0-Level ACKS Alices

Introductory Complaining

If I’m running a low-power game, I like 0-level play: It sets the tone, establishes more of the character at the table, and introduces new players to the game in play rather than in prep. What I don’t like about it is a tendency for the (scant) modules to concretize class restrictions in a particularly unbelievable way. Consider N4: Treasure Hunt:

Zero-level characters all know how to use one weapon. Before your adventure gets underway, have each player choose his character’s weapon proficiency. (Weapon proficiency is explained under “Weapons” in the Players Handbook). A player may only choose dagger, quarterstaff, or dart. Tell the player to write his character’s weapon proficiency on the character sheet.

If, in the course of the adventure, a character picks up a weapon and states that he’s going to try to learn to use it, let him. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that, while these characters are in their “state of grace” and learn things speedily, they can learn a weapon proficiency after using the weapon in two combats. A character can learn no more than three extra weapon proficiencies.

Tell the character he should swing the weapon around for a while, get used to its heft and characteristics, and that after a couple of combats in which he uses the weapon, he will have a proficiency with it.

The characters are not limited to dagger, staff and dart after they enter the adventure but, again, the choice of the weapons they learn can limit their character class choices.

If a character tries to learn more weapons during the course of the adventure he starts limiting the number of character classes he can choose. For instance, a 1st level magic- user can only have one weapon proficiency. If the 0 level character learns a second weapon before taking 1st level, he can therefore not be a magic-user when he reaches 1st level. That’s how it works.

Some of this is a consequence of the AD&D weapon proficiency framework, but I’d dread having a conversation at table about whether a PC wanted to surrender the chance to become a magic-user because they used a dagger and a dart. I get bored just thinking about it. Instead, I thought projecting a Jack-of-all-Trades class backwards to 0, with accreting abilities after creation, would work better with the group I’m running a game for.

The ACKS approach to weapons, classes and proficiencies gives a GM some tools to work around the rough spots in the 0-1 progression, and I thought that an ACKS conversion of the Alice class from A Red & Pleasant Land would make an especially good 0-level class for the group I was running.

The Alice: A 0-Level ACKS Conversion

As you might expect, it’s pretty easy to convert between LotFP and ACKS. The Alice is built on the Thief without a backstab ability, and over the course of the 0-1 progression they:

  • Get a +1 to hit (going from 11+ on AC 0 to 10+)
  • Get a +1 to saving throws (going from Thief 1 with a -2 modifier to a -1 modifier)
  • Get a +1 to skill throws in 3 abilities (equivalent to the 1/2 level progression in RPL)
  • Get an ability from the Alice random progression table (see RPL, this happens twice)
  • Get the exasperation ability (see RPL)

There’s a lot of room there to set up minor XP milestones or success feedback checks along the course of an adventure to result in level 1 Alice characters, and none of it is jarringly binary (with the possible exception of exasperation, but that worked well to establish the kind of fantastic space the PCs were in).

The ACKS Thief skills improve more-or-less by 1 with each level, so I started them with thinly renamed throws as follows:

  • Take Things Apart: 19+
  • Find Hidden Things: 18+
  • Sleight of Hand: 18+
  • Be Not Heard: 18+
  • Climb: 14+
  • Be Not Seen: 19+
  • Eavesdrop: 14+

Three of those are 1 better than would be expected from the ACKS Thief, but I thought it was fair for the worse initial climbing and rounding the 1/2 level progression down to improving 3 skills instead of 4. Given the style of progression, I found it easier to leave the throw targets static and have the players record a modifier on their character sheets.

Play Report: Waking Up, or Possibly Falling Asleep, in a Library

Caddy Jelleby, Percy the Urchin, Robert Call-Me-Bob, Scotia and Tadcaster awaken with a start from the falling dream in a library (map) with a ruined roof. A quick wealth roll revealed the quality of their clothing and the number of things in their pockets (modifier of a 3d6 roll, +1).The room they were in was full of numerous books, crockery, broadsheets from all over the world, several partial decks of playing cards, and a military saber (with which Scotia armed herself). Feeling like they needed to find a place with a sturdier roof to escape the snow beginning to fall, the 5 of them set out to look for an exit.

When two of them tumbled into the giant pneumatic tubes under the map room’s floor, the rest followed and were shunted to a reference desk staffed by the last remaining librarian: A hulking bear in a tweed suit named Ian. Ian drinks gin from a porcelain tea set (-3 to hit and AC when drunk, save vs poison each round or lose an attack to hiccoughs). Ian dissembles over questions he doesn’t know the answer to, and is prone to fib responding to those he does. Ian regards the PCs as items from Special Collections, and makes up elaborate classifications for them that shape the contents of rooms in the library.

Ian can be tricked into classifying PCs as outdoor goods, he can be killed leaving his pneumatic controls to the PCs to decipher, or he can be bargained into “remaindering” the PCs outside by bringing him the 2 dozen or so catalog cards that have gone missing. His catalog is full of many shifting cards- if the drawers are turned out, the cards will flap through the air on a middle crease like a swarm of bats.

The 5 PCs set out to find the cards. They discover a talking penguin named Birdtha who just wants to go home to Pengland, and promise to aid her (Caddy: “a quest!”). They discover the missing cards being used as a makeshift deck in a Euchre-LARP conducted in an inexplicable garden party in one of the library’s salons. After establishing one of their own as the best, correct, and right bower, the PCs won most of the tricks (but not all). They cheated by swiping the last trick, and an enraged Left Bower (a level1 Alice) came after them with a sword-cane. Scotia confronted him in the doorway with the saber, and Poor Percy seized the opportunity to drive a silver letter opener into the poor Bower’s neck. The rest of the party fell into panicked chaos as the Left Bower fell dying to the ground, and the PCs escaped with the cards.

Ian proved trustworthy enough in the card exchange, and the PCs ended the session shunted into a bin outside the library with the saber, some maps and newspapers, and about 40 xp apiece. The xp is earning them 2 of the accumulating abilities before the next session.


Dwimmermount: The Wait is Over

To promote the Kickstarter for Dwimmermount, we ran a banner ad with the tag “The megadungeon the OSR has been waiting for.” I’m happy to say that, two years and four months later, the wait is over.

The initial version of the dungeon, compatible with Labyrinth Lord, has been very well received by backers and will go on sale to the general public as a PDF on 8/15. The Adventurer Conqueror King version is complete and in layout now. Both will soon be available in hardcover at your friendly local game store, via distribution by Studio 2.

Back when this project was in its darkest hour, in a post called On Dwimmermount and Failure I wrote that “there are still many ways that Dwimmermount could come out right.” That we could realize one of those depended on the support of many bold adventurers. First and foremost are Alexander Macris whose tireless design and development made all the difference in synthesizing a final product, and Richard Iorio II for whom this dungeon’s publication marks the end of an even longer and more labyrinthine expedition than mine.

dwimmermount proofs

Although the proofs are looking great, the books won’t be available in time for Gen Con. I’ll be there from Friday until Sunday, however; you’ll recognize me by the hard-won sack of 2,000 coppers and my big grin despite the blisters on my fingers from burning that torch almost to the nub. 



nightmares of futures past – a marvel sandbox?


I was asked to run some Marvel Super Heroes for Tavis’s son and his friend, who are X-Men fanatics.  To resolve some curiosity from my own childhood, I’m breaking out MX1: Nightmares of Futures Past, which as kid utterly baffled me.  But from an OSR perspective it seems like what Steve Winter was trying to do was create a sandbox during TSR’s Silver Age (during the “Dark Age” of Marvel Comics).

Nightmares of Futures Past is based on the classic Days of Future Past storyline from Uncanny X-Men and which, of course, inspired the recent film.  Nightmares doesn’t give you the time travel aspects to leaven the grimdark horror of living through the mutant holocaust.  The module throws you into “the middle of the End” as squads of gigantic, unstoppable killer robots roam the ruins of North America seeking to capture any stray mutant or super hero they can find.  The police are searching everywhere for you, and the public at large (say it with me) hates and fears you.  


It’s grim.


The module itself doesn’t give you anything resembling a plot, or even much of a setting: each “Judge” is supposed to adapt the scenario to her own futuristic, war-ravaged Anytown, USA, in which the players represent the local Resistance.  Nightmares gives you six types of Sentinels to fight, along with some law enforcement agents and the occasional mutant; it also describes in some detail a concentration camp for mutants.  It also gives you some rules about anti-Sentinel technology (magic items, effectively) designed to keep you hidden.  But almost everything else is up to the individual Judge to custom-build: not a bad idea, since the passage of 30 years and widespread destruction permits the Judge to reshape the Marvel Universe according to her own whims.


The main driver of the action here is the Sentinels’ neverending hunt for the players.  Players must scrounge for false identification papers so that they can work normal jobs and buy food.  Raising money–to pay for bribes, weapons, or fancy inventions–is almost certainly going to involve theft, perhaps even bank robbery (inverting the archetypal “intro to super heroes” session).  Day after day, the Sentinels zero in on your location, until you’ve got to abandon HQ and move out–or engage the Sentinels in a horrifically bloody Butch-and-Sundance last stand.


In game mechanics terms, the only way you can survive in this world is through accumulating enormous amounts of Karma, the game’s reward for acting like a super hero.  The problem, of course, is that acting like a super hero is going to draw attention.  So the more Karma you earn, the more danger you’ll be in.


And “danger” doesn’t really begin to describe it.  As presented in the Future in Flames modules, the most common Sentinel robots are terrifying opponents.  To get game-mechanical for a moment, a Sentinel shows up with 290 Health points (a standard character has maybe 100), 40 points of body armor (standard characters would be lucky to even scratch them for 10 points of damage, let alone do it 29 times), and can do 50 damage in close combat or at range (a standard character would go down in 2 hits).  To make matters worse, if the fight lasts more than 3 rounds, a Sentinel’s adaptive learning program tilts the fight even further in the robot’s favor.  In short, one Sentinel is a serious threat to even a group of competent characters . . . and they normally travel in packs of 3.

Even using the weakest model of Sentinel, and a simple hack for minions, a triad absolutely tore through a small cell of mutants I created for playtest purposes.  

The moral, maybe, is that Nightmares of Futures Past isn’t so much a framework for a super hero campaign, but rather, a survival horror campaign geared for dudes who shoot lasers out of their faces or women who can walk through walls.  (I also wonder whether the module was playtested.)    


So: two questions…

  1. Has anyone run the Future in Flames modules?  What were they like?  What should we expect?
  2. The classic Marvel Universe of 1981 has been completely undone and messed up in the hellscape of 2014 America.  What’s your suggestion for the fate of your favorite super hero?



there’s a new sheriff in town

Well, if Joesky can find the strength to post, so can I.  He is the beery wind beneath my wings.

attention must be paid

Ain’t my campaign, but word in the New York Red Box is that co-blogger Charlatan has hit the level cap for his bad-ass Halfling, Cut Coutelain, who has struggled all the way up from Level 1 in a fairly by-the-book B/X game.  Strongholds and dominion rules await, if Cut hasn’t blown all his cash building a “burrow boxing” arena for his kin-folk.  I don’t follow the blogs enough, but I’m wondering if anyone else has gone from 0 XP to Name Level since the OSR really got rolling 5-6 years ago.  It’s taken Charlatan something like 150 sessions.

The verdict among our Red Box crew, by the way, is that the Halfling may be one of the very best classes in B/X.  Great saves, very respectable attacks, an absolutely sick ability to hide outdoors (and respectable odds of hiding indoors), plus the ability to get Dex 18 with the Moldvay point-swapping model which yields a great AC and terrific bonuses to ranged combat.  In B/X, a Halfling can build a stronghold any she has enough cash – which could be pretty damn early in the campaign.  All wrapped up with a Fighter’s XP curve and mid-tier hit-dice.  True, the music stops at 128,000 XP, but that apparently takes 150 sessions of play.  If D&D Classes mean you are what you repeatedly do, it’s no wonder the Hobbit Halfling gets to have his cake and eat it too.

Hurray for Sheriff Coutelain, champion of the half-sized pugilists!



super frog defeats gamma world

a gamma world party

business as usual

The other week, we ran Gamma World (2e) using the Serpent Temple – Lost Tombs by Mark Thomas from the 2009 One-Page Dungeon Contest.  I replaced the Lizard Men with Hissers (snake-headed dudes armed with golf clubs), turned the undead into robots, and otherwise just said, hey, have at it.

One player went for Pure-Strain Human (“Lomez,” whose name I kept mixing up with “Lomax” all night), another went for a Humanoid (“Sir Francis” the telekinetic), and one went the route of the Mutant Animal.  The Mutant Animal, Kyrmit, was through a freak of dice rolling, the most powerful characters I think I’ve ever seen.  He had flame-thrower hands, could create 10 duplicates of himself, vaporize enemies with a psychic pummelling, bounce damage he suffered back on its source, and read minds.  Kyrmit was, basically, a Level 20 Magic-User hanging out with some durable meat-shields.  (Lomez’s player proudly points out that he stabbed a monster for 1d6 damage, and figured out “laser scissors.”)

Given the enormous hit points of Gamma World 2e characters – (Con)d6 for most folks in a world where mundane attacks typically do approximately 1d6 damage – I started the characters off in Room H – dropped in by the Snake Priestess as a sacrifice to the horrific snake-abominations.  Which were almost immediately destroyed by 10 Kyrmits, telekinetic crushing courtesy of Sir Francis, and Lomez’s lone 1d6 damage.  The characters wandered around some, encountered some horrible-to-pronounce plant monsters, killed a Snake Priest, deciphered his mystical “paralysis rod” and “laser scissors,” and then went to the Hisser village to steal a boat to go home.

the escape plan goes awry due to a bad GM call

The gang ended up using telepathy to scope out the village.  Sir Francis used telekinesis to pick up an insanely poisonous barracuda-fish to slap enemies and kill them with one hit.  Lomez liberated a boat.  They were all about to get free, when – fearing that this was going too smoothly and I should increase the opposition – I had the Snake Priestess show up and Death Field (or Life Leech, I get them mixed up) pretty much everyone, and I think there was some kind of area-of-effect attack to kill everybody once they hit 1 HP.  This killed 2/3 of the party, plus 10 Kyrmits, but Kyrmit Prime was apparently invincible and, I think, escaped handily.

Sir Francis’s player took the death of his PC stone-faced, but Lomez’s player was visibly bummed out, and thought it was bullshit that the Snake Priestess could arrive at that location, at that time, and put a whammy on everyone in the way that she did.

And he was right.  I hadn’t drawn a map of the village.  I didn’t know the distance involved or how fast the Hissers moved.  (We had already established that the Snake Priestess had this nasty mojo, though.)  It turns out when you look it up in the book, a boat movies at speed “varies,” whereas the Hissers are pretty slow.  As narrated, the boat would have been out of range long before the Snake Priestess could get into position.  (The player didn’t point this out; I checked the rules and realized it couldn’t possibly have happened.)

So I ret-conned the last round, we had some carnage courtesy of the telekinetically wielded Death-Fish, and the three critters escaped to fight another day.  At some point it was decided that Kyrmit should have pants – he missed out on some nice treasure simply because he didn’t have any pockets – and thus an epic quest was initiated . . . to be followed up, someday.

gamma world: what is the deal

Gamma World looks like a weird game, and the design is even weirder than it appears.  In 2e, advancement is almost exclusively a question of getting better access to gear through social networking with the secret societies.  (Tavis advises that several of his characters back in the day used to play “icarus” with radioactive sites, trying to get just close enough to radiation to mutate further, without getting killed.)  Hit Point tallies are enormous, rendering a lot of conventional D&D-style weapons meaningless – though I didn’t check the more lethal ultra-tech items.  Mutations are clearly standing in for spells, but you don’t get  to change them each day, or (absent radiation) get new ones.

Most of the bestiary is full of critters with forgettable names, and who likely started as bad jokes in Ward’s home game (the badger-men who worship the University of Wisconsin mascot; bunny-men who turn things into bouncy rubber; etc.).

In effect, without a lot of inspiration and weird imagination, Gamma World seems to be mainly about the fun of rolling up an absurd character, and it’s kind of downhill from there.  I’ve never heard of a Gamma World game lasting more than a few sessions.

Obviously a big part of my problem with Gamma World is that gonzo isn’t my style of game (though I do appreciate it very much from afar).  I generally find pop-culture jokes really jarring in games like this, so you’re left with High Weirdness, which as a participant doesn’t give me enough to connect to, emotionally.  (I like Pendragon so much in part because the setting connects to my dude at so many different points, including his personality traits, his passions, his income, and his ambitions.)   A lot of the post-apocalyptic fantasy stuff that fed into Gamma World was long gone by the time I was a teenager in the post-Berlin-Wall 90’s.

I’m willing to give Gamma World a go – Jared makes a good point that Gamma World is kind of like “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: the RPG,” which may be a fruitful way for me to look at it – but it’s not a passion for me.

Tell me, people of the Internet: have you played in long-term Gamma World games?  What in the world were they like?  Reveal my ignorance and stupidity that I may stand corrected!


Things you wish you had not picked up

(The part where I add value: some cursed items for your consideration)

The Libram of the Scarlet Fish

This ancient tome is a clear set of instructions usable by any magic-user that will allow them to inscribe the fabled, lost, second-level spell Scarlet Flash, which blinds any number of onlookers for 1d6 rounds when cast. This requires one week of time and at least 1,000 gp worth of supplies, assistants, library access, etc. The book is heavily bound in goat skin, wood, and brass, and features a small illuminated red fish in the margin of every page. Only after full study of the book and following the instructions will the magic-user realize the book is a clever, magical forgery. Once realization dawns the book disappears in a blinding scarlet flash… The magic-user has lost 1,000 gp but gains 250 experience points and will recognize similar books in the future (the author has created several similar volumes).

Ring of Insistent Protection

This ring appears as a boiled leather band, dyed blood-red and set with a small silver shield. It confers protection +2 on the wearer as an extra suit of leather armor until the bearer is attacked by an enemy. At that point it rigidly enforces its standard of protection (AC8: no more, no less), causing any other armor or shielding to fall apart and drop off. Chain mail is reduced to a useless pile of rings, plate will (loudly!) collapse into a pile of unconnected metal pieces, straps fall off shields, armor-like spells (shield, armor, bless, etc.) are dispelled, and other protective magic items must save vs. magic or drop from the bearer. Note that an otherwise unarmored wearer will suffer no ill-effects. Once the ring’s protection has been triggered by attack it can only be removed by purposeful application of 1 hp of the wearer’s blood (which it will soak up like a sponge), or remove curse.

Potion of Vulnerability

This potion grants the imbiber an air of vulnerability by subtly projecting their physical intentions and movement. The user gains +1 to reaction roles involving surrender, but has -2 to AC, is impossible to hide, and will automatically lose any games of skill attempted. These potions are referred to as “gambler’s bane” in legends.

Helm of the Torchbearer

This magical helm is fearsome in appearance, featuring engraved flames of copper and a tightly woven metal face-grill. When worn it constantly projects magical light akin to a bright lantern 30′ in all directions; this is a great boon to the bearer’s companions. The person wearing the helm can see only dimly 10′ and likely needs to be guided. The helm can be removed only at noon, on a sunny day, with the sun shining directly down upon it. Casting light on the helm will extinguish the light for the duration of the spell. Likewise, darkness cast on the helm causes the helm to be blindingly brilliant and illuminate out to 100′ until expiration. Note: no NPC would willingly wear such an item.

Blade of the Specialist

This sword is made of obviously ancient but well-preserved pitted iron and features several small green gems embedded in the pommel. It is otherwise plain and made for use, not for show. Fighters will know on sight it is an extraordinary weapon. It has the following powers: +1 to hit and damage, adopts the alignment of its owner, detects pit traps within 40′ (the bearer gets the repeated sense of falling), and removes all other weapons from its owner. The sword has an intelligence of 6 (no ego). Once used in combat the sword will cause its owner to be unable to hold or even carry another weapon for any length of time; attempts confusingly lead to the weapon being found a few feet away on the ground, in someone else’s pack, hanging on a nearby peg, etc. Can only be removed with remove curse or by pouring a potion of heroism along the blade.

Circlet of the Watcher

A light circlet of silver made to look like an olive branch crown. On close inspection each leaf features an engraved eye.  As soon as the circlet is placed on someone’s head, the crown will say, “We’re watching you…” After this the circlet will periodically emit comments about what is going on around it. The wearer cannot be surprised, as the crown will yell first (e.g., “Watch out! Goblins around the corner!”). In every encounter roll a separate reaction roll for the circlet. On a 2-3, the crown will attempt to warn or goad the character’s opponent; on a 11-12, the crown will make some comment (advice, etc.) to aid the character. Once worn the crown may only be removed with a remove curse, facing the gaze of a medusa or basilisk, or by casting clairvoyance on the crown.

Hat of Misunderstandings

This ornate, tiered silk hat features crystals and pearls sewn into intricate patterns. It is clearly meant to be worn at court. Close examination will reveal a small smatter of bloodstains. The hat allows the wearer to understand all languages (as comprehend languages). For languages the wearer knows, the hat renders a perfect translation. If the wearer is hearing or speaking an unknown language however, the hat mistranslates. When relying on the hat for translation make a reaction roll. On a 9-12 the hat translates the spirit of the what is being said. On a roll of 6-8, the message is garbled and nonsensical. On a roll of 2-5 the translation is rendered as a deadly and personal insult. One worn the hat can only be removed by casting friends or remove curse.

(The part where I indulge in thinking about cursed items)

Cursed magical items are an important feature in D&D: a reminder that magic is capricious and dangerous, as a form of trap or trick, and by adding more risk and meaning when magic is found (who dares to use it?). In Moldvay roughly one in eight magic items found will be cursed, enough to make anyone cautious.

Many of the default cursed items have two faults. First, like many other magic items they can be boring. Like a Sword +1, they are a simple expression of game mechanics instead of a unique, coveted treasure. A Sword -1 adds nothing but the knowledge that your character is worse at melee now.

Second, especially before remove curse becomes readily available at sixth level, they can be arbitrarily crippling or lethal and in this way remove some of the joy of playing. I prefer to find a way to ratchet up tension without turning magic into a save or die situation (e.g., poison potions or cursed scrolls, where simply looking at it or tasting it can kill you).

Boring is simple to remedy: cursed items benefit from detail in the same way that “Norfer’s Tooth, a spear that vibrates any time hobgoblins are within half a league, features an obsidian leaf-blade attached to a heavy ironwood shaft wrapped in sharkskin, and is +1 to hit” is more likely to get a player excited than a Spear +1.

Arbitrarily crippling is harder: watering them down is one common way of doing this, like a poison potion that causes disability, sleep, etc. instead of death. Another is presenting tradeoffs where the player can choose to put up with the curse for some benefit. A third is presenting an available solution to remove curse so lower level characters have the ability to get rid of the item without having to track down an NPC cleric.


Spells Recognize Their Own

I am always looking for good ways to give players information. As a Judge I like to talk – part of the fun of the role for me is showing off the wonky knowledge about weird goings-on in fantasyland that would otherwise stay behind the screen – and as a theorist I think it’s important for players to make well-informed decisions.

Players are much more likely to grasp information if they seek it out than if I simply blab on about things they may or may not care about. In the afterschool class, kids whose expectations have been set by modern skill systems will often ask for a Knowledge roll or an Intelligence check when what they mean is “tell me what my character knows about this situation.”

This is a tough moment for an OSR GM. I support the impulse to ask for a knowledge check because the dice add extra significance – if the kids roll a natural 20 they will treat the info I give them as much more valuable than if I just told it to them. However, calling for a knowledge check doesn’t add much to the experience of playing the game apart from the possibility that I will give them the info I want to disclose in a murkier or more expansive way than I’d planned. And skills are necessarily broad and vague; that a character is skilled in monster lore is less interesting to me than whether it was gained from studying bestiaries or having grown up in an aberration-haunted wilderness.

What I really want to know in a knowledge check type situation is why does your character know about the thing you’re asking about and how do you go about figuring out the answer. With this, the dose of information I want to get across can also fill in the group’s understanding of the PC who is asking and the backdrop to the situation they’re in. (Groups that are well-versed in skill systems may get some insight into the character by seeing which skills they have and how high their bonuses are, but I’d like something more concrete and flavorful.)

In last night’s Dwimmermount game I hit on an approach that I liked a lot, given a party in which every PC was an arcane spellcaster. I decided that the process of attuning themselves to the spells crammed into their brain made them an expert on the subject, so that having fireball on your spell list meant you had to have become highly knowledgeable about fire. This worked well because it gives the players the same kind of objectively defined toolkit that you get from a skill system. When an investigative situation comes up it is nice to be able to consult one’s character sheet for options, but “can I use my Knowledge: Arcana?” is to me much less exciting than “does levitate know anything about this?”

Part of what I liked here is that it tells us about the character’s capabilities; Vancian spellcasting worked for Vance because the audience is primed to see how the protagonist will use each of the spells prepared at the start of the story. Anything that increases the group’s awareness of which spells party members have memorized will make it more exciting when that foreshadowed gun is fired. I’m also drawn to the idea of spells being sentient and self-obsessed entities. Asking what fireball reveals about a situation, like casting speak with animals, gives the Judge a chance to roleplay a very different perspective on the world. I figure that conjuring up one’s fireball spell and looking through its eyes reveals a landscape defined by flammability and wind conditions and a perspective only mildly interested in human beings except as potential casters of fireball .

If I was expanding this to cover a more traditional party I might also focus on what languages characters know, as this also offers the chance to get across information into an unexpected light and tells us something about that PC’s capabilities and background.


Logic and the Mythic Underworld

The logic of the dungeon is something that used to bother me when I was in my teens. Even in a world featuring magic, gods, and other inexplicables the idea of an underground fortress filled with random traps, tricks, and puzzles, well, sometimes I would get distracted by disbelief. Other than “mad wizards and insane geniuses” or their close relations, inscrutable deities, who would bother to build such a thing, for any reason? I spent time trying create dungeons that would make “sense” and be designed according to some purpose.

As I got older I simply shrugged, suspended any disbelief, and was happy with how fun the game is to play. Who cares? I am content to think of it in terms of Philotomy Juraments’s “mythic underworld.” But every once in a while I would still catch myself thinking about the logic of it all…

But I have been cured of that now. Now I know that any sufficiently powerful intelligence able to casually play with the weft and warp of reality will create haphazard environments as a matter of course. There will be dead ends, half-completed projects, empty rooms, traps, traps that don’t work, random features in random places.

Oh, there will be some completed projects, certain things that make obvious sense. But around them will be forgotten or incomplete efforts, prototypes, projects that make sense to no one but the creator. Little of it will make any sense to an observer exploring the results.

I know this because I have seen my six-year-old play Minecraft.

And I have played Minecraft too. Given the opportunity to randomly create stuff in a sandbox environment it is easy to see how a dungeon created by a magical power would end up unexplained by architect’s benchmarks of usability, engineering, and cost-per-square foot.

If you have the resources to create, you will be creative. The process is messy. And I believe dungeons I create in the future will be more interesting and fun if I can imagine like I am six again.


Some random treasures

When playing as a DM I like having random lists to hand for commonly needed things like treasures, wandering monsters, names, etc. For some of these things I want the random aspect of rolling on a table, but want to have prepared a bit more flavor and detail.

Below is one such random list of treasures that may be substituted on the fly for a given pile of coins (simply assign the item the value of the coin hoard).  In addition to variety unique treasures provide opportunities for mischief and world building. 

Hopefully some of you will find this potentially useful and tuck a copy away for future use.

  1. Long scroll illustrated with valuable inks and gold leaf. The scroll lists all the official visitors during a six month period to an unnamed border fortress. Several names in the middle have been carefully obscured.
  2. Quilt sewn with gold and silver threads and depicting a complicated geometric design. Any dwarf will recognize the design serves as a map of the corridors and intersections of an ancient dwarven city whose location has been lost for centuries.
  3. 31 sheets of fine parchment wrapped in a leather skin and tied with cord. If a magic-user or scribe carefully examines the bundle they will notice that one of the sheets in the middle of the stack has been writ on and then clumsily scraped clean. Careful restoration (taking a week of game time) will reveal a scroll of dimension door.
  4. Finely carved diorama depicting several fops paying court to a noble. It is entirely carved from one piece of bone. The slightest of blows will shatter it.
  5. A beautifully glazed porcelain sake set with gold rims. Set includes a serving flask and three cups.
  6. Finely made doll with parts carved of ivory and wood, real elf hair, crystal eyes. Clothed in valuable silks and includes clever features like eyes that open and close, mouth full of bone teeth, and articulated posturing so it can be sat or stood up. A fit plaything for the child of a King or Empress. [Optionally this doll may prove to be animated. If so it will take the single most valuable item it can carry and disappear the next time the characters sleep or are otherwise distracted.]
  7. Stone carving of a round birdbath, about three inches across, with small, ruby-encrusted bird-of-paradise perched on its edge.
  8. Ornate lantern. It will only burn fine oil, but has a clever reservoir and metal siphon that acts as a permanent wick. The sides are formed of silver wire twisted to cast the shadows of people and a castle. Shadows cast by the lantern will occasionally act out scenes from Macbeth.
  9. Gloves made of an odd, scaled skin. They are made of cockatrice and a sage or druid who examines the gloves will identify them as such. Will allow the wearer to touch a cockatrice without effect.
  10. Bag of 20 flawless crystal spheres, 1” diameter each.
  11. Ornate bronze torc made for a human-sized creature. The runes and sigils inscribed on it authorize access to the stacks of an ancient library in a far-away city. Of great interest to certain scribes and clerics.
  12. Wooden box containing a writing set including ink-jar, small knife, sealing wax, sander, and six quills. If carefully examined, players will discover that five of the quills are sharp but the third is blunt and plugged with wax. It contains 1 dose of the drug mnophka.
  13. 16” by 12” oil painting depicting a fantastical beast in combat with several men. (Show players the bulette portrayed on the title page of the Monster Manual.)
  14. 12” section of ivory horn about 3 inches in diameter and carved to to resemble a wizard’s tower. 1 in 6 chance anyone examining closely will discover it to have several rotating seams: it is a puzzle box. Requires 1d4 turns to open (less a turn for INT over 13). Currently empty.
  15. Knight’s campaign bed consisting of interlocking wooden poles and canvas stretcher. When assembled it forms a comfortable cot about a foot off the ground and six feet long. Likely made for a noble, as the four corner posts feature mother-of-pearl inlay. Disassembled it forms a bundle three feet long and about 8” in diameter.
  16. Small wooden chest 18” by 12” by 8”. Opens to reveal eight padded compartments, each containing a small, stoppered bottle of fine liquor. This is someone’s traveling liquor cabinet; three bottles are full.
  17. Silver snuff box with image of laughing cow on the lid. The greyish, ash-like substance within is not tobacco. (It is grave dust).
  18. Beautiful hand-tooled leather belt with bronze buckle. Careful examination by a thief will reveal a lockpick concealed in the buckle. No one else would notice.
  19. Crystal decanter with a copper pouring spout. Exceptionally fine work; the lack of any adornment only highlights how skilled the maker must have been. Bottom is encrusted with the dried remains of a bottle of red wine.
  20. Seal featuring crest of minor royal family from the west marches. Polished walnut handle is fastened to the brass seal with a solid gold screw, giving the seal a pleasant balance.
  21. Iron egg filigreed with gold. The egg can be opened and is held shut by a clever clasp formed of two small rubies. If an actual egg is placed within and the lid is shut, the egg will be transformed to a pinch of sulpher. (Note sulpher is cited as a material component for the spells flame strike, resist cold, fireball, fire trap, conjure (fire) elemental, guards and wards, and cacodemon.)
  22. Lapis lazuli conductor’s baton with a gold knob. Looks like a wand to a non-musician…
  23. Small crystal bottle, approx. 2 oz. with a glass stopper. Full of extraordinarily fine perfume.
  24. 8” high soapstone statue. Depicts a petty god of foolishness wearing a baggy tunic that says “college.”
  25. Three-foot folding tripod with hanging incense censer. Tripod is made of telescoping wood legs with brass feet and hinge. Chain is silver and the censer is made of brass chased with gold.
  26. Leather case containing rolled-up skin of a basilisk, the petrified antenna of a rust monster, a dried bull pizzle, and 7 withered orc ears. It will not be obvious what these items are.
  27. Water-stained codex written in common. It describes the deadly exploration of an isle far off the coast. The author relates encountering fearsome giant lizards, flying monkeys, and frighteningly intelligent giant spiders. There is description of how the author hid a large cache of gold on the island. Unfortunately the first signature of the book is missing: references throughout the rest of the volume indicate the first chapter included maps and a description of how to navigate to the isle.
  28. Set of 6 silver knitting needles in leather sack with several rotting skeins of wool.
  29. Wooden box containing 20 vials, each with a tablespoon dose of Eli’s Evident Elixir. (The elixir is molasses mixed with clove oil and brandy. It will soothe a teething baby).
  30. Treatise on the herbs and flowers of an island to the north. If carefully studied will reveal an easy brew-your-own recipe for a potion of healing requiring two of the herbs depicted in the volume.
  31. Bag of ten bandages individually wrapped in silk pouches. These gauzy pads are made of woven spiderweb. Use of one immediately after being wounded will stop bleeding and prevent shock. Packaging indicates they were issued to some forgotten army.
  32. Small pouch containing a collection of silver spoons. They have clearly been “collected” from great houses through the land since each features the crest, sigil, or stamp of a different regal family, guild, or personage. Crumpled at the bottom of the bag is a torn handbill advertising a reward for a missing spoon from the house of “His Magical Eminence Guichard Snabe.” There is a spoon inscribed with a stylized GS.
  33. Huge tome bound in gold-edged ivory plates. Difficult for the layman to make sense of, but it seems to be a treatise debating alternate ways to determine who acts first in a given turn of an obscure game under different conditions of play. Virtues of several different systems are debated and re-debated at length. There is no definitive conclusion.
  34. Set of copper tweezers, picks, clamps, and probes. Exquisite workmanship and quality of metal, purpose unknown. Would serve as thief’s tools or be useful for a jeweler or horologist.
  35. Set of two well-made leather fire buckets. They are filled with sand (a pouch containing 5 p.p. is buried in one).
  36. Silver fife inscribed with flowing elvish-looking script. The writing is fake and says nothing.
  37. Fine goblet carved from a single piece of translucent, blood-red stone.
  38. Well-preserved velvet hood and cloak. It is deepest black and may not be noticed if it is hanging in shadow. Fit for nobility.
  39. Book that tells a fanciful story of two children who accidentally discover the secret to operating a powerful magical artifact (in form of a tree house that can travel through time and space). The children have many adventures but always return home safe and sound.
  40. Set of four sturdy lead goblets studded with semi-precious stones.

eating out with renfield

what’s he building in there? a slow cooker no doubt

I was at a holiday party with some folks at Tor a long while back, and the editors were telling me that (at that time) the big thing was the Supernatural Romance sub-genre, with Supernatural Tourism, Supernatural Buddy Comedy, and Superntural C++ Programming Manuals as close runners-up.  I guess this must have been around the time that Twilight hit the shelves and every book with a vampire on its cover was flying off the shelves.

With my recent interest in the 2004 game Vampire: the Requiem (haven’t hit half-life yet, unfortunately) I think I have invented THE BEST COOKING CHANNEL SHOW EVER.  Do you remember how in Dracula there was crazy old Renfield, who somehow concluded:

  1. Count Dracula eats humans
  2. Count Dracula lives forever
  3. If I eat humans, I will live forever
  4. Therefore I shall eat bugs

I propose a cooking show where “Renfield” travels to various picturesque cultures and eats their Scary Magic Food like a maniac – like a strict diet of nothing but this thing, whatever it may be – and at the end of the week reports whether he has gained magic powers.  ANTHONY BOURDAIN meets GHOST HUNTERS.

This is fucking bank.

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2023

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