Saturday, February 27, 2016

Sshuggall, the Drowning Moon

Another moon. Probably the worst place in the universe.

An elemental water moon inhabited by aboleth.
Slow life draining (-10 XP per turn for non-natives).

A quick spin on the Lovecraftian name generator gets us Sshuggall, which sounds suitably alien. Once they learn about the endless water and the constant XP drain, our heroes won't want to go to Sshuggall. As players, they'll actively resist it. The fun, of course, will be putting all sorts of plot hooks and powerful items deep below the waves. But I digress...


If you are very lucky, you'll find a guide to Sshuggal. And I don't mean luck as in good fortune - you're better off slitting your own wrists. I mean luck as in, "You've spoken with a mind flayer and struck a deal, and you've got one of the rare mind flayers whose crystal ship isn't just a deathtrap/slave-barge, and he'll actually take you to Sshuggal and possibly back again, without eating your brain." That's lucky.

If you want to push your luck further, you'll need equipment:

Bathyspheres. They can survive the crushing depths better than anything else. The problem, of course, is that they only go down. You'll want a teleport scroll for getting back up. Either that, or you'll need to pioneer some new technology.

A lead-lined ship. Supposedly aboleth have trouble seeing through lead. Good luck getting it to float!

Manta Cloaks. You know about these, right? Leather cloaks, you put them on, they create a magic globe of fresh air around your head? They're scarce but if you've got the gold, they're an option. They won't protect you from anything but drowning, though, and on Sshuggall that's the best way to die. You might find an old one from the Sahaugin Wars if you check the markets at Azerat, but there are so many military historians that the price is going to be sky high if it's in anything like good condition.

A map. It sounds juvenile to suggest, but it'll be nigh impossible to find a useful one. Nothing stays in one place for long on Sshuggall. A group of dwarfs went there a century ago - The Blackfrost Expedition. I'm sure you know this story. Two hundred dwarfs in full battle regalia with rune-wards and enchanted hammers, state-of-the-art diving spheres, the wealth of an entire kingdom spent on plundering the grim halls of the aboleth? One lone survivor, completely insane. They found incredible wealth but they couldn't escape with it. The walls had shifted. Their ships were on the other side of the iceberg. There was no way out. They needed a map that could change when Sshuggal changed. It's always changing.

Where You Think You're Going (Roll d8)
1. Iceberg
2. Black Stone Pyramid on an iceberg
3. Stone Tower (half-submerged)
4. Stone Tower (fully submerged)
5. Giant Bubble with impossibly stable shimmering walls
6. Aboleth City (ocean floor)
7. Fossilized remains of a gargantuan Angler Fish (ocean floor)
8. Glacial Chasm

Where Are We Really? (Roll d8)
1. Inside the dream of a twenty-thousand foot tall slumbering stone colossus. It dreams of being alive, for the very first time, and of all the wonders it will wreak.
2. Shrunk to the size of cells, tracing an impossible course across the mucous membrane of the nostril of the party's fighter.
3. We never left the ship!
4. In a pyramid inside a pyramid inside a pyramid. The pyramid is the key to everything. If we can just get to the true pyramid, we'll find our answers. Everything is going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay.
5. Exactly where you thought you were.
6. The belly of a moray eel, the incredible size of which means it cannot possibly be a moray eel.
7. Floating blissfully through a bubble of liquid euphoria. You've heard that the aboleth use these as defense mechanisms, but you don't care.
8. Inside a temple filled with idols to ape gods, fire, and warm-blooded things. There are humans here, though they hide their appearance beneath black robes, and while they might share a fascinating history of how they came to live on Sshuggall, they have knives and oh god their eyes, what's wrong with their eyes?!

I could go on. I probably will, at some point. Sshuggal is the death-trap that won't let you escape until you're good and level-drained. It's going to require a good deal of prep so that it's not purely arbitrary, but it's a great spot to throw in random generators and non-intuitive puzzles.

The aboleth went extinct here centuries ago. That doesn't mean they don't still show up - time isn't linear on Sshuggall, after all. It just means Sshuggall has far worse dangers than even the aboleth could withstand.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Things Forthcoming

Dreadweasel is a gaming blog primarily featuring Pathfinder. That said, I'm not planning to run my next game in Pathfinder or any 3.X system. There are so many excellent systems I have yet to try. It would be a shame to keep my horizons narrow.

(D&D 5th Edition)
The Elemental Plane of Earth / Stonecroft / Bleak Falls
. (I really need to commit to a name.) This is the 5th Edition campaign I've been brewing on-and-off for the last three months. It's heavily influenced by Darkest Dungeon, Mimir.net's lovely rundown of the Plane of Salt, my time spent living in the American Southwest, and my experience thus far with oD&D.

The gist is this: The players arrive at a remote village having heard tales of fabulous wealth in a dangerous nearby cave. They quickly learn that the cave opens into the Elemental Plane of Earth. The people of the village have been trying to keep this cave a secret, building a boom-town inside a gargantuan cavern and trading gems with foreign powers so they can avoid paying taxes to the crown. (In this remote village, it's a universally held belief that if the government found out about the gemstone caverns, they'd exploit it and tell the people to go back to dirt-farming. They're not wrong.)

Mechanically speaking, it's as pure a sandbox as anything I can conceive. The deeper you go into the cave, the more reward / danger you'll face. The heroes will likely have all the gems they could ever want, but they'll have to be clever if they want to trade them for other stuff without setting off alarms. And an evil character could always threaten to go to the King and spill the beans. Plenty of potential drama here.

Prep wise, this game requires three maps: One of the village/boom-town (it starts out poor, but the heroes can add things like ramparts or cathedrals, or hire alchemists to make a moat of acid), one of the caves (leaving room for random dungeons), and one of the countryside (populated with random encounters and bandit camps).

I've written most of the basics, but I want it to 'gel' before I share it.

(Swords & Wizardry)
Unnamed Planetcrawl. I want to run an old-school game in the worst way, and this is the feel I want for it:


This game is still in its infancy. I'm going to keep writing up planets until something coalesces. Posts like Azerat, Uralar, and Metum are all contributing to this goal.


This game looks like minimum prep for maximum fun. A collaborative sandbox wherein neither the players nor the DM really know what's going to happen until the session is well underway. Postnuke isn't really in my wheelhouse, but recall my earlier statement about not narrowing horizons. I think this would make for a solid weeknight game, when there's little prep time and there's only about three hours of energy left in the tank. I'll review it if it ever happens.

Ok, so it's Pathfinder. You got me. I've played through the first level as a PC and recall loving it. With a month to prep and a dedicated party who utterly loves dungeon-crawl, it's a really neat campaign I'd be happy to run. That said, I'm about to wrap up a campaign that's literally just a series of dungeon-crawls, so it's not next in the queue.

So yeah, two highly creative projects and two less creative ones, all of which results in polyhedral dice and inside jokes. The future is bright.

***
As an addenda to this, I figured I'd list the games I'm playing in currently.

The Emerald Cove. My Pathfinder campaign setting, wherein my sportsmanlike players agreed to play through one module after another with little pretense of free will. It's an experiment that's lasted six months (so, success!) We play 2-3 times a month.

Caldera of Tul'dah. A D&D 5th Edition homebrew campaign setting. It's an upbeat epic fantasy romp full of dead gods, secret societies, angry pirates, drug trafficking, sentient weapons and elaborate dick jokes. The setting is what I'd imagine a pirate-themed Magic: The Gathering expansion would look like. I play Luish, a gnome Sorcerer who accidentally became a very successful cult leader. We play most Fridays.

Yoon-Suin. An oD&D campaign wherein our DM mashes up the aforementioned Yoon-Suin with his vast collection of retro-modules (Deep Carbon Observatory, Keep on the Borderlands, Tower of the Stargazer, etc). I play Sigilis, a human Magic-User who recently quit his job and got a face tattoo. This is my first real foray into oD&D and I am loving it. We play twice a month.

And an honorable mention to those games on hiatus:

Hoard of the Dragon Queen. The epic 5th Edition introductory adventure. We've been on hiatus with conflicting work and leisure schedules, but until that happened, I was playing Goddard the Dead, a leper Wizard specializing in Illusions. I am the lone Neutral Good in a vast sea of Chaotic Neutrals. Ilmater preserve us.

Rise of the Runelords. The classic Pathfinder Adventure Path. We've completed the first 1/6, but again, conflicting work and leisure schedules conspire to doom Magnimar to Thassalonian oppression. I play Angelica, a ditzy aasimar Cleric of Urgathoa with rockin' Charisma and dump-stat Intelligence. I adore her.

I was also flirting a bit with Shadowrun, but, well, c'est la vei. Plus that game is super complex and ludicrously unintuitive, so it's not very high on my list.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Pathfinder: Breaking Down Big Dumb Statblocks

In the Pathfinder game I DM'd this weekend, we encountered a mighty behemoth: Not an actual behemoth, but rather a massive, incomplete, two-page stat block for a single monster. I ran the fight well enough, I suppose, and my players had a couple laughs once the fight was over and I showed them the stats for the monster they'd just defeated.

Despite the fact that I've been playing some flavor of 3rd edition for over a decade, I realized I need a better system for engaging with the system. Because the statblock from this weekend is from a copyrighted module, I'll just grab this OGC statblock that's somewhat comparable, and we can break it down together.

Taken from Pathfinder OGC, here's the Collegiate Arcanist.


Collegiate ArcanistCR 10
XP 9,600
Human Wizard 5/Collegiate Arcanist 6
NG Medium humanoid (human)
Init +1; Senses Perception +2

DEFENSE

AC 14, touch 12, flat-footed 13 (+1 deflection, +1 Dex, +2 natural)
hp 68 (11d6+27)
Fort +8, Ref +7, Will +14
Defensive Abilities blessed warding

OFFENSE

Speed 30 ft.
Melee club +4 (1d6–1)
Special Attacks hand of the apprentice (8/day)
Spell-Like Abilities (CL 6th)
Wizard Spells Prepared (CL 11th; concentration +16)
6thsummon monster VI
5thbreak enchantmentdismissal (DC 20), dominate person (DC 20)
4thice stormreincarnateshout (DC 19), solid fog
3rdcure moderate woundsdaylightdispel magic, magic circle against evil†, remove disease (DC 18)
2ndacid arrowflame bladeresist energyscorching ray,warp wood
1stmage armormagic missile (2), ray of enfeeblement (DC 16), shillelagh (2)
0th (at will)detect magiclightmage handread magic
† If cast as a good spell, this spell is cast at +1 caster level and lasts an additional 6 rounds.

STATISTICS

Str 8, Dex 12, Con 14, Int 20, Wis 14, Cha 10
Base Atk +5; CMB +4; CMD 16
Feats Combat CastingCraft Wondrous ItemEmpower Spell,Greater Spell PenetrationIron WillScholarScribe ScrollSpell Mastery (baleful polymorphdispel magicresist energysummon monster VI), Spell Penetration
Skills Diplomacy +14, Fly +15, Heal +16, Knowledge (arcana) +23,Knowledge (history) +19, Knowledge (nature) +23, Knowledge(religion) +19, Spellcraft +19
Languages Abyssal, Celestial, Common, Draconic, Infernal, Polyglot, +1 additional
SQ arcane bond (amulet), aura, halcyon magic*, immediate spell mastery* (1/day), intoned recollection*, lasting goodness, spontaneous spell mastery* (1/day), superior spell mastery*, virtuous spells
Combat Gear scroll of lesser restorationscroll of teleportwand of cure moderate wounds (39 charges), wand of shield (25 charges),holy water (2); Other Gear clubamulet of natural armor +2, cloak of resistance +3, headband of vast intelligence +2, ring of protection +1, spell component pouch, spellbooks (2; contain all 0-level spells and all prepared spells as well as the following: 6th—globe of invulnerability; 5th—baleful polymorphteleport; 4th—black tentaclescharm monsterstone shape; 3rd—fireballgaseous form,hold person; 2nd—cat's graceinvisibilityspider climb; 1st—endure elementsfeather fallidentifyprotection from evilshield), 168 gp

SPECIAL ABILITIES

Halcyon Magic (Su)

The Collegiate arcanist can cast a limited number of druid spells. They are all listed under his prepared spells.

Immediate Spell Mastery (Sp)

Once per day, the collegiate arcanist can cast any spell he has mastered with the Spell Mastery feat, even if he hasn't prepared it that day. He can't modify it with metamagic feats or other abilities.

Intoned Recollection (Ex)

A number of times per day equal to his Intelligence modifier, the collegiate arcanist can prepare a spell in an open arcane spell slot with 1 minute of preparation. It can't be a slot that was previously filled and expended that day; it must have purposefully been left empty when the arcanist prepared his spells. The arcanist must be able to read his spellbook or have mastered the spell with the Spell Mastery feat to prepare it in this way.

Spontaneous Spell Mastery (Ex)

Once per day, the collegiate arcanist can "lose" any prepared spell slot to cast a spell of the same level or lower which she has mastered with the Spell Mastery Feat.

Superior Spell Mastery (Ex)

By spending 24 hours studying over a maximum of 3 days, the collegiate arcanist can change the spells he has mastered with the Spell Mastery feat. He can choose a number of spells up to his Intelligence modifier, which have a maximum combined spell level equal to or less than his caster level, to replace the same number of spells he previously selected for his Spell Mastery feat.


As-is, this is waaay too much text to be useful for a DM. None of the spell descriptions are in the statblock, and none of the Feats are described, either. So if we add all those bits, this statblock quickly becomes a database, and even more useless.

How can we simplify this character into a useful NPC?

First, let's look at oD&D would do it. Formatting preferences aside, I'm sure it'd look something like this:
Collegiate Arcanist. 11 HD (68 hp), Move 30. Spells prepared: Summon Monster VI, Dominate Person, Baleful Polymorph, Ice Storm, Shout, Dispel Magic, Resist Energy, Flame Blade, Mage Armor, Magic Missile. The Arcanist has a scroll of teleport and a wand of cure light wounds with 50 charges. He is also constantly under the effects of a Protection from Evil spell which cannot be dispelled (enchanted monsters cannot attack the Arcanist and evil creatures suffer -1 to their attack rolls).
Wow. Still super verbose for oD&D, but yeah, I could merely glance at this and actually know what the wizard does

He opens up by casting Summon Monster VI (shadow demon or triceratops is the only real question as to what you get on that list), then follows by casting Dominate Person and Baleful Polymorph until someone kills him or he escapes. This dude is a save-or-die spammer with dinosaur bodyguards. 

Now, that wonderfully brief statblock is much too small for Pathfinder. Where are the Reflex saves? What if I want to grapple the Arcanist? These are legit questions with legit game mechanics attached, so that leads to another question: What are the essential pieces of the Pathfinder combat mechanics?

In my experience/opinion, nearly every monster needs...

Name
Ability Scores
Armor Class
Hit Dice / Points
Saving Throws
Attacks (including CMB and CMD)
Initiative
Special Abilities

This guy doesn't need all that.

Movement speed isn't necessary to list unless it's exceptional. Skills that aren't Sense Motive or Perception aren't necessary to list for NPCs either, strictly speaking (In my opinion, it's always best to have your NPCs either know or not know a thing. If you as a DM really can't decide, roll 50/50.) The Arcanist's attacks aren't necessary to list either, as a CR 10 should never be hitting for d6-1 damage with a club. He will be dead or surrender long before that point. Superior Spell Mastery is also thoroughly worthless knowledge. Our NPCs either can or can't cast a spell. Don't muddy the waters.
Collegiate Arcanist. 11 HD (68 hp), AC 14. Fort +8, Ref +7, Will +14. CMB +4 CMD 16. Initiative +1.
Spells Prepared (Concentration +16): Summon Monster VI, Dominate Person, Baleful Polymorph, Ice Storm, Shout, Dispel Magic, Resist Energy, Flame Blade, Mage Armor, Magic Missile
Spell Mastery: The Arcanist may cast Summon Monster VI, Baleful Polymorph, Dispel Magic or Resist Energy twice.
Blessed Warding: The Arcanist can't be attacked by evil summoned creatures. Against attacks made my evil characters, he is AC 16 and his saving throws are made at +2. Against mind-controlling spells, this bonus increases to +4 and the Arcanist is allowed a second saving throw if the first one fails.
Treasure: The Arcanist has a scroll of teleport and a wand of cure light wounds with 50 charges. He will use these to escape and heal if the fight is going poorly. He also wears a headband of intellect +2 and an amulet of natural armor +2, carries a spellbook and 168 gp.
You can fill out the Spellbook as much or as little as you like. In my experience, most fights don't last enough to warrant filling out every first level spell slot - NPC wizards unleash their heavy hitters early and die to the spell warded paladin's critical smite evil two turns later, or they connect with disintegrate and the party rolls a new druid.

Also, it's helpful to have the stats for Summon Monster VI beasts close-at-hand. That's what this opponent is going to do, right? Summon monsters and then follow up with Baleful Polymorphs and Dominate Persons until someone kills him or he escapes via Teleport.

Here's the triceratops just for kicks.

Triceratops. 14 HD (119 hp), AC 21 (touch 7). Fort +15, Ref +8, Will +5.
CMB +20, CMD 29/33 v. trip. Initiative -1. Space/Reach 15 ft.
Melee Attack: Gore +17 (2d10 +12) or Power Attack Gore +15 (2d10 + 16)
Powerful Charge (4d10 + 16). This extra damage is dealt only on a successful charge attack.
Trample (1d8+12, Reflex DC 25 for half). As part of a charge attack, the Triceratops can move through squares occupied by enemies. Enemies can move or stay. Enemies which stay are trampled if the Triceratops makes a CMB check versus the enemy's CMD. If the Triceratops succeeds by 5 or more, the enemy is knocked prone.
Damn near everything you need in 1/5 the space. Of course, this process increases prep time in a game that's already making egregious demands for prep time, but it should balance out because now you're not spending the whole game looking up rules.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The GM Challenge


“I challenge my fellow blogging Gamemasters to fess up, and tell us the five games you are great at running, three that you're not so hot with, five reasons why you consider yourself a good GM (or feel you are viewed as such by others), and three things you feel you need work on.”

What 5 games / genres do you GM best?

Horror (gothic / Lovecraftian / survival)
High Fantasy (“Classic” D&D, Pathfinder, lovable misfits who save the world)
Low Fantasy (sandbox Sword & Sorcery stuff full of murder-hobos and political intrigue)
Military Sci-Fi (I have an extensive homebrew setting for this kinda thing)
d20 anything (I’ve played enough now that I just intuitively grok the mechanics)

What 3 games are your worst? That is, if your group wants to play one of these, you would probably recommend a different GM?

Superheroes (I enjoy superhero movies, but I haven’t collected superhero comics since 1996 and I know I wouldn’t do it justice)
Oriental Fantasy (only because I lack proper knowledge of customs / history / language / traditions that are important to getting the setting correct)
Anime / Mecha (I enjoy watching anime occasionally, but I doubt I’d enjoy an anime RPG. Lack of interest mainly, and it’s so visual, I can’t imagine getting the feel of the game right without a ton of visual aids and extensive prep and …ugh, I'm burnt out just thinking about it.)

What 5 elements of GMing do you do best?

World building
Making the game fun
Between session bookkeeping
Descriptions full of relevant, interesting details
Pacing

What elements of GMing are still a work in progress?

Mysteries (I often make them too complex, too simple, or entirely tangential.)
Splitting the party (I give my full attention to the people who are engaged, and leave the unengaged folks to do whatever.)
Time management (Odd, ‘cause I know I have good pacing, but sessions never end where I think they’re going to end.)

So yeah. Kinda fun. Basking in my own radiant goodness helps take the sting out of an honest look at my flaws, and it's nice to set a benchmark for self-improvement.

A post without art doesn't feel right to me. So here's this neat environment by Frank Att.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

5th Edition PHB Races

Whenever a new edition of D&D comes out, I like to re-imagine the PHB races and put my own spin on them. This is my current attempt at making the 5th Edition races more interesting (your mileage may vary) while simultaneously keeping them recognizable.



Humans. They’re as boring and as fascinating as ever. The default D&D setting is essentially colonial-era North America with a neo-Medieval population and a much deeper gene pool. So, play whatever sort of human you like.

Dragonborn. Seventy years ago, a cult of the dragon goddess Tiamat succeeded in briefly bringing their deity into the world. Adventurers slew the high priest mid-ritual, however, and Tiamat’s essence was scattered to the four winds. Tiamat’s essence transformed those with whom it came in contact, creating the race of Dragonborn out of but also creating thousands of horrible reptilian monsters. Today, most dragonborn are the children of those so accursed, perennially damned to wear her scales.

Dwarves. Long ago, dwarvish culture took a turn toward extreme conformity. They are all lawful, gruff, beardy alcoholics who hate goblins and disdain elves, toiling away in their underground cities, mining gold. They all have names like Bolgrim Axefighter and Grimnor Goldbeard: Essentially, something grim and Germanic with a compound surname. Some dwarfs petition their rulers to obtain permits for adventure, though even these self-described iconoclasts often hold strongly to tradition. When a dwarf dares to break from this tradition it’s rarely subtle: Most dwarves know the cautionary tale of Rainbow Twinkle Pony, the dwarf who thought she was a bear and learned to cast spells like a wizard.

Elves. The elves have a really long and fascinating history, and most elves love to tell it to you if you make the mistake of showing interest. The elves used to rule over all the other races, and while elves today aren’t necessarily boorish over-privileged reactionary imperialists, they don’t do a whole lot to dissuade other people from that opinion. The old elvish caste system is deeply ingrained within their culture, but most other races couldn’t care less about who is a Dark Elf and who is a Wood Elf. To outsiders, elves are just “them sexy bigots with the colorful hair.”

Halflings. Halflings are called Halflings because they’re half-Human, half-Dwarf. For some reason, they grow terrible beards but have immaculate foot hair, which their culture dictates they show off by rarely wearing shoes. They avoided the dwarves’ extreme conformity but still tend to live separately from human communities, favoring good beer, gardening, and pipe tobacco. They rarely become adventurers, but it’s kind of a big deal when it happens.

Gnomes. Nobody knows where these crazy motherfuckers came from. Seriously, it’s like one day they just showed up. The dwarves think that their gods created gnomes out of of rocks and trees. Human scholars believe that, similar to the rise of the dragonborn, they arose from some magical calamity. The gnomes themselves are entirely inconsistent on the matter of their own origins, and most of them don’t seem to care. Gnomes are capricious social chameleons, latching onto the dominant culture and fixating on one aspect of it to an obsessive degree. Gnomes living amongst dwarves tend to be engineers and mad scientists, while gnomes living among elves tend to be aloof scholars or forest-punk eco warriors.

Half-Orcs. To most other races, orcs are faceless mooks who can be murdered without consequence. This has made most orcs extremely bitter toward other races. The question remains: Who was first a dick to whom? Did elves start killing orcs because they were acting like shitbirds and lighting whole forests on fire to catch rabbits, or did orcs start killing humans because humans were being horrible racists and using orc babies for target practice? Who knows? Culturally, orcs have become xenophobic isolationists who rarely welcome outsiders, and must rely on banditry and theft in order to survive. Most non-Orcs don’t take the time to learn the difference between an Orc and a Half Orc.

Tieflings. Tieflings don’t have a culture or a racial identity because most are killed at birth. Seriously, you’re part demon. In a neo-Medieval “Dark Age” culture, if you survived being born, it’s because your demonic nature is very subtle or you were born into some freaky cult. Also, the idea of a tiefling doesn’t really exist in pop culture –  If people find out about your true nature, you’re likely to be called “Hellspawn” or “An Accursed Agent of the Dark Ones” instead of tiefling. Even if you do find people crazy enough to just call you Ted, overlook your demonic bloodline, and love you horns and all, well, there's no guarantee your devil blood won't flare up and cause you to go full on cannibal. For this reason, tieflings tend to have a polarized, absolute sense of morality, either doing good to convince other people the horns are just a birthmark or doing evil because they're intrinsically better at it.

I have to resist the urge to write an afterward where I try to contextualize everything. After all, race itself wouldn't exist without context - no, wait, stop. Ha ha! Not this time, liberal arts degree! Phew. Shit almost got real for a minute. Gotta keep ignoring that existential dread. What existential dread? Oh look, Pinterest!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Azarat, City of Ghosts

Sorry, no moon today. Here's a displaced asteroid city orbiting an artificial binary star instead.

Drawing by me. If you use it or like it or hate it or whatever, sweet. Leave a comment.

From an overheard conversation in the Gilded Rooster, a popular tavern in Upper Flinwell: "Okay, so it's not really a city of ghosts. Oh, the city's haunted all right, and there are more undead than a lot of living folks find comforting, but Azarat's moniker is a throwback to a distant past. See, it used to be a sacred city where pilgrims ventured to offer prayers for the departed. There was a big temple to Oggo, God of the Restless Dead. For real, that was his name. The temple? It was breathtaking. It took centuries to build. I mean, I never saw it, but you can't live here as long as I have without knowing about the temple, man."

"Then came the dawning of the twin suns and the whole city broke apart, but everyone knows that story. Most of Azarat drifted off into the void, but a few districts stuck around, held in orbit around the Parasite and the Sustainer. People get from rock to rock by walking through those big stone archways you see scattered everywhere - each rock has portals to every other rock. Well, 'cept for Greldenwod Observatory. Nobody really knows how to get there."

SKRELB. The dwarven quarter. Always leaking smoke and anvil noises, but experimental brewery is big there, too. The Alchemists' Guild pays extra whenever it's caught dumping illegal potion runoff in Skrelb, but they'd rather incur fines than stop doing it.

EDULA. Lots of lonely old trees and lots of hungry ghouls in Edula. It used to be a library. There used to be monks and scholars and priests and heirophants, all sorts of people who cared about the mind and the soul.

THE OPEN MARKET. All the districts meet here to buy and sell. The Grym Wardens make certain all transactions happen with a minimum of bloodshed. Visitors are reminded to be respectful of the crabmen as Market Lake is their home.

UPPER FLINWELL. The creative heart of the city. Lots of bohemian types, artists and crooks and slumlords. The Grym Wardens hate it. Lord Turvim is always losing money here on gentrification projects. It's a great place to buy the hard stuff they make in Skrelb but aren't supposed to sell.

LOWER FLINWELL. The wealthy part of town. Aristos, private security, magical wards, fancy parties and opulence. The Grym Wardens all but ignore this place, but it's still very heavily guarded: Clockwork soldiers are commonplace because they can't tell secrets.

YORPA. The ho hum humdrum middle class district. You need a fitted ball joint or a new wagon axle? Yorpa. Also the secret location of the Thieves' Guild (er, 'Merchant's Meet'), because everyone expects it to be in Upper Flinwell but you don't get good at thieving by doing what the authorities expect, now do you?

SKELF. "Skelf is officially vampire free. Dissidents caught spreading rumors of vampirism in Skelf will be reported to the Grym Wardens and face penalties appropriate for sowing public discord. Please be an ambassador for the city and not a worthless gossip."

TURVIM. Lord Turvim DXVI rules Azarat from the Jade Palace. He's a madman who wears colorful masks and throws amazing parties. The real rulers are all sycophants and courtiers. It's very Game of Thrones, only replace King Robert with Salvador Dali.


HALLS OF GWONT. Gwont was an elven warlord who set up huge monuments to himself during some antediluvian period of Azarat's history. The Halls of Gwont are a set of public buildings: a coliseum, a library, bureaucratic offices, theaters, etc. Oh, and lots of intense elvish statuary. Really, it's the #1 tourist stop when you're in the City of Ghosts.

GRELDENWOD OBSERVATORY. Everyone's got a theory about this spot. Supposedly, it's all about national security. A tightly regulated bastion of scientific and arcane research. Get your permits in order before you even think about setting foot out there, and be prepared to sign a lot of in case of death or serious injury waivers.

TREELEY. As the name suggests, this whole place is an orchard. The thriaes run it like their own little kingdom. I don't like that they control so much of our food source, but they've never threatened to starve us out. And it's nice having a bunch of friendly sexy bee ladies buzzing about. What? Don't give me that look.

GRYMNOTH PRISON. You go to Grymnoth, you don't return. That's if you're lucky. Worst case scenario, you do return, only you're a Grym Warden, your mind wiped clean and your body warped by weird alchemy. Nothing left of your own. You'd think I'd feel safe knowing those brutes are out there protecting us, but it's just the opposite.

TOWERS OF JUSTICE. This used to be a prison, but one of the previous Lord Turvims decided to make it into the religious heart of Azarat. So temples. Lots and lots of temples. All sorts of religions have shrines and rites and services out here, and the graffiti and vandalism is constant. That said, if you've ever dreamed of starting a cult, well, rent is cheap.

THE PARASITE SUN & THE SUSTAINER. These tiny stars burst fully formed from the heart of the asteroid where Azarat once sprawled. No one knows how or why, not definitively, though there are seven major theories and sixty minor theories that Lord Turvim currently approves. Yes, the dawning was a tragedy, and so much of the city has been forever lost. On the bright side, however, the Sustainer's light means most of our old worldly concerns (food, water, breathable air) have been significantly lessened. Sunshine provides the lion's share. Really, it's quite a miracle.

Postscript: Suggested options for player character race in Azarat: Human, Elf, Dwarf, Ghoul, Crabman, and Thriae (the Greek theme kinda works, but honestly I prefer Deserette for my bee-maidens).

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Uralar, Bog Moon of Mysteries

So continuing with the ideas expressed in yesterday's post, I rolled up another moon. This was a 'living world' with a single antagonist: hags. With a little help from donjon.bin.sh, I got:

Uralar is a loathsome world of thorny forests and yellow skies. It is ruled by hags.

Ok, good start. A single antagonist isn't enough, though, for a forest planet. And I don't know about you, but I'm excited at the prospect of dark fey matriarchs lording over amphibian beast men. So let's add boggards. And now that we've got boggards, let's add dinosaurs, because I would love to see barbarian frogs riding stegosauruses chasing my friends' characters through a planet-sized swamp.

Honestly, this is just how my brain works.

The hierarchy goes Hag Countess > Hag > Boggard Chief > Boggard > Dinosaur, with dinosaurs being utterly unaware of their proper place and mostly just dumb and hungry. So, big dinosaurs occasionally eat Hag Countesses, and the cycle continues.

Now, Uralar can get all kinds of weird if you want it to: Hags breeding with boggards or capturing monsters to cultivate dire progeny for some prophecy or another, or maybe the hags are a celibate ruling caste that despises all other living creatures. I think Uralar's a great place to introduce some adult themes, but strictly speaking, you don't need them. Uralar could very easily become an land of fairy tale witches, swamp dinosaurs, and bumbling, comical toad-men. Personally, I want it to be an unsettling place full of unsolvable mysteries, so that's where I took it.

BOGGARD TRIBES OF URALAR

Art by Jaime Jones

Melting Arm Tribe
Boggards of this tribe ritualistically pour acid onto their forearms, then sew animal bones into the flesh while the wound heals. This process often leaves their limbs looking withered and sickly. They are ruled by a cruel tyrant called Broghbok who is quick to use his touch of corruption to keep weaker boggards in line. Broghbok and his greatest warriors ride crested tyrants into battle.

Thunderfoot Tribe
Boggards of this tribe paint themselves in red mud and ride trained thunderfoot tyrants into battle. Gulogo, their priest-king, keeps a coterie of animal trainers well-fed and well-armed, knowing that the tyrants are essential to holding power in the region.  They also breed whiptails for food.

This small, secretive tribe of boggards is prone to mutation. Many are born with extra limbs or eyes, and boggard magic users are far more common. Although the tribe is small, it is fierce: the magic users who rule it demand constant sacrifices for their dark rituals, and over time, the Poison Garden tribe has mastered the art of raiding. (As linked above, the mutation table for The Cult of Blood and Briar from The Swordfish Islands is amazing and I want an excuse to roll on it, hence these dudes).

Worm Tribe
These insane boggards worship the great destroyers as gods.  They paint their flesh blue or white or yellow, or a mixture of all three, and conduct unspeakable orgies in the hopes of attracting bholes to their presence. These religious orgies are the central focus of their lives; everything else they do is done in service to these perverse observances.

Art by Jacek Irzykowski

THE HAGS THEMSELVES

Hags are fiercely individualistic. No two hags look alike (at least, not if they can help it). I love the stats for Green Hags, how they're this great amalgamation of fighter/illusionist/rogue that works well with all sorts of allies, and would assume such creatures make up the majority of Uralar's hag population. Of course, being fierce individualists, no two hags have the exact same stat-block. Below are three such hags, their quirks, and my proposed stat-blocks.


Steel Euphenia is a sadist and a killer. She loves nothing more than to watch the light go out in a living creature's eyes. Most nights, she wanders along the banks of the River of Shadows hunting dinosaurs for sport. Occasionally, she grows bored of murder and retires to an elaborate ruin where mutilated boggards tend to her whims, but Euphenia never keeps to a schedule. She is extremely old - legends say she neither eats nor drinks nor sleeps, and hasn't for centuries. Her fighting prowess is coveted by all, and countless hags and boggard chieftains have attempted to sway her to fight for them. Some have even succeeded.

To build Steel Euphenia in Pathfinder, I'd start by replacing pyrotechnics and whispering wind with rage and vampiric touch, removing skill ranks in Disguise and adding them to Athletics, and giving her a sweet +3 vicious flail. And she totally has max hit points and a couple levels in Fighter.


Cleo the Breathstealer is a powerful sorceress. She makes her home atop an ancient tree whose branches are so wide that an apatosaurus could stand on them without causing them to bend. She sustains herself on moonlight and stolen breath. She wear beautiful silks woven long ago and far away by otherworldly visitors. She is a mystery, and cultivates ambiguity and misunderstanding whenever possible. The Worm Tribe venerates her. They believe she knows all the secrets of the great destroyers and offer her carcasses, slaves, and precious stones in the hopes of coaxing her to share. The boggards say that when she dreams, long dead giants stir below the muck...

Stats wise, Cleo could easily be represented by a fey mothman. If that doesn't feel right, instead add a few levels of Oracle to a Green Hag, or just slip phantasmal killer into an advanced green hag's spell list.


Niora of the Brass Rings is a charismatic ruler who extorts offerings from seven different boggard tribes, most notably the Thunderfoots. She can change her form to that of a raven or crow, transmuting back again in a moment's notice, and she seems to have a powerful affinity for flying creatures. Niora claims she is a pacifist. However, the golems she controls have no qualms about violence and mete out terror on her behalf. Some of her golems can transform into birds - none of the other hags know how she accomplished this feat, or where she found golems capable of such transformation - and Niora isn't telling.

For Niora's stats, replace tree shape with beast shape I. She is served by 2d6 golems, which are scarecrows with giant cloaks and no pumpkin heads. Replace Fascinating Gaze with At will--beast shape I, crows or ravens only. Also, taking inspiration from the art, I imagine these scarecrows fight with beautiful, enchanted greatswords, and that Niora controls them with one or more magical rings she wears beneath her gloves. Convincing her to part with a brass ring of golem command could be one hell of a quest.

***

So that's Uralar. Honestly, when it comes to rolling up more hags, I think a random name generator and some killer art is the way to go. Build the hags you'll need for the story you want to tell. 

Same with the boggard tribes. Sacred color + domesticated dinosaur + weird ritual = new tribe.

Uralar asks more questions than it answers. Why are there dinosaurs? Why are human-appearing fey creatures lording over amphibians? Were there other civilizations here? If so, what happened to them? You can answer those questions however you like, but when it comes to this particular moon, I'd play it like a hydra: For every mystery answered, two take its place.

Note: Artist unknown where unlisted. I'd love to know who did the sculpture for Steel Euphenia. Also, Uralar has no meaning as far as I'm aware. It sounds both Scottish and Sumerian to me, so I dig it.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Metum, the Devil Moon

I was reading Monsters and Manuals last night and I stumbled on this clever idea. The author even made a cool d20 chart to go along with it, and so I thought, “Sweet, I’ll give it a go.” I rolled:

Rocky world populated by minor devils.

And was like, “Well, that’s boring.” I rolled up a few more and jotted them down, wondering if I’d ever use this for anything. I rolled up an organic planet where dwarfs and mind-flayers fight over lumps of brain and an ice world ruled by aboleth, both of which I thought were very cool. Surely I could use those.

Then, this morning, I suddenly remembered that terse little prompt about the rocky world ruled by minor devils, and my shower-thoughts kept flowing until I’d written all of this:

METUM

Metum’s surface is utterly devoid of life. It makes the Gobi desert looks like the Amazon. It’s mostly iron-rich rock under a swirl of carbon dioxide, so red-orange, like Mars, but somehow far less hospitable.


In a forgotten age, 666 barbazus (bearded devils) were left stranded here. They were given no orders, no instructions, and no chain of command. The supremely lawful creatures tried to elect leaders from within, but their inability to break from Hell’s rigid caste system made it impossible to rally. They fought among themselves, murdering one another for the slightest insult, only to discover that the murdered devils returned, fully intact, six days later.

The devils have been stuck on Metum for thousands of years. They build almost nothing: they are killers, not builders. The devils might band together long enough to erect a tower or dig a trench, but complex architecture eludes them. They cannot change their caste. No one is promoted or demoted. Everyone is male. Everyone is lawful evil. The devils have no need for water, food, or shelter; bearded devils are immortal beings and besides, they cannot ever truly die. Also, everyone has killed everyone else. No one trusts anyone. All they have to offer is violence and betrayal.


 

Metum is a remote moon, rarely visited on purpose. When someone or something does come to Metum, the devils tend to torture it for sport until everything is gone. Most of the devils have gone mad with long isolation (being devils, they weren’t terribly stable to begin with), so bargaining will be hard. That said, these devils are desperate. Anyone who offers them something besides eternal drudgery in this dark Valhalla will be remembered for centuries, whether their words are true or false. They would all kill for an opportunity to return to Hell. The devils know that when they die, they return to Metum. This fact might inspire recklessness or extreme caution, depending on the devil and how wild they’ve gone across the uncounted millennia. Some devils believe that if they can make it back to Hell, they’ll no longer be tied to Metum. They can serve in their caste again. They can torture souls. There will be other devils besides barbazu: they can grovel to their superiors and punish their lessers forever.

A magistrix desperate enough to enlist the devils of Metum will have a powerful army at her command, provided she can catch their attention, transport them off-world, and deliver on her promises. After all, a planet of unkillable devils with nothing better to do than nurse grudges could make for a frightening adversary, provided they could ever reach you.

Ok yeah, so these are Ice Warriors from Dr. Who. The imagery still works.

Metum is a graveyard for fools who thought they could bargain with the barbazu. Derelict ships, ruined one-way portals, and other paraphernalia for traversing the void might still be found scattered across its surface, though it’s equally likely the devils have ruined it. Given enough time, any single devil might have escaped centuries ago in a stolen spacecraft, returning to Metum after a suffering an untimely death, the technology he used to escape forever lost.

***

So, from a literary standpoint, Metum isn't a new idea. It's basically Gazorpazorp without a female component: the worst aspects of masculinity exaggerated. That said, I love the concept, and now I want to roll up another moon populated only by succubi. I also want to find some time write up a full sword-and-planet setting in which to tell my friends to roll death saves.


Note: The name Metum came up in a Sumerian name generator, and it’s also the Latin accusative singular of fear (argumentum ad metum is a fallacy in which a person attempts to increase fear toward a competitor), so I like it for this planet. Fear crouched in the remnants of vanished civilizations.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Gildore's Shop of Wonders

donjon.bin.sh is a wonderful resource.

Before running each of the modules in my current campaign, I urge the players to go shopping. Not every item has apparent value, and not every drawback is disclosed. For example, the Hand of Glory is a steal here, but they don’t realize just how many magic rings are going to turn up in the next two adventures. Likewise, the Ring of Protection is a good deal, but the vinegar smell actually led to the monk’s untimely death, as a giant constrictor snake was able to smell him while he was scouting and attack him alone.

Enjoy at your own risk.

Art by Tony DiTerlizzi

Gildore is a Tengu merchant who often works with the Freehold Adventurers’ Guild. He travels the length and breadth of the land searching for rare and unique treasures. The following is a sample of his current stock.

+1 Breastplate – 1215 gp (10% discount) 
A distinctive suit of polished steel armor with a stylized lion’s head embossed upon the chest. Yes, its previous owner died while wearing it; he died looking incredible.

Arcane Scroll (Caster Level 5): Color Spray
– 75 gp (25% discount)
This scroll is simply Color Spray written four times on expensive vellum. The author was apparently worried he would be caught without Color Spray when he needed it most. Don’t let his paranoid nightmares become your reality! Buy now!

Divine Scroll (Caster Level 10)Break Enchantment
– 955 gp (15% discount)
This ancient piece of parchment is would have crumbled to dust long ago if not for the runes of power inscribed upon it.

Hand of Glory – 3000 gp (25% discount)
This mummified hand once belonged to the necromancer Voorga, leader of the Council of the Blasphemous Sign, who was slain by heroes during the reign of the Devil Lich. Probably anyway.

Potion of Gaseous Form – 675 gp (10% discount)
This luminous potion is contained in a wax-sealed glass jar. For some reason, it may also turn your hair white when you drink it. For some other reason, the change is permanent. Gildore doesn’t know why. Stop asking him dumb questions.

Potion of Cure Moderate Wounds – 270 gp (10% discount)
This suspicious viscous scarlet potion smells salty. Best not to ask.

Ring of Protection +1 – 1800 gp (10% discount)
A finely crafted electrum ring set with amethysts. It protects its wearer from bodily harm and, strangely, causes its wearer to smell faintly of vinegar. Magic is weird sometimes. Just go with it.

Wand of Acid Arrow (9 of 50 charges) – 810 gp
This heavy elm wand looks like it means business. It’s covered in bloodstains, runes, and ichor. Gildore assures you it still works if you know how to use it.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

oD&D (1974 Dungeons & Dragons) v. Pathfinder


Six weeks ago I joined an ongoing oD&D campaign. We’re three sessions in, and I’m having a blast. In some ways, it’s very different from the D&D I’m familiar with (which is largely 3rd Edition derivatives, with liberal portions of AD&D and 4th Edition and a dash of 5th for zest). I thought I’d put together this table to illustrate how it’s different from my current squeeze, Pathfinder.


oD&D
Pathfinder
Character Creation
Super simple. Done in 10 minutes. What distinguishes one Magic-User from another is his/her personality, loot, and motivations.

The negative is that there aren't many crunchy options. You get one spell as a level one Magic-User, determined randomly, and you probably only have 2 hit points. Good luck.

Complex, but the process is very rewarding. I love building characters that can do interesting tricks with the game mechanics.

On the downside, my friend's latest character (Sorcerer 10) can cast 31 different spells. While that could be seen as a plus, he's never played a Sorcerer before, and printing off a spellbook for handy reference is kind of a pain when it's that thick and detailed.
DM Prep
I haven’t prepped an oD&D game myself, but there’s a big difference between this stat block:

Werewolf: Move 120, AC 5, HD 5 [hp 20] 2 attacks [1d6/claws]. Only hurt by silver or magic weapons.


That said, having a highly detailed and descriptive system isn’t bad, but it does dramatically increase DM prep time.
Lethality and challenge
Crazy lethal. No negative hit points—you hit zero hp, you die. Cure Light Wounds only heals 1d6 and doesn’t show up until level 2. Pray you never fail a saving throw.

That said, it is amazingly satisfying to roleplay your way out of a combat encounter you have no chance of winning with force, and it happens pretty often in this system.
In my experience, Paizo published material isn’t terribly dangerous. It's designed for Society play (ie. pick-up groups full of characters that aren’t likely to have good synergy), so to be fair, it can't just be hard-mode all the way through.

Homebrew campaigns can ratchet up the lethality by tailoring fights to fit the party, though, in my humble opinion, the Challenge Rating system is utterly unreliable.

Accessibility
Rules are tersely written and require deep reading, not skimming. Upside: They’re short. The layout of the old books is just awful, though, but if you simply can’t tolerate the bad layout, good news: Swords and Wizardry did a great job of  (essentially) re-packaging it for visually oriented people like myself. If I ever DM an oD&D game, I'll likely use S&W.

Pathfinder can overwhelm new players with choices. Hell, it can overwhelm seasoned veterans with choices. Modules are also very densely written. Honestly, It’s probably better to come to Pathfinder after you’ve already played a couple different systems.

What do I do with all this gold?
Since you get XP for acquiring gold, everyone’s a treasure hunter. Of course, spending your gold is tricky, since there are no magic item shops per se. Instead, you can get lost in the minutiae of building castles and strongholds, or figuring out how many mercenaries to hire this month for your conquests. I personally enjoy this kind of thing, but I can easily see where other people would find it dull. A good DM needs to know the in-game options available to his players and be able to deal with greedy players (like myself) who want to set up trade caravans, rob topaz quarries, and offer competitive banking options to the oligarchy.
So you’re level 5 and have 11,000 gold? Here’s a long list of magic items with price tags attached.

Some people hate the idea of commoditized magic, but I’m not one of them. I think it’s a reason to have your character loot those golden idols and trigger the boulder trap, because there’s a Phylactery of Negative Energy Channeling waiting for you back in town if you can only scrounge up 2,000 more gold pieces!

It does, however, mean you’re likely to have shopkeepers that are 15th level wizards with iron golem bodyguards, just to keep greedy 2nd-level rogues from looting the +3 longsword of haste he’s got on the 20% off rack. (Or you could just let them steal it and make it a plot arc, which has worked well for me in the past).

Or you just have players who will happily wander through your game world without questioning any of your conventions, but unless you all agree to play blissful naives who are too fragile for this world, that’s never going to happen. (Amazingly, my current group elected to play Lawful wunderkinds, so I'm actually living the dream.)

The Endgame
The endgame is running a kingdom, your thralls worshipping at your feet, reciting litanies of your legendary deeds. You can still die to a spider bite, but you have a dozen heirs and retainers ready to take your place. You’re a mortal with a fascinating legacy.
You’re a superhero. You summon angels, fly all the time, travel across dimensions in the blink of an eye, and assassinate the gods themselves. Even if you could be killed, you’d just come back as a clone, buy some new gear, and retrieve all your old gear once you’re through meting out vengeance.

Sandbox v. Railroad
(Definitions)
Sandbox: (copied from Alex Schroeder) Dangers are not adapted to the strength of the party. Generally speaking, it’s safer near civilized settlements. The further you move into the wilderness, the more dangerous it is. That’s how players control the risks they want to take....The actions of your characters determine the direction the campaign will take. There is no planned ending for the campaign. As long as you keep investigating rumors, exploring locations and following quests, [the DM] will keep developing the game world in that direction. The harder you look, the more there is to see.

Railroad: In this context, I'm using railroad to mean, "A game with a structured, linear plot in which the characters are expected to take on the role of protagonist or antagonist." There's probably a better word for this idea than 'railroad' but I can't think of what it is.

This game is designed to be a sandbox. Monsters get harder the further away from town you travel, so if you morons want to kill the Dragon of Doom at level one, you should have just told me you didn’t want to play and we could’ve all gone to a movie. 

Conversely, if you don’t want to go to the Forsaken Temple of Linear Progress that I’ve spent hours prepping, well, there’s no way in hell I’m getting you through those (obviously trapped) front doors.
Pathfinder is great for running challenging yet balanced encounters in a linear fashion. Some of the modules/adventure paths make BIG ASSUMPTIONS about player motivations (Hell’s Rebels, I’m looking at you. You had so much potential! Grr!) and that can be frustrating both as a player and a DM. If you’re running a homebrew campaign, most of those issues disappear, but then those ugly, multi-page stat blocks show up and make on-the-fly DMing feel like a chore.

So, I guess, Pathfinder is better suited for linear gaming, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad, choiceless railroad devoid of player agency. It’s just much, much harder to run a sandbox game in Pathfinder than it honestly should be.


So there you go. It’s a biased, far-from-comprehensive list, but it gets the point across.

As an aside, I must admit I had some misconceptions about playing oD&D. I played a game (Castle Zagyg) at GenCon last year and loved it, mostly because of the quirky people at the table and the excellent DM. I learned that lots of people still played oD&D and that the old stuff was getting harder to find, which I found really intriguing.

Then someone told me about the Old School Renaissance. 1974 D&D was still alive and well and hey, you should check it out, there are a lot of indie gamers making new and cool stuff. I didn’t go too deep, though, mostly because my next foray to OSR was through Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and Lamentations doesn’t skimp on the horror, gore, and sex (which is fine, it’s a game for adults, but reading spell effects in the core rulebook that talk about gang rape or genital mutilation was like, “Nope, pass.”) Lamentations also uses THAC0 and AD&D conventions that I find obtuse, but again, like it says in the header, I don’t hate on systems. If you’re playing LoFP and loving it, shine on you crazy diamond.

(Despite the assertions I’ve made in the preceding paragraph, Scenic Dunnsmouth and A Red and Pleasant Land are both LofP products and incredibly fascinating reads. I doubt I’d ever use them exactly-as-written, but they’re inspiring material for any game that makes use of weird horror.)

That said, my current oD&D game is set in the marvelous Yoon-Suin, which the author describes as "Fantasy Tibet by somebody who has never been to Tibet and knows nothing about it, but likes the idea of yak-folk and self-mummifying monks." It's a trip. You should check it out.