Archive for September, 2013

27
Sep
13

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.

16
Sep
13

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.

11
Sep
13

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.



Past Adventures of the Mule

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