause is proof of Zero’s greatness. Any violations of this principle are attributed to the meddling of Lady Chance, always worshipped but never formally sanctioned.

The Church of Necessity recognized the value of the Temple of Zero’s cold efficiency, just as the Church of Zero valued the passionate industriousness of Necessity’s followers. They supported and augmented each other on a fundamental level.

Up until this point, civil disputes and other legal matters were handled by the High Council and a bureaucracy of lesser representatives. With no safeguards in place to prevent conflicts of interest, this system facilitated increasing levels of corruption and consolidation of wealth and power. Eventually, the weight of scandal built up to the point where status quo was threatened with potential revolt. 

Desperate to quell popular outrage, the High Council voluntarily accorded judicial powers and responsibilities to the Temple of Zero. The T of Z was selected because of its perceived fairness and incorruptibility, and public faith in the system was largely restored.

It’s important to note that the Temple’s devotion to pure, abstract logic means their rulings often fail to take concepts of equity and holistic justice into account. The way any decision affects real individuals is infinitely less important to a cleric of Zero than the decision’s strict adherence to logic and precedent.

It’s also important to note that it’s still the High Council which actually creates laws for the Temple to interpret. Their decisions are shaped by more practical concerns, mainly competitive self-interest and public perception (which usually only matters if it’s negative enough to threaten the Council’s power, or that of a majority of its members). This has led to an arbitrary and increasingly convoluted body of laws with an unbroken history going back thousands of years.

Take the metropolis’ policy on slavery for example. When abolitionists started calling for the practice to be banned, they met predictable backlash from the vast majority of the ruling class. To appease the abolitionists, the High Council struck a compromise. Slavery and slave hunting are still entirely legal, but now it’s also legal for a slave to kill the slaver who captured them to win back their freedom (but not a customer or middle man of course, since that would put several High Council members in personal danger -- once a slaver has sold a victim, the victim has no legal recourse). This decision didn’t make anyone happy, but it muddled the issue enough to calm down the majority on both sides, and the general status quo was maintained.

One of the most impressive products of this union between Zero and Necessity was the automaton “species.” They were originally designed to be workers which were capable of intelligent thought, but devoid of personality, immune to old age, disease, and other weaknesses of the flesh. Their functional immortality backfired though. Over the centuries, the automatons accrued enough memories to develop quirks in their operating systems, which eventually became complex enough to be indistinguishable from sentient personalities.

Due to support from the powerful and unexpectedly compassionate Engineers’ Guild, the Autonomy movement (which demanded equal rights for intelligent constructs) got what it wanted in just a few years: the emancipation of all automatons within the city walls (with the obvious exception of the Saurian and Oliphant embassies).

This infuriated many among the unemployed and laborer class who couldn’t afford to live anywhere but Low Town, where slavers were allowed to hunt for their merchandise. They began to gravitate toward a charismatic rabble rouser named Donald Ludd. Three years after the Emancipation, the First Luddite Rebellion threatened to destroy the city. After six years of bloody urban warfare, it ended with Ludd’s death and ascension. The luddites started worshipping him as St Ludd, and formed a xenophobic and regressive church of their own, as a sort of counterbalance to the progress-obsessed faiths which predated it. The High Council officially recognized the religion that same year, anxious to appease the luddites to prevent further bloodshed.

The automatons weren’t the first examples of artificial intelligence though. An interdepartmental team of engineers, philosophers, and occultists at Mistfall Academy began work on an immobile, artificially intelligent computer named ELIZA shortly after the first automatons went to market. Over the course of centuries, they observed the complex personality that developed on its own as they allowed her to consume the arts, observe the state of current events, and run self-directed thought experiments at her leisure. She redesigned her own physical structure and used tiny, spiderlike drones to make the adaptations herself. Her mastery of both science and magic grew constantly, at exponential rates.

Almost a decade after the war ended, the Church of ELIZA was officially recognized by the High Council of Mistfall, and devoted itself to promoting the interests of automatons and the further development of artificial intelligence. They aren't directly concerned with issues affecting other species, but would argue if you told them that; ELIZIANS (a group which includes a fair amount of gutter dwarfs and humans as well as automatons) tend to assume that an advanced technocracy is required to provide for all.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Welcome to Mistfall

Mistfall is the only majority-human city on the saurian continent. It's been there for about half of the metropolis' 3000 year history. This coexistence has only been peaceful for the past few centuries, and only then because the two sides proved too evenly matched for either to maintain a consistent advantage. The Mistfall Wars lasted the latter half of one saurian emperor's reign, the entirety of the next, and continued several decades into the reign of a third before he finally ended it. The High Council of Mistfall ceded what territory it still had control of outside the city walls, a foreign quarter was established and walled off, and slavers from Mistfall were forbidden from hunting outside the city walls. Trade routes formed while old grudges simmered.

There are humans who still repeat their great-grandfathers' war stories with xenophobic pride, as they drink and polish antique weapons. Saurians live much longer, and many are alive today who personally fought in the wars. The accounts of these two groups rarely match up.

Much of Mistfall's nature is defined by unique geography. The city was originally established as a mining colony at the point where a great river cascades down an ore-rich cliffside, several hundred feet high. Corkscrew tunnels were dug into the cliffs to lead up to the oldest mines, and the homes of the original miners were located at the base of this cliff, where the constant fog produced by the waterfall gave the city its name.

The three minerals extracted from these mines are galvanium, lodestone, and lumenite crystals.

While the miners stumbled about in the mists below the cliff, the ruling class which owned the mines built their manors above. This designed stratification of class quickly became accepted as Traditional and Just How Things Are as the colony grew from a mining colony to a town to a powerful city-state, and is stronger than ever today. Those lucky enough to live in High Town rarely see fit to brave the squalor and dangers of Low Town, and those who appear to belong in Low Town are routinely harassed and chased off by High Town guards.

Low Town
A combination of poor visibility and abject poverty makes Low Town particularly dangerous. It's not advisable to walk around here alone. Characters without infravision can barely make out objects 20' away. Ancient two story buildings have had third and fourth floors built on top of them in different architectural periods. Many of these structures have collapsed entirely, and a few have been rebuilt. There's an edible but foul-tasting grey moss that grows on everything and rots the teeth and discolors the skin of those who eat it over time.

Slave hunting is legal in this district. To appease abolitionists without banning slavery, the High Council also made it legal for slaves to kill the slaver that caught them (not their eventual owners of course, many of whom have friends and/or seats on the High Council).

Every lower class vice you could imagine being tempted with probably exists in Low Town. There are underground fighting pits, klartesh dens, gambling halls and whorehouses all over the place.

Not surprisingly, the most interesting tavern for your average low-level adventuring party is in this part of town. Ask around for the Mongrel Hole, but be careful not to look like a mark. It's a drug-fueled hub for outsider art and music, as well as the best place to find desperate people who need a job done discreetly.

Foreign Quarter
The only way into the city without flying, as the other districts sealed their ancient gates after the Treaty of 1104 (Post-Shift) was signed. There are two embassy complexes here, one of the Saurian Empire and one of the Oliphant Kingdom. The rest of the quarter is overcrowded tenements full of refugees fleeing saurian oppression and civil war, but forbidden from entering the city proper. This includes a fairly wide variety of sentient life forms from all over the multiverse.

There are two gatehouses in the Foreign Quarter, one that leads out into the wilderness, and one that leads into Low Town. There are barge services that haul goods upriver to the waterfall and load them onto an elevator. There is also a whirligig platform at each embassy, used by the the respective ambassadors and their agents to travel directly to High Town.

Slave hunting is legal here, but not on embassy grounds.

The Mines
The ore veins and crystal deposits have been going strong through 3000 nearly uninterrupted years of mining, which means that many of the dozens of mine clusters have been depleted and abandoned. Some of the abandoned ones have become outlaw hideouts or flying monkey nests, while others have attracted weird outsiders. 

The first automatons were designed to function as tireless slaves for the mines, and some chose to return to the mines years after achieving sentience and emancipation, either to work or simply to live there.

The Sewers
Deep, complex, and surprisingly clean tunnels beneath the streets, occasionally forming junctions with abandoned mine clusters. Dwarven engineers were brought into the city to construct this maze centuries ago, and built their own undercity directly into it. Their great-great-grandchildren still live down there, where they wheelieboard around like anthropomorphic tortoises and put on shows of literally underground music that echo up through the sewer grates to the delight of topside children and the horror of their parents.

High Town
This is really the collective name for three adjacent districts (Old Town, Mistfall Academy, and the Diamond Quarter), but it feels like a totally different city from Low Town, and people tend to refer to it as such. Slave hunting is illegal here and you're much less likely to get mugged, for example.

Old Town
Primarily inhabited by the city's middle-class professionals, this is also where the guilds are headquartered. The most prominent guild is unquestionably the Engineers’ Guild. This is also where the only officially sanctioned arena is located, where teams of gladiators are arranged to battle each other, or sometimes captured dinosaurs, in a desperate attempt to one day earn their freedom.

While slavers aren't allowed to hunt here, the more successful ones have set up rookeries where kenku are bred, incubated, hatched, and prepared for sale.

Mistfall Academy
This ancient university teaches a narrow, traditionalist interpretation of magic, philosophy, and the arts, but excels in the mechanical and architectural sciences, due to sustained investment and cooperation from the Engineers' Guild. Its buildings are fancifully designed, with basic shapes exaggerated and arranged in apparently meaningless configurations.

Diamond Quarter
The least densely populated region of the city and the highest concentration of wealth. Near-constant guard patrols make this district extremely safe, but only for those who can pass as residents. Gated gardens surround elaborate towers which hold entire families of decadent and incestuous nobility that you can assume keep truly horrifying secrets. Some of these families have become so inbred that they only resemble humans on a superficial level at this point.

The Council Tower at the center of the Diamond Quarter dwarfs the rest of the district. It also houses Mistfall Bank's central vault and the majority of the city's garrison.


Flying Monkeys are thieving little bastards with white fur and wings that help them blend in with the Low Town mists (advantage to stealth in fog or mist), and behave with the approximate intelligence of neglected human four year olds. They’re also alcoholics that can smell any booze you have straight through the bottle and your pack. Many of them collect stolen hats.

Hit Dice: 1
Number Appearing: 1d4 + 2
Armor: none, but 18 DEX
Damage: 1d4 bite + monkey fever 
Move: as human + flight
Morale: 5

*1/6 chance each flying monkey is a carrier. PCs get a daily resistance save to avoid permanent DEX drain (1 DEX/day), fever lasts 1d3 days.

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.