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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.


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.

Some Spells

Here are a few spells or spell-like effects that could be found in a spellbook, as a one-time device or scroll, or as an effect or trap somewhere in your dungeon.  Add spell level to suit your campaign.

Expedient Quartermaster

This spell conjures, for the caster and up to six companions, a supply of personal gear appropriate to thier occupation and the surrounding environment. Each gains a fortnight of rations, a suit of clothing or armor, and general items useful to the situation. A cleric in a dungeon might gain plate, shield, mace, and a pack including spikes, rope, holy symbol, lantern and oil. A fighting man out-of-doors could expect chain, sword, bow, horse, and saddle-bags with foraging and camping gear. A magic-user in a castle would find courtly robe and hat, staff, scroll case, and portable desk full of writing materials and spell reagents. The items are always of the finest quality but are never magical in any way. Those supplied by each particluar casting of the quartermaster will appear as a matching unit, with armor or clothes of similar style and color. In certain situations a group item may also appear, for example a group near a body of water will be provided with a suitable boat or raft.

Byzal’s Windy Conveyance

The caster and up to six others grasping – or grasped by – the caster are instantly swept into an extradimensional whirlwind that transports them to the location envisioned by the caster, up to one mile away. No matter the destination, the travelers are tossed in the wind, completely out of control, for thirty seconds. All torches and lanterns will be extinguished and travelers have a 50% chance of dropping whatever they are holding. On arrival the travelers must spend a full minute regaining balance and breath before capable of anything else.

 Larkajanur’s Ominous Valediction or The Curse of Inconvienient Attention

Save versus spells or opponents faced with a choice of targets will always choose to attack you above others. Lasts until dispelled.

Ekhion’s Inflexible Reprieve

The inflexible reprieve is a one-time displacement triggered by an eminent danger (thus preventing damage from a successful attack by an enemy, exploding fireball, etc.) or the spell’s duration, whichever comes first. The spell lasts ten minutes for every two levels of the caster. Unwilling targets of the spell may save versus magic, but once the spell is successfully applied it cannot be removed. To determine the character’s new location roll d8 for compass direction, d100x10′ for distance, and place the character into the nearest unoccupied space.

 Almetor’s Petulant Arms

Will affect 1d6 beings; those who fail a save vs. spells will find weapons writhe, turn, and jump in thier hands. Those with uncooperative weapons should subtract 3 from to-hit rolls. The spell lasts for one turn.

The Mercurial Spirit of Prabacor

Casting this spell summons a mischevious, uncontrolled unseen servant-like spirit that will remain for a turn per level of the caster. Roll for reaction.

2-4: Resentfully harasses and distracts the caster, preventing spellcasting, tying shoelaces of his friends, slamming doors and so on.

5-9: Spirit neutral towards the caster, but will look for excitement at someone’s expense. In this state the spirit can be offered goods or services in exchange for favors. What could it want? Otherwise it may wander off, become interested in someone or something interesting, or simply wait to be returned wherever it came from.

10-12: Independently provides help by, e.g., opening doors, harassing or distracting enemies, setting off traps, etc.


Roll Your Own

Two blue-sky hopes for a new commercially-produced D&D.

Create a common-denominator product

One of the biggest missed opportunities with D&D is the idea of a basic set that remains unchanged and consistently promoted over time such that, like Monopoly, Parcheesi, and Scrabble, every family has a copy in the closet.

It should have been Moldvay, or perhaps Mentzer.  Something simple, presentable, with a look-and-feel.  I am hopeful that part of the new strategy includes a basic book or set fills this role and is promoted properly.

This is a roll-your-own game.  Help the customer roll-their-own.

The recent description of a modular selection of monsters and spells where you select the bits you want and have it shipped to you as a custom-printed book is a move in the right direction.  Why not expand that to the ruleset?  The bare-bones game includes the DNA of D&D – six attributes, experience and level progress, three or four base classes, d20 combat, saving throws, simple d6 initiative, and a basic selection of classic spells and monsters.  Something close in spirit, simplicity and openness to OD&D or Moldvay.  It is relatively clear, uncomplicated, recognizable within wider popular culture, and self-contained.

On top of that can be added layers of additional classes, spells, kits, more complicated initiative systems, ascending or descending AC scales, skills, and a whole variety of other rule variations.  Aerial and naval combat, rules for miniatures and mass combat, commerce and industry, castle construction, etc. Settings information and custom classes or races appropriate to whatever IP you want to add – Dark Sun, Ravenloft, Greyhawk, whatever floats your boat.

A given customer would make the choices they prefer and download their custom ruleset, or have a printed version sent to them from lulu or whatever.  These customizable books could come in standard flavors for those who do not want to fiddle with choices (preset options might include basic, legacy (OD&D!), expanded, complete, miniatures, hex-crawl, naval, dungeon.  Basic would be the default slick version you want in everyone’s closet).  Certain settings could come with default spell and monster lists – “want to play in a default Greyhawk-themed game? Click here!.”  A DM could post a link to her house rules so that players could print out (or download) that specific configuration of rules and show up to the game with a sense of what to expect.

There are a lot of rough edges to be filed off this idea, but the technology exists.  If WotC is really wants to put D&D back into the hands of customers this is one way.


Mapping for Constantcon

Just finished my first ConstantCon game using google+ and had a blast.

A recommendation for others playing on-line.  One way to share a map in common with all players, aside from periodically holding up a sheet of paper, is to use a shared on-line whiteboard.

Someone got tired

It worked pretty well for this session.  There are several free sites offering whiteboards: we used which worked quite well.  No sign up required, you simply go to the website and click on “GO: Start a New Meeting.”

The resulting page should include, on the right-hand side of the screen, a box that says, “Give out this link to invite people to this meeting” and a URL.  Send the URL to the folks in your game and you can all visit the web page and see and edit the same sketch.  No sign up, no password, no hassle.

The tool is not super-fancy, but it serves.  And can be used for illustration of the action, as well.

Our heroes fight a giant beetle, using only a 10' pole and burning oil

Similar services are and (I have not used either one, but they seem similar).


When Magical Blades Ruled the Earth

Another rule with possible wide-ranging consequences. From Monsters & Treasure page 30:

…the origin of each sword is either Law, Neutrality, or Chaos, but some of these weapons are forged by more powerful forces for an express purpose… …a score of 91 or higher indicates the sword has a special mission. Swords with special purposes automatically have intelligence and ego categories moved to the maximum score…

One in ten magical swords thus has an ego of 12. Depending on your exact interpretation of the rules, such a sword will automatically gain control of any fighting-man of level 6 or less, and wins a contest of wills 75% of the time versus a fighting-man of up to level 10.

These swords will dominate those around them and use those human resources in pursuit of a special purpose. Such weapons surely become objects of fear and simultaneously sought-after sources of power. Such swords could produce:

  • A Kingdom whose ruler is possessed by a neutral Sword +2, Charm Person Ability. The sword has built a charmed army of tens of thousands, biding time before moving in pursuit of its mysterious special purpose. All visitors to the Kingdom, including PCs, are immediately hauled into royal audience for charming.
  • A bandit troop leader controlled by a lawful sword with the special purpose: steal from the rich and give to the poor.
  • Hapless low-level fighting men possessed and relentlessly ridden to exhaustion or death in the pursuit of a sword’s special purpose (for instance forcing a hero to march in the direction of the sword’s chosen enemies non-stop for days until worn out, then passing the sword off to the next likely body…).
  • A chaotic sword made for slaying clerics, whose preferred wielder is afflicted with mummy-rot or some other terrible disease but of course every time they go looking for a cure…
  • Famous swords whose exploits are legend but whose owners are anonymous and even bards struggle to remember their names. “Harken to the story of the famous Durandal, held by Rolo, Rollie, no, that’s not it, um…”
  •  A lawful sword made for slaying fighting-men; its wielder is made to provoke duels of honor with any prominent hero they come in contact with, including the PCs.
  • High-level lords, wizards, and patriarchs striving at any cost to collect and remove such blades from circulation.

In a world containing some of the above, PCs may be more squeamish about picking up magical blades.  Or perhaps not…

 (Please feel free to add your awesome ideas in comments)

Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2020

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