Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Thog or, Chiron Crawler

None know the true origin of the thogs (or digitaurs, or Chiron Crawlers, or, simply, 'crawlers') but sages feel it is safe to assume it involved sorcery, lunacy, and strong drink. They have the head, arms, and upper torso of ordinary men, while their lower bodies are shaped like gigantic human hands.

There are two major subraces, known as "tall" and "long" in the common tongue.

Tall thogs (with the fingers emerging forward from the torso--as in the photo) are generally given to intellectual pursuits, including bureauracy, politics and magic. These fearsome hybrids are often found in the employ of sea hags, misanthropic alchemists, and power-mad magi, though some have been known to betray their masters in order to pillage eldritch secrets from their libraries and laboratories.

Long thogs (with the thumb characteristically emerging from the front of the torso and the fingers facing backward, as in the sketch below) are fierce warriors. In the gladiatorial pits of Cors-Edeth and lower Vornheim thogs are pitted against driders and centaurs, and few who wager on the misshapen abominations are disappointed.

Their weapon of choice is the poleaxe, with which they strike ordinary foes from above.

Although they make excellent guards, "right" crawlers will only allow themselves to be partnered with "left" crawlers, and vice versa.

In wilderness areas, both subspecies have been observed to grow their leg-nails long and use them to scratch or claw as they move toward opponents, though this tactic is impractical in urban areas or stone-floored dungeons.

While few play the violin, the one in the photo does.


Basically, thogs should be totally scalable--i.e. about as scary as you need them to be the first time the PCs meet them. Long-nailed thogs get one extra "scratch" attack per opponent (up to a maximum of 5, obviously). Their move stat should be faster than ordinary humans but lower than that of a true centaur. They're a good monster if you're in the mood for hit-location charts.

If you really want to go nuts, you can give magic-using tall thogs a slew of unusual or especially deadly spells activated by the gestures and movements of their lower body, or by a mated pair of thogs moving around in unison.

Image and, in all likelihood, entire concept, taken from the cover to the Gray Matter album "Thog" from Dischord records.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Hidden Traits Of NPC You Didn't Realize Was Going To Be Important Until You Actually Started Playing

(This chart is designed to be the kind of thing you can use during actual play--not just while prepping an adventure.)

Roll d100

1-Is a random PC's mom, in disguise.
2-Despises all life, is a secret sociopath, but drinks too much to get very far with it
3-Wants to be a druid very badly, isn't working out so well yet.
4-Wants to help the PCs because s/he's smitten with one of them. Possibly views other PCs as rivals.
5-Has machiavellian scheme of which every single thing that's occurred thus far in the campaign is actually a part. Secret end of scheme is something unimaginably petty.
6-Is actually high-functioning neutral undead.
7-Helpful, frightened, likes fried food.
8-Terrifed of water. 4th-level thief.
9-Fantastic barber. Doesn't know it.
10-Poet. Knows it.
11-Is some totally bizarre thing from a whole other game--like Rifts or Shadowrun or Monopoly or something.
12-Expert: local knowledge on some place the PCs haven't been yet but will probably get to before the end of the campaign. Suspicious but bribe-able.
13-Desperately trying to sell some real estate--tavern, inn, weapons shop. Will accept ominously low price.
14-2nd level fighter. Has terrible, communicable skin condition.
15-Is a professional witchfinder. Probably somebody in the party qualifies as a witch.
16-3rd level fighter and hilarious! If PCs end up in a drunken brawl in which the NPC takes part (on either side), s/he will make quips. Roll Will save to avoid laughing uncontrollably for d4 rounds.
17-Secret pervert. I'll leave the details up to you.
18-Secret prude. Will berate and shun anyone who appears to be having fun.
19-Gambler. A pretty good one actually. If the PCs can get on his/her good side they may catch some run-off from his/her post-winning spending sprees.
20-Scholar. Expert on first subject PCs happen to need information about while in his/her presence. Impatient and easily offended, however.
21-Inordinately fond of the halfling's pipeweed. Annoying. Wears sandals.
22-Inventor. Capable of coming up with mildly anachronistic technology. Sleeps too much.
23-Paranoid lycanthrophobe. Talks to no-one at night. Locks self up on full moons.
24-Has an entirely undeserved reputation as a lout in nearest city. Is actually quite charming.
25-Has an unusually well-maintained collection of dollhouses.
26-Carves chess pieces when nervous. Isn't very good at chess. Plays for money, though.
27-Reformed crazy wizard. (15th level). No longer casts spells. If the truth comes out and the PCs are very, very nice and reassuring, they may be able to persuade him/her to cast a spell, but each spell cast has a 10% chance of pushing him/her over the edge.
28-Is William Shakespeare. Or nearest racial equivalent.
29-Has bizarre fungus colony growing in stomach. Knows it, and sings to it each night before going to bed. If slain, the colony will escape.
30-Has constant, unaccoutable, faux-european accent-drift. German one second, French the next, etc..
31-Proud. Hungry for glory. Inept.
32-Is nicknamed "The Hyena". The reason for this is, thus far, unclear...
33-Radical democrat. Constantly trying to draw PCs into various regicidal schemes.
34-Gourmet cook/chef/baker. Constantly trading or searching for exotic ingredients.
35-Extremely accomodating. Creepily accomodating. Will let the PCs stable their horses in his/her living room. Talks like Dracula. Totally harmless.
36-Ex-court jester. Not that funny. 1st-level wizard.
37-Always wants to help. Is kind of useless, though. Has a really nice magic sword.
38-Carpenter. Claims to be the son of local deity. Isn't.
39-Was possessed once by a greater demon. Doesn't like talking about it. Blames self.
40-Excellent hunter. Can find, kill, skin and gut a bulette in 12 seconds. Dislikes fighting otherwise.
41-Is actually kind of sweet.
42-Boring. Will talk until credibly threatened.
43-Is in with the in-crowd. Knows where to get the good lotus powder, has friends in all the thieves' guilds, all the local dancers owe him/her favors.
44-Fiercely devoted to random local deity. Was fiercely devoted to rival local deity until fairly recently.
45-Totally Metal. Likes axes, mead, and fire.
46-Is exactly like your favorite character from your favorite book only the opposite gender.
47-Unappreciated medieval art genius. Can do perspective and everything.
48-Amateur doctor. Takes a professional interest in any disease.
49-Likes eating eggs. Has terrible asthma.
50-Knows far more languages than anyone else in the campaign. For reasons unknown.
51-Str 18/00. Has lice.
52-Extremely insecure, addictive personality, whatever s/he's doing, s/he wishes s/he were doing something else.
53-Totally self-deluded, thinks s/he's all that and a bag of chips and that the PCs are thoroughly impressed with him/her.
54-Feels no remorse. Has never seen the ocean.
55-Painfully stupid. Good-natured though. Always pretends like s/he knows what the PCs are talking about, but never does.
56-Has fascinating theories about animal and monster behavior and something called "evolutionne threwe natural selectionne".
57-Can't read but likes to pretend s/he can.
58-Is from a far more sophisticated culture far to the (east, south, whatever) and is sort of appalled and disgusted every time something medieval happens.
59-Acts like Sherlock Holmes (d6: 1-3 Basil Rathbone 4-5 Robert Downey, Jr. 6-John Cleese)
60-Depressed, depressing, pessimistic, eerily lucky in all endeavors.
61-Nervous. Knows secret weakness of important monster, but is probably too suspicious to tell anyone.
62-Angry amateur astrologer.
63-Alcoholic idiot-savant thief.
64-Is creeped out by magic. Is trying to grow a beard. If s/he already has one, is trying to decide whether to shave it.
65-Has a personal vendetta against most powerful NPC in campaign. Right-handed.
66-Idealistically committed to racial harmony. Calls humans, elves, dwarves, etc. "demi-orcs". Has a wooden eye.
67-Vomits alot. No reason.
68-Forgetful. Narcoleptic. Handy.
69-A total bureaucratic tool and busybody. Secretly writes down information about everybody s/he's met.
70-Has an obscure ceremonial obligation to do some strange but subtle ritual at dusk every day. May or may not actually prevent genuine dire mystical consequences.
71-Never answers a question directly. If pressed, will cry.
72-Loves his/her job. Jolly and enthusiastic about it. May have Asperger's syndrome.
73-Charisma 18. Terribly charming. Enthusiastic for tales of adventure. Will trade information if the PCs tell him/her what they've been up to.
74-Locked in a Melvillean struggle with some monster/beast a la Bill Murray in Caddyshack.
75-Master spy. Has entirely opposite personality as s/he appears to have.
76-Vegetarian. Fears the sight of blood. Has many foes.
77-Complains about minor physical ailments constantly. If seriously injured, insulted, or aggrieved, will not mention it at all and will go back to complaining about bursitis and toothaches almost immediately.
78-Eminently gullible and convincible--does whatever anyone tells him/her to do.
79-Plays practical jokes. Lives with parents.
80-OCD. Often feels uncontrollable urge to touch dangerous NPCs and monsters on the nose.
81-Knows the languages of animals. Not that they particularly like him/her.
82-Has serious body image issues. Keeps asking if s/he looks good in this?
83-Addicted to opium. Thinks PCs are a whole other group of PCs from a different campaign.
84-Secretly carrying on a torrid love affair with another major NPC in the game.
85-Swears constantly. Good at math.
86-Loves cat more than spouse.
87-Secretly sells familiars on the black market.
88-Ferociously impatient. Interrupts everyone all the time.
89-Common isn't native language--always says "What is the word?...ahhhh..." Likes travelling.
90-Extremely superstitious. Constantly examines omens, signs, and luck charms. Some actually work.
91-Terrible with names. Makes up nicknames for everyone, forgets them, makes up new ones.
92-Has 25 children. Experiments with gunpowder.
93-Has a pet that isn't actually what s/he thinks it is.
94-Never misses a chance to go to the theatre. Is often thrown out for brawling.
95-Will betray anyone who trusts him/her, then confess and beg for mercy. Enjoys beekeeping and horticulture.
96-Has same tattoo as PC. If PCs are un-tattooed, has same father.
97-Has extensive war wounds. Hears things wrong a lot due to ear injury. Hilarity or disaster ensues.
98-Believes that crows despise him/her. Flees from them on sight. Ambidextrous.
99-Acts like Gandalf but is wrong all the time.
100-Amateur shrink--constantly trying to psychoanalyze the PCs whenever they meet. Fears pirates.

Monday, December 28, 2009

9 Segments? Seriously?

This will be a short post.

I feel I have earned a short post, for having posted things of genuine substance all through the holidays thus far.

Here is my short post:

I never use casting times. Never even considered it.

(Thus the poll over on the right here----->).

I know there are many fine arguments for using them, but essentially my unfailing reasoning behind not using them currently in my own games is:

The rules of our current games of D&D essentially organically emerged from games based on whatever version of the rules our friend Craig remembered from when he played 15 years ago as a motorscooter-gang speed-addict metalhead.

Since we didn't use casting times in those first few games--and every game we've played since has been fun--adding them in later would just feel like an annoying burden to the spellcasting PCs at this point.

Plus, without them, I don't have to ever explain the difference between a "round" a "turn" and a "segment" to anyone.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

D&D With Porn Stars & Their Siblings

The tenor of the game changes somewhat during the holidays, when we play with Mandy's family...

"I can't believe you actually married the Fishwife."

"All I want is minions, I figured I'd get minions. I never get minions."

"You can get minions in D&D."

"I'm never in the right situation."

"Evan, all she had was a tower in the middle of the ocean, you want to rule a tower in the middle of some water?"

"Hey, I was just going with the flow, I woke up, I was getting married to a fish lady and I figured, ok, I'll see where this goes. It was all fine except the warts and turning green and stuff. You're the one who kept hypnotizing the troll and never made it do anything."

"I made it not kill me! Besides, I sent it into the ocean, I don't understand why it came back."

"It was a sea troll Kara! It goes in the sea!"

"But--how did it get back out of the water?"

(Dad) "Can we talk about something else?"

"How does anyone get out of water?"

"Yeah, what about seals, Kara?"

"Seals don't go onto ships--it was on the ship eating people!"

"Seals took over a whole dock in San Francisco once."

"Or what about people, Kara? How do people get out of swimming pools?"

"They use a ladder."

"You don't have to use a ladder."

"Can we change the subject?"

"I use a ladder."

"Well the sea troll doesn't! It's a troll from the sea!"

"How was I suppose to know that?"

"It was blue and when you found it, it was in a pool!"

"And he said it was a sea troll."

"Well you're the one who let it knock you out."

"Well that wasn't fair because I didn't know the Fishwife had armor."

"Evan, she's a boss, you don't take on a boss all by yourself."

"She's just like a little fish lady, and I'm like a big guy, she's like to me like what the troll is to you, I don't understand why she didn't just go down."

"Evan, she was a boss."

"How was I supposed to know that?"

"She has a tower in the sea and controls monsters and captured your ship and forced you to marry her and did magic on you and controls a sea troll--of course she's a boss!"

"Hey, she's just like a little fish, and I ambushed her."

"In an ambush, the target moves and you stand still and hide. You just ran in there. Through the door."

"Well it was better than your plan, which was just to lay in the next room and sleep."

"We were resting, Evan, you're in a party with spellcasters, we have to rest to get our spells back. It's a cooperative game, Evan, you have to do things together."

"So you were gonna just rest for eight hours?"

"I have a magic pillow..."

"Can we talk about something else?"

"So what?"

"So I only have to sleep for an hour."

"Well if you're asleep for an hour in her house she's going to find you."

"Not necessarily, Evan."

"No, she was going around looking for you because you sent her troll away instead of making the troll just kill her. What's the point of hypnotizing a troll if you're just going to tell it to stand there?"

"Can we talk about something else?"

"I thought as soon as the troll went in the sea he was gone. Like, I think of the sea as just, like, the end of things."

"But it was A. Sea. Troll. It likes the sea. It's from the sea."

"Anyway it would've eaten you if it hadn't gotten me, so you should be glad."

"If you had just waited it wouldn't have gotten you."

"Yes it would've, I..."

(Dad) "Evan just likes chaos, he's always trying to cause trouble."

"Yeah, that's why he married the fishwife."

"I just wanted minions."

"And then he changed his mind and punched her in the face."

"I don't know, I got bored--and her guys wouldn't do what I told them to do."

"Well, they were in the middle of being attacked."

"But I told them that I was taking the prisoners."

"They were busy fighting. One of them was on fire."

"Still, like, I was supposed to be in charge and it wasn't working."

"You just kept changing your mind--first you were fighting them, then you married the fish lady, then you went to the bathroom, then you tried to sneak away, then you let me get carried off then you punched her in the face."

"I just, y'know, got tired of it. Why didn't you just tell the troll to like, strangle her."

"Can we please talk about something else?"

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Secret Randomness

There's 2 kinds of randomness I want to talk about:

Open Randomness:

Dragon breathes fire on Sneaky McThiefenhower, Sneaky rolls saving throw dice, everybody watches, we wait for the result, hey it's random. We all know this situation very well. It is also widely agreed to be a lot of fun. What disease did you get? (roll roll) Haha, gout! You tool! It's fun, its funny, it's a good chunk of what makes the game cool and sometimes exciting. Almost everything's more fun when everybody knows it's random.

Random To The DM But Not To The Players (Secret Randomness)

Player: "If the wind is favorable, we should be able to make North Island by nightfall. Which way is the wind blowing?"

DM:(looks down at the random wind direction that s/he rolled up before the game started.)

Player: "Awesome. You're such a nice DM today, what got into you?"

In this case--and this is the case I want to talk about most here--the result was determined randomly but there is no way the players could know that.

Here's an example from the AD&D DMG (pg 47):

If the PCs are hexcrawling in a "moderate to sparsely inhabited" area the base chance of an encounter is 1 in 12, whereas in an 'uninhabited/wilderness" area it's 1 in 10.

While I recognize and appreciate the Gygaxian Naturalism implied here, there is absolutely no chance that the players ever will (unless I actually tell them these odds or they see me rolling random encounters at the table--in which case it ceases to be Secret Randomness.)

To the players, they either run into a monster or they don't. Maybe if they go through several hundred hexes they'll realize what the odds are like, but if the DM throws in just a few pre-planned encounters then there goes that. It all just seems like it's in the DMs lap. These 1-in-12 vs. 1-in-10 figures are not statistics the PCs can utilize tactically or consider when making their plans.

To a player, this not like the math implied by their Str 6---which tells them that if called upon to perform a feat of strength, they will probably fail, though not as often as they fail to perform a feat of dexterity since their Dex is 3.

In other words, very often Random to the DM But Not The Players has almost no effect on the game other than allowing the DM to roll some dice rather than pick something interesting.


Reasons To Use Secret Randomness:


Before the game, secret randomness sometimes speeds things up. There are ways to do this "wrong"--rolling wind direction randomly and secretly before the game seems pointless. A bad random generator does little more than have rolling for a simple option (left or right?) replace thinking about a simple option.

On the other hand, some tables are so long (like the DMG magic item table) that rolling is faster than reading every single entry. So there's a good reason to roll. A good random generator (like I hope this one is) actually makes several choices at once very quickly. The Another Brick In The Wall generator and most computer generators give you monster placement, room placement, item placement, and paths from room to room in less than a minute. Saving time is a decent reason to do a lot of things, but the trade-off, obviously, is that you think about things less, which is often a bad thing. But you probably know all about this and have already thought about it. Secret randomness during the game is a much more slippery subject...


This is probably the best reason to use Secret Randomness during a game. Concealing the fact that the nearest necromancer lives just next door just coincidentally or that the pub you walked into just happens to contain a guy who has a bizarre proposition concerning waterfowl may make the PCs suspect there's a plot going on against them when actually there isn't.

If the PCs know that the encounter with the (random roll) frightened (random roll) child babbling about (random roll) lava (random roll) trolls was random, they won't feel the need to investigate, but if there's a chance that it was a planned event the DM sprung on them then maybe they ignore the curse of the lava trolls at their peril...

A related sub-reason might generally be because, if the players realize the DM is generating fixed attributes of the world randomly during the game (like street layout) it might throw them out of the "fantasy" for a second. I tend to not think this is a big deal (especially if the paranoia effect is not also in play), but some people do.

However, it's important to note that Secret Randomness for the purpose of generating paranoia is no different, from the players point of view, from Secret Arbitrarily Making Stuff Up. So why use a chart at all?

To Decrease The Number of Things The DM Has To Think About During The Game

Assuming that we're using Secret Randomness during the game because we want to create paranoia or keep everything verismilitudinous, why are we using a chart instead of making it all up? If we use a complicated chart with complex options--the only kind that's worth using before the game--then that usually takes too long either to consult or to read the result during the game (especially considering that you're trying to keep it all secret).

Ok, in my Urbancrawl Rules the shapes of correct paths to PC destinations are Secretly Random. Why'd I do that? Why not just arbitrarily put a place on an arbitrary map and go? Because I know all the paths available in the random generation method I designed are of approximately equal length and complexity so I can rely on it and not have to second-guess myself. However, since it's all based on how a die looks when it comes up, you don't have to actually spend time consulting a chart. Paradoxically, it also might, over time, generate a level of street-plan complexity that might not happen if I was thinking it all up on the fly since we have a tendency to think in repeating patterns. (Maybe.)

I admit, this is probably the worst reason to use Secret Randomness. In order to be both fast and secretive, you have to use a chart with less complicated results than the really involved ones you'd use before the game, but at least as complicated as what you'd be able to think up yourself on the spot, which is a pretty tough niche to fill.

To Entertain The DM

In the urbancrawl rules I recommend writing up four kinds of pubs before each city-based game. When the PCs enter a bar, secretly roll a d4 to determine which one. Why bother rolling? Why not just go through the pubs in order? The PCs'll never know. Same goes for random encounters--why not just put them in order and have the first one be the first one and the next one be the next one, etc.? Because it's more of a surprise for the DM that way.


All together, I feel like the case for Secret Randomness During The Game is fairly thin. In most cases, I think Secret Arbitrariness or Open Randomness is usually going to result in more fun. But you never know.

Friday, December 25, 2009

For Those Days When You Just Don't Feel Like Turning To Page 75 (Or Using THACO)

I'm sure this already exists somewhere else, but consider it a stocking stuffer...

AD&D "to-hit" target numbers expressed as 3.5-style "to-hit" bonuses, assuming you've already translated descending AC to ascending AC:







Clerics, etc.



Hit Dice Bonus
<1 -1.......-1
1 -1.........+0

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Notes I Scribbled This Morning On What's Usually In Palaces

Moat. Moats are cool.

Watchtowers. Usually at the corners, but, hey, depends on what you're watching for, right? Might there be scrying rooms? (Always more than one floor.)

Throne room. Throne room should establish philosophical relationship between lord and subjects. May double as dining hall, depending... Path from front gate to throne room is usually direct.

(In general, palaces have "public" sections--throne room, receiving rooms, consultation chambers, and "private" sections-living quarters.)

Windows. Windows in palaces generally have views that are beautiful, strategically significant, or both.

Kitchen. Should be one of the most detailed locations. Food defines cultures as different.

Monarch/lord's sleeping quarters. Insert monarchical weirdness here.

Sleeping quarters for whoever else lives there. Consorts, advisors. Make not-boring or elide.


Records and documents archive. (Can be folded in with library if boring.)

Art (everywhere). Art is always evil or cursed or alive.

Place for the education of the lord/monarch's children.

Garden/gallery/other recreation-type-place.

(Zoo?)(Hunting grounds?)(If palace is abandoned then what's in it might be descended from hunting or hunted animals.)

Armory. (Weird and obscure guards.)

Place where they keep other supplies like lamp oil, etc.

Harem. (Traditionally, harems are self-sufficient--have own chapel, etc..)



War room/situation room. (May contain awesome map.)

Consultation chamber--mirror mirror on the wall, etc.

Workshop--when stuff needs to get made they go here. Has tools and stuff like that.

Stables. (Find way to make un-boring)

Place (balcony, generally) to stand and address subjects.

Well/cistern/aquaduct. Anything could be down there. Wells are cool.

Symbolic architectural features with traditional "powers" attached--Gate of Inexplicable Destiny, Widow's Window, etc.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What I Learned At The Frazetta Museum

There's a Frank Frazetta Museum.

My girlfriend (at the time) wanted to go camping at the Delaware Water Gap (confusingly not located in Delaware).

She was driving, I was navigating.

Then I saw it on the map:

Frank Frazetta Museum.

After questioning the locals we found it--a modest estate, and a room full of gorgeous originals.

Frank himself is not well, I don't know the medical details but he's not well.

So the person who lets you in, it's his wife.

And if you look at his wife, and look past the chain-smoking and the plastic surgery and the years and the leopard print you realize:

Holy shit, that's the Amazon.

And the Jungle Princess and the Clinging Slave Girl and Vampirella and every other curvaceous babe with wide-set eyes in a Frazetta painting--they were all just his wife. And she sits there at the desk and talks in a voice like Tom Waits, wearing gin-colored pants, wreathed in Merit-smoke.

For complex reasons, the Frazetta Museum may be irrevocably altered for the worse in the near future--if you can get out there soon, I recommend it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Books (the Other Kind)

Some D&D Bloggers have that little "currently reading" box in the corner. It usually has a fantasy or sci-fi novel in it, or occasionally some non-fiction. This surprises me a little, because genre novels form a very small part of my own diet. I like Jack Vance and M. John Harrison and J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. I like some of Elric, some of Fritz Leiber, and some of Lovecraft--and that's about it.

I like crazy prose, fancy prose, and experimental prose, and those guys all qualify. But if I had one of those boxes in the corner of this blog it would almost never have a fantasy or sci-fi novel in it.

I notice that a lot of my best D&D ideas come from utterly literary-establishment-respectable books, though.

I got a monster idea from Yeats:

"The Horses of Disaster plunge in the heavy clay."

(Lovecraft got one from Tennyson.)

The table of contents for Baudelaire's Fleurs Du Mal might as well be called "Random Monster Idea/Adventure Seed Chart" and Shelley wrote about all the political information I need to know about my campaign world:

An old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king,--
Princes, the dregs of their dull race, who
Through public scorn,--mud from a muddy spring,--
Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know,
But leech-like to their fainting country cling,
Till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow,--
A people starved and stabbed in the untilled field

Here's an eminently RPG-able bit from Donald Barthelme's short story "Report":

"We could, of course, release thousands upon thousands of self-powered crawling-along-the-ground lengths of titanium wire eighteen inches long with a diameter of .0005 centimeters (that is to say, invisible) which, scenting an enemy, climb up his trouser leg and wrap themselves around his neck. We have developed those. They are within our capabilities. We could, of course, release in the arena of the upper air our new improved pufferfish toxin which precipitates an identity crisis. No special technical problems there. That is almost laughably easy. We could, of course, place up to two million maggots in their rice within twenty-four hours. The maggots are ready, massed in secret staging areas in Alabama. We have hypdermic darts capable of piebalding the enemy's pigmentation. We have rots, blights, and rusts capable of attacking his alphabet. Those are dandies. We have a hut-shrinking chemical which penetrates the fibers of the bamboo, causing it, the hut, to strangle its occupants. This operates only after 10 P.M., when people are sleeping. Their mathematics are at the mercy of a suppurating surd we have invented. We have a family of fishes trained to attack their fishes. We have the deadly testicle-destroying telegram. The cable companies are cooperating. We have a green substance that, well, I'd rather not talk about. We have a secret word that, if pronounced, produces multiple fractures in all living things in an area the size of four football fields."

And this Borges passage feels to me exactly the way I felt when I was a kid and first read about how the the name 'Vecna' was once spoken only in whispers:

On Exactitude in Science

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV,Cap. XLV, Lerida, 1658

From Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, Translated by Andrew Hurley Copyright Penguin 1999.

However, feel free to remind me about all the excellent pulp novels I should be reading--James Mal does it all the time.

Top illustration is from Faust from the Cameo Classics Edition illustrated by Harry Clarke that Mandy just got me for Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Urbancrawl Rules For Slacker DMs

What shape is Los Angeles? I have no idea. (It's way bigger than The City-State of the Invincible Overlord, and that map is huge.)

I don't think anyone knows except maybe Noah Cross. Anyway, point is, I want the big cities in this campaign to be big and mysterious and noiry and, perhaps, in that way, unlike real medieval cities.

In the mind and in books and movies, the noir city is more like a dungeon than a mapped thing in a tour book--it's an amorphous dark space through which the characters grope and carve their way. It's a romantic rather than a classical approach to the city.

Plus, like I've said before, I don't want to world-build a lot of stuff I'll never use. So I'm writing some "urbancrawl" rules so that I can build the city as the PCs explore it.

Urbancrawl Rules:

Once a place is explored, it's fixed on the map. Until then, though, anything the DM hasn't written is up for grabs.


Above is a neighborhood map of Vornheim. It was achieved by writing out numbers one through ten in different colored markers. Pretty much randomly.

So far, as you can see, Vornheim has 10 neighborhoods, which is about a third as many as LA or Manhattan and about twice as many as Fritz Lieber appeared to need to write all the Lankhmar stories.

It doesn't show the actual shape of the city, just where neighborhoods are relative to each other and where the major streets and bridges are (Vornheim has building-to-building bridges everywhere--like Sharn in the Eberron setting and many previous pulp sci-fi cities, but for these rules, the bridges aren't necessary). For example, the fastest route from neighborhood ten to neighborhood four is via neighborhoods five or six, though you could go 10-9-2-1-4 if there was a giant lizard eating neighborhoods 5 and 6 or something.

Unique Buildings

Certain kinds of buildings there just isn't that many of even in a big medieval city. Like, Vornheim has:

1 Arena
2 Shipping operations (it's landlocked)
1 Barracks
1 Prison
3 Major theaters
1 Orphanage
1 Spymaster's secret headquarters
1 Cartographer
2 (competing) Cathedrals
1 Zoo
2 Markets
1 Independent library
1 Graveyard
1 Palace
4 Courts of law

If, in the middle of an adventure, the PCs suddenly need to know where one of these things is, or find some other unique place, roll a d10. That's what neighborhood it's in.

Getting From Neighborhood To Neighborhood

The major thoroughfares roughly match all the lines in the words spelling out the numbers in the neighborhood map. i.e. to get from neighborhood ten to neighborhood seven the PCs need to walk across a big "x" shaped intersection and if you flew in a dirigible over neighborhood six you'd see that the major streets spelled out the word "six".

(This is just the default street map for if a neighborhood is improvised during play. You always have the option of getting off your ass and mapping more realistic streets in any part of town, as long as the PCs haven't been through it yet. Plus if you count the bridges, there's several "layers" of connecting streets.)

Walking from one neighborhood to the next isn't that hard if the PCs know where they're going and it's daytime.

If it's not daytime, the DM may roll once on the Who Are You And Why Are You In My Way Table (Vornheim)(below)(Or any other random urban encounter table) once for each neighborhood the PCs travel through on their way to wherever they're going.

If they don't know where they're going, they can ask a random stranger for directions. Roll a charisma check. Success means they get where they're going. If they fail, the stranger isn't charmed enough to give conscientious directions, consult the following chart:

Fail by 1: You're lost, roll d10 to see what area you ended up in.
Fail by 2: You're in a dark alley, there's a thief trying to pick your pocket.
by 3: ...make that several thieves.
by 4: Refuses to give directions.
by 5: Refuses and is offended.
by 6: Person you're asking attacks you.

Non-Unique Buildings

Some stuff is everywhere. Assume every neighborhood contains at least one of the kinds of buildings listed in the table below under "Random Individual Buildings". (This is probably unrealistic, like is there really a jeweller in every neighborhood? No. Is there only one? No. But in a pinch, it'll do.) This way if the PCs go--"We need the nearest cheesemaker, stat!" you just use the "Travel Within A Neighborhood" rules.

Travel Within A Neighborhood

Once the PCs are in the same neighborhood as whatever they're looking for, if the DM is lazy and hasn't mapped that neighborhood yet, s/he rolls a d10. The streets between the PC and his/her objective are shaped like whatever number comes up on the die. For example, if the PC comes into the neighborhood from the north and the DM rolls a "1" then the map to wherever the PC is going looks like this:

If it's in the middle of a pleasant and sunny day then the DM shows them this (and makes up some street names) and everyone goes, Well, gee, that's nice to know, the PCs note that down and the DM draws it onto the map of the neighborhood and that's that. (The streets aren't shaped like numbers--the segment of their journey that lies between them and their goal is. And often, it'll only be shaped like part of a number--in this case, the right half. Just add on extra side streets so they don't realize you're doing this.)

However, if the PCs run out of arrows durring a goblin invasion and desperately need arrows and want to find the nearest arrowsmith, then the DM doesn't show the PCs this little "1"-shaped map and watches them run around on it trying to find what they need.

If the PCs take a wrong turn and unwittingly run off the edge of the "1" into an unknown zone, simply roll d10 again for the layout of the streets they just ran onto.

Over time, once the PCs have been a few places in a neighborhood, the "known streets" of the neighborhood might look like this:

And the DM can flesh out the neighborhood at will and throw in "decoy" streets to disguise the scheme--it's easy, numbers are just straight lines and circles.

That's the same neighborhood after 5 seconds of extra streets.

All this is more complicated if you take into account the bridges, but for the sake of a single day's adventure this should do you. If a PC is on a bridge and gets knocked off to a lower "level" and doesn't climb back up, just start the process all over again on the lower city level.

Random Individual Buildings

If the PCs run into-, or just happen to be looking at-, a random building, roll d100 to determine what it is:

5-6-Alchemist (1-3 public apothecary, 4-6 private residence)
7-8-Weird shop full of random crap
9-10-Famous local eccentric's residence
11-12-Nest of criminals
15-16-Whatever the name is for someone who sells horses (ostler?)(stableman?)
26-27-Scholar (private residence)
51-53-Gambling hall
57-58-General outfitter (expedition equipment)
59-60 Bookbinder
61-62 Bowyer
63-65 Fortune Teller
67-68 Glassblower
69-70 Locksmith
72-73 Shoemaker
74-75 Stonecarver
76-77 Printer/engraver
78-100 Private residence

If a PC enters an unmapped bulding, roll d6. The layout of rooms on a given floor will roughly match the layout of dots on a standard casino d6, i.e.:

If it becomes relevant, roll 2d6 to determine number of floors (in Vornheim, anyway, for a more realistic city, roll a smaller die).

Each floor can be laid out the same or differently, depending on how frantic the pace of the game is.

(For major buildings, just roll more dice and put the layouts next to each other. Or just be slightly less of a slacker and have a few of those generic church/castle/great hall layouts printed out.)

Pubs, Inns, and Other Commercial Establishments

Have four short pub descriptions locked and loaded before any urbancrawl session. (i.e. "quietest pub in town, red curtains, drunk painter eating sausage at counter, pick-pocketable for 2d6 g.p., waitress is 9th-level anti-paladin, rooms are cheap"). If the PCs enter a pub or inn roll d4 to determine which one they walked into. If your PCs enter more than four pubs in one session then, well, God help you.

God or Jeff.

Once you use a pub, write a new one between sessions.

Likewise, write short descriptions for four generic local merchants, i.e. "takes forever, expensive, but has valuable information about last NPC party met" and do the same with them.

Random Schmuck Table

If the PCs accost someone and you want it to be interesting, roll on the Who Are You and Why Are You In My Way Table. If they accost somebody and you just want it to be some random loser, roll below or on the WFRP career table if you've got that:

1 Acrobat
2 Apothecarist
3 Architect
4 Armorer
5 Artist
6 Astrologer
7 Baker
8 Barrister
9 Bowyer
10 Brewer
11 Bricklayer
12 Candlemaker
13 Carpenter
14 Cartographer
15 Clothier
16 Cook
17 Diplomat
18 Dyer
19 Engineer
20 Engraver
21 Farmer
22 Fisherman
23 Forester
24 Fortune-Teller
25 Furrier
26 Gardener
27 Glassblower
28 Grain Merchant
29 Gravedigger
30 Herbalist
31 Hunter
32 Innkeeper
33 Interpreter
34 Jester
35 Jeweler
36 Leatherworker
37 Locksmith
38 Messenger
39 Miner
40 Minstrel
41 Moneylender
42 Navigator
43 Painter
44 Peddler
45 Physician
46 Playwright
47 Rat Catcher
48 Sailor
49 Scribe
50 Servant
51 Shipwright
52 Shoemaker
53 Spy
54 Stonecarver
55 Storyteller
56 Weaver
57 Bookbinder
58 Mercenary
59 Beggar
60 Juggler
61 Dwarf (roll again)
62 Elf (roll again)
63 Half-orc (roll again)
64 Tiefling (roll again)
65 Half-elf (roll again)
66 Roll on WAYAWAYIMW Table below
67 Child
68 Extremely ugly child
69 Long lost relative (boring, but friendly and helpful)
70 Dog catcher
71 Thief (not working today)
72 Wizard
73 Soldier
74 Fishwife
75 Wife (non fish-)
76 Tavern wench
77 Strapping young lad, possibly unemployed
78 Lunatic
79 Alchemist
80 Executioner
81 Confused foreigner of indeterminate occupation
82 Two goblins standing on top of each other hiding inside a human-shaped costume
83 Noble
84 Drunk noble
85 Creepy...(roll again)
86 One-legged...(roll again)
87 Pirate
88 Bard (about to die of unknown causes) (authorities will be apathetic)
89 Tavern keeper
90 Fetch-it Boy
91 Knight
92 Siamese twin (roll twice)
93 Lovable scamp (1-3 red-headed 4-6 with stolen pie from windowsill) (is actually wererat)
94 Suspicious, evasive weirdo
95 Carnival freak
96 Fake carnival freak
97 PC chooses (holy shit it's all Gameforge in here!)
98 Cleric
99 Doppleganger (roll again)(means no harm)
100 King/Local lord in disguise roaming amongst the common folk

Who Are You And Why Are You In My Way Table (Vornheim)

(empty spaces to be filled in by DM when PCs aren't looking)

2-Thugs (#=#of PCs)(level 1 fighters)(probably)
3-Kindly, helpful old woman, who happens to _______________
4-Fat fortune teller
5-Crazy poet who will __________
6-Drunk noble that __________
7-Drunk priest who ________ but only if ___________
8-Confused goblin
9-Drunk commoner (1-3 funny 4-6 boring)
10-Aggressive Prostitute (roll on world's most famous AD&D DMG table)
11-Thief with intriguing proposition (possibly plot-relevant)
12-Creepy noble with intriguing proposition (possibly plot-relevant)
13-Dog, normal, except _____________
14-Frightened child being pursued by (roll again on this table)
15-Old man who is actually _______________
16-Disshevelled damsel in distress, being pursued by (roll again on this table)
17-Helpful NPC who ________
18-Street fight between goblin raiders and locals
20-Locked chest someone just threw out, containing _________

(Reader-suggested additions to this table welcome.)

Once an encounter has been used, cross it off and write a new one.
My "second string" so far includes...

-Travelling theatre (1-3 good 4-6 annoying)
-(Roll on table) being chased by (Roll on table)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Well, I was a wee bit tipsy and...

Extended Carousing-Mishaps

I'll be using these rules with Jeff Rients' carousing mishaps table, since quite a few of the "mishaps" could be adventure seeds, given a little room:

First, these rules will normally be for the end of a session, not the beginning. This'll generally be a session where the PCs have finished by finally reaching a city or have just pulled off a big score somewhere in a city.

Carousing at the end gives the DM time to write up the necessary info (if any) for the carousing result before the next session starts. If the chart is used at the beginning or in the middle of a session, the DM should be ready to improvise.

Normally, PCs will only get x.p. for monsters. However, once they get to a Big City, they may trade g.p. for x.p. by blowing it on various forms of strong drink.

Exchange rate is 1 to 1 and must be exchanged in chunks of at least 100 g.p. per PC. Resulting X.p. is divided evenly among the players.

However, for every (total # of PCs) x 100 x.p. exchanged, one member of the party (the party may choose who) must carouse excessively.

The excessive carouser must then roll d20 on the Modified Carousing Mishaps Table below. Complex results are resolved at the beginning of the next session:

1-As original chart .
2-Random pub brawl. Whole party faces number of brawlers = # of PCs. Resolve as normal combat but overcarousing PC is at -2 for being drunk.
3-As original.
4-Wake up in bed with someone... roll on subtable below.
5-Gambling losses. Gain o x.p..
6-As original.
7-Insult Local Person of Rank (roll on subtable below).
8-As original except malady takes a more virulent form.
9-New tattoo (roll d6 1-PC chooses 2-DM chooses 3-player to your left chooses 4-player to your right chooses 5-player 2 to the right chooses 6-player 2 to the left chooses).
10-2 thieves set upon PC while s/he is alone. Resolve as normal combat but PC is at -2 for being drunk.
11-You wake up with only your armor and, on a successful wisdom check, your most prized posession.
12-As original.
13-As original.
14-You've joined a local organization--you remember the passwords and secret signs (for Vornheim, roll on subtable below).
15-As 4 above.
16-Wake up stark naked in local temple, roll a D4 (for Vornheim) on the Local Organizations table to determine which of Vornheim's four temples.
17-As 7.
18-There was something in that drink. You are smitten with (roll on subtable below) for d10 days.
19-As original.
20-As original.

Local Organizations Subtable (Vornheim) (d12)

1. Church of Vorn
2. Church of Orth
3. Church of Esk
4. Children of the First Wyrm
5. The Pale Web
6. Church of the Hex King
7. Cult of En Vorath
8. Church of the Undiscovered Eye
9. Church of the Cold Eye
10. Church of the True Eye
11. Elite strike force aimed at nearby enemy of city
12. Local nobility

Local Person of Rank Subtable (d8)

1. Priest of most important local deity (Vorn, in this case)
2. Local monarch
3. Tavern owner
4. Chief of the constabulary/local military
5. Court wizard
6. Court librarian
7. Random local noble, female
8. Random local noble, male

Wake Up In Bed/Smitten Subtable (d12)

1. Succubus
2. Dead albino elf
3. Apparently normal attractive member of orientation-appropriate gender
4. Randomly determined other PC (neither remembers anything)
5. S/he's ugly. You're married.
6. (Roll again on this table.) You're married.
7. Lizard woman who loves you
8. Halfling
9. Most important NPC in game
10. Your exact double
11. Roll on "Local Person of Rank" table
12. Priest/ess of...Roll d10 on Local Organizations Subtable

Saturday, December 19, 2009


In my recent quest to find free locations to plunk down in the game world in case the girls go someplace unexpected, I have gone and done the strangest thing: I'm actually looking at WoTC's published materials.

(And yes, I know about --but it's mostly blank maps so far. And a fungus forest.)

I went and looked at the old 3.5 free adventure archive.

Skipping the first two, which are just re-hashes of old suff, I first went through all the descriptions and eliminated the obvious total-failures:

"Fang, Beak, and Claw involves an evil druid of Malar, his cronies, and a tamed owlbear. "

Oh go fuck yourself.

That eliminated about a third of them. Also out were murder mysteries, since we need locations here, not suspects.

Then I actually started looking at the adventures themselves...

So, ok, I understand the economic need to pad out products you put between hard covers, but these are free and yet we still get...

"Trap: The ice is brittle in this area, and unwary characters
might fall into the lake when the ice breaks away
Brittle Ice Trap: CR 5, location trigger, no reset,
DC 20 Reflex save avoids, Search DC 20; Disable
Device DC —. Market Price: —."

Seriously, WoTC?

How about:

"Brittle ice. DC 20 to find or avoid."

If you can't figure out that a sheet of melting ice and a patch of frozen sea beneath it is not a practical thing to try to re-sell, you probably should not be running a game of anything.

Monsters are worse--it takes half a page for them to do stat-blocks for monsters--that's longer than the stats in the monster manual. And really, this seems like maybe a nitpick but it isn't because this goes to a core of the whole thing--there's remarkably little here except the idiot-proof padding. Which might be a metaphor for the whole logorrheac WoTC-D&D experience.

What's left in most of the adventures when you take the fat padded walls away is a handful of monsters in a place. And not like an exciting place, but like: "The orcs are holed up in a barn. Two are behind the hay bale. One is out chopping wood." If it's a high-level adventure, then it'll be Bloodfrenzy Meatlicker Orcs, but they'll still be in a barn. That--plus some scared villagers telling you there are some orcs in a barn, and exhaustive descriptions of the armor class and feat list for each hay bale--is the whole adventure. Ten pages to tell me that. Which isn't even "Something I could have thought of myself" it's the minimum level of elements you have to achieve even to be playing the game at all. It's like someone telling you they have a great idea for a bike and it's that it should have two wheels and pedals and should be painted a color. Ah, but did you expect the color to be eggplant? Um, maybe...

Some may say I'm looking for old-school love in all the wrong places, but, seriously, I feel like any DM of any age with any play style would find a lot of these adventures insulting. I don't need a professional writer to put together a monster from the manual and a map from the WoTC Generic-Map-A-Week site and have a bartender point the PCs toward the result.

But, hey, you get what you pay for. Maybe the designers didn't want to blow their wads thinking up elaborate stuff for a bunch of freeloaders.

But there's a way worse problem--stuff like this really just breaks my heart, because there's no excuse for it...

"Puhrjan: Spirit naga... Treasure: Puhrjan carries his magic items with him, in a small pack strapped behind his head."

So this mysterious being from the mists of eastern legend carries all his stuff in a fucking fanny-pack? Really? And he also is teamed up with a couple will-o'-wisps who set a rope trap for people. And in another adventure there's a hag and a barghest who move into a lighthouse because they're trying to rent it out to pirates.

Where's the fucking magic? Where's the incomprehensible wonder? Since when do nagas need fanny-packs? And how would they get into them anyway?

I can see maybe a sort of Warhammer-esque chutzpah to making these mythic terrors go around and pay taxes and take out the trash like everybody else, but in Warhammer the naga would have a squid-slime grenade strapped to its back or something--some outrageous new brand of wondrous weird to replace the wondrous weird you just removed by implying a naga would ever need to strap anything to anything else.

This is endemic. Half the spells in these adventures are just ability-buffs or things that do straight (fire, acid, cold) damage, the items are just seamlessly-efficient-tech-in-magic-clothing, every unusual thing has a name and a stat and a brand new book you can buy that lets your PC have it. And...

Ok, I've run out of steam on this issue. They're dull and hurt my brain and I wasted a lot of time and it's all my fault, that's all.

For the record, of the 65 adventures there, I found three containing usable material: the one with the dwarf tower is complex enough make a decent half-session-long tactical bash, the one with the naga has (and basically is) a slightly novel trap, and the drow one has an unusually creepy encounter.

Now there's way more free adventures out there. Including some on this list from Dragonsfoot. Anybody read those, specifically? I want to know whether I'd have to be a masochist to go through them too.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

This Is The First Hard Thing My Brain's Had To Do All Day

I get up. Get on the phone and on the e-mail.

Like your job, probably, my job often involves getting asked a lot of questions.

The answers? The answers are usually the same as the last time somebody asked. Often they're the same answer as last time the exact person who is asking now asked.

So: easy.

And my computer asks questions too: "Abort scan?" Yes, abort the fucking scan, can't you see I'm in the middle of some shit here, Billion-Dollar-Development-Budget-Operating-System?

So: Not a hard question to answer.

Only new question today was from a director: Do I want to do a scene with _____?

Google her, look at her--Yes I sure do. That was easy.

Then I ask how much I get paid. Not hard to remember to do that.

Then, after working--excercise. This isn't so hard, because I get to listen to The Death of Bunny Munro unabridged on CD while I exercise. If it does get hard, I just think: all the fried chicken I am ever going to get to eat is on the other side of this push-up. Okay.

Go to the store...

(December in LA--reindeer and snowmen picked out in Christmas lights.)

"A banana?" asks the counter man--though I am grateful that he asks, because I like the way Mexicans say "banana", the answer to that one is easy--"Yes, a banana."

Then home.

I have my Cherry Dr. Pepper now and doom metal on the CD player and a feeling of total calm.


The girls arrive at 1 pm tomorrow. In fifteen hours.

They've just killed a wizard in a tower and are surrounded by jackalmen.

I have to give them something to do now--probably something that'll be done in one session since everything'll get all screwy as the holidays approach.

But still, something good. Some fun, the memory of which will keep them warm while they're eating chocolate by the tree and listening to in-laws or alcoholics or watching that godawful Tim Allen Christmas movie.

It should also seem to flow logically from what they were already doing. Wihout being repetitive or too obscure.

..and gotta have action for KK...

..and gotta make sure Frankie can sneak around, and...

And I think: This is the first time I've had to think hard all day.

This isn't an escape. This is exercise. It's good for you like playing soccer is good for you.

Humans haul around the animal kingdom's most highly-evolved brain all day and most of us in this country are in a position where the money we need to live off is withheld from us unless we use these brains to answer inane questions that no-one really wants to know the answers to or cares about or will remember the answers to--for a third of the goddamn day.

So fucking thank god you have something to do with that brain. One day you might actually need it.

Taxonomy Of Archetypal Dungeon-Types I'm Interested In And Notes On Cannibalizing Them When They Appear In Published Form

The Lesser Crazy-Wizard (or Funhouse) Dungeon

So this guy (often a wizard, though it can be a demi-lich or an innkeeper or just some jerk) threw a place together for largely the purpose of fucking with people. Full of puzzles. Un-full of internal logic. Room follows upon room for no particular normal-architectural-function-serving reason. Egregious genre violations are likely but not essential. (The Crazy Wizard being the traditional catch-all excuse for all D&D genre-violations). The worst parts usually have stupid puns, old jokes and references to showtunes in them but these, likewise, are not essential.

A slightly more "sane" rationale for a puzzle dungeon like this can be: "Evil force treating the PCs like test subjects in order to plan future attack on humans/earthlings/surface-dwellers/air-breathers/two-legged-ones etc."

Either way, this sort of dungeon is among the easiest to write. (Though the hardest to master.) Perhaps the best thing about puzzle dungeons is it's very easy to pull individual rooms, gimmicks, or traps out of them and stick them into other puzzle dungeons. So if your players miss a bit of it, you can stick one onto the next lunatic mage tower.

It's kind of pointless to buy a published one of these and just keep the structure and re-skin all the details, because all the designer's work generally went into the details, not the structure.

The Greater Crazy-Wizard Dungeon

This resembles the Lesser Crazy Wizard Dungeon only there is a structure and that structure is as crazy as the details.

That is--some over-arching meta-puzzle or meta-challenge profoundly affects everything you try to do in the dungeon. The rooms all spin independently of each other so it's a mapping challenge or you can only see what's in a room if you enter from the proper direction or you have to kill everything in the blue rooms but not everything in the red rooms. These can be awesome if done right but are highly taste sensitive--if the gimmick doesn't fit what you or your PCs want to do, the whole thing's pretty much useless.

Working Palace

This is any kind of big residence of some people/monsters/entities that are alive and active in the world and have built a big place to hang out in. The logistics and aesthetics of the place tend to match whatever race inhabits it.

These dungeons put the most pressure on the DM to actually make some sense. (DM's are free to ignore this pressure, but whatever, anyway...) Locked doors have keys, the inhabitants have bedrooms or other quarters, and there should probably be whatever things a big residence is supposed to have just in order to function normally as a residence like, say, a kitchen.

All this, PLUS the fact that it should still be fun, PLUS you need a way for the PCs to get in there without immediately being killed by guards, PLUS trying to give it enough monster/NPC variety so that, say The Palace of the Lizard Prince isn't just endless fights with Lizard Man Guards makes this the hardest kind of dungeon to write. Plus it's really hard to buy a published adventure of this kind and re-skin it because if the featured monster/NPC race doesn't particularly fit what you're trying to do, then a lot of the other elements might not fit either. Like, sure the Red Dragonmen have a magma bath but if I want to re-skin it as a Kenku palace then you've got to re-write the bath, too, which sucks because the magma bath was kind of cool...

It is usually easier to write by making the monarch insane, therefore giving excuses for making parts of it into a Puzzle Dungeon.

I have yet to see a good, published Pure Working Palace dungeon. Yes, that's a challenge.

One-Shot Funnel Dungeon

This dungeon can be gotten through in a session or two and never lets you forget the main objective. You know "Den of the Moldy Ogre Who Is Like Ten Feet Away" or whatever. There's a big bad or quest item or major gimmick in there and the rest is just roadbumps and the PCs generally know it. These are useful to have around but a good DM can write one in his sleep.

(A subgenre of this is the Strongly Implied Plot One-Shot Dungeon, where the PCs not only are moving toward some simple goal, but have few enough options that they have a decent chance of tripping certain predictable plot events on the way. This doesn't have to be a railroad.)

When you buy one, you tend to go "I could've written that in my sleep", unless it has some really clever stuff in there which allows the PCs to "use" the place in more than one way.

When you buy a full-length adventure that turns out to be just one of these stretched out to ridiculous proportions--say, not just Dragon + A Handful Of Retarded Kobolds And Not Much Else, but, say Dragon + Several Thousand Retarded Kobolds And Not Much Else, then it can make you want to not buy a published adventure ever again.

Re-Purposed Forgotten Place

There once was a mighty empire, then it sucked and died and now blobs and tribes of ratmen crawl around their Once Mighty halls. Relatively easy to write because if you don't want to write in the Once Mighty Kitchen or Once Mighty Horseshoe-Making Room then you can just say there was a cave-in or it's been emptied out or lost to the mists of time or whatever. However, they're more fun when you write in some politics among the new inhabitants--like the ratmen hate the blobmen who are servants of the cheesemen who are imprisoned by the Elephant Pig who worships the Demon Pheasant who possesses the Fairy Cow. If they bump around long enough, the PCs can do a pretty good job of unwittingly stitching together their own plot.

(This is a good place for Schrodinger's motive--i.e. there's several mcguffins and several mcguffin-wanting NPCs/intelligent monsters, but which of them wants which mcguffin is left in the air 'til the PCs actually show up. Whatever the NPC/critter wants inevitably forces the PCs to go to some part of the dungeon they haven't been in yet or go to some place they have been and try harder.)

It also allows you to throw in bits of Crazy Wizard Logic but you don't have to carry them out to their conclusion because maybe part of it has Fallen Into Ruin. So like this room fills with water if you try to cast a spell in it but the next one just has some orcs and a pine cone.

Also, this kind is really easy and fun to re-skin if there's some politics since you can just change the factions around and pin any uncongruous element on the long-dead "architect" culture. Like I pointed out yesterday while re-skinning Tomb of The Bull King.

The Dungeon Where Something Just Happened

This dungeon can be any of the other kinds of dungeons, but then some large and transformative event just occurred--invasion from without, meteorite strike, experiment-gone-awry. An important function of this change is to create an easy in-game reason why a horde of supposedly powerful, intelligent, dungeon-dwelling beings can't keep 3-12 adventurers of levels 1-3 from just waddling up to their front door and stealing all their stuff.

Once you come up with a good event, this kind of dungeon writes itself. Plus it provides an instant in-game excuse for rooms to radically change if things get boring. The only problem is it can get in the way of the default "delve/loot/rest at inn/delve/loot/rest at inn" default-OD&D type adventurer-whim-centric dungeoneering schedule. Things in this kind of dungeon have to have a little bit of a life of their own.

The Place That Wasn't A Dungeon A Second Ago But Now Is

Basically, it's like Alien. It's an ordinary (to the PCs) place and something bad just got loose and so now every corridor is infused with primal terror and whatnot. Generally I kind of hate this kind of dungeon because it's hard to make the environment "come alive" for an extended period of time (In a game, I mean, not in a movie. I like Alien just fine--I'm not a psycho) and, to me, D&D is as much about the place itself as the things in it. I've yet to see a really good one. However, it is closely related to...

The Dungeon that Used To Be That But Now Is This

This place was, long ago, something interesting but benign, like a zoo. Then it became horrible. Some malevolent and probably supernatural thing has evilified every inch of it. Like the Greater Crazy Wizard Dungeon, it's all about the premise. Unless you like that, a published one is probably going to be kind of useless.

The Dungeon of Beings Who Are Completely Weird

Unlike the Crazy Wizard/Puzzle dungeon, the entities in charge here are not necessarily hostile or cruel, they just behave or live in such an alien way that it's a big pain in the ass to go around finding stuff in their house. Like the Bath House in Spirited Away or Lewis Carrol's Wonderland. Again: the premise here is everything, and there is a huge possibility of genre-dissonance. If you don't like the premise then you won't like the dungeon because the premise affects everything about it.

Obviously there are other kinds of dungeons--and most dungeons have elements of more than one "species".

Anyway, can anybody think of excellent examples of dungeons that fit one of these bills (aside from the usual suspects--like we already know about White Plume Mountain)? Are there types of dungeon you like that I've left out?

(Not "types" in terms of what specfically is in the dungeon, but in the sense of the structure of the dungeon.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Slowly Removing Togas

Ever wish there was a solid, standard, but really big sandbox dungeon with a nice map that was free that you could go through and make into whatever kind of weird, personalized dungeon that fit your taste?

I wish that all day long--for those times when the PCs start wandering into Realms It Had Not Occurred To Mortal Men They'd Have Managed To Get To By This Tuesday.

Well, there's one right here. (Thanks to Ara Kooser for pointing it out the day I went around asking everybody for big pre-packaged locations to put some extra meat on my gameworld.)

It's written by Carlos de la Cruz Morales and, although it's for Mazes & Minotaurs, it's eminently malleable. You can re-skin most of the monsters for D&D without changing the stats at all (If you're smart enough to figure out that "Hits total: 6" = "Hit Points = 6" and "Damage = 3d6" means "Damage = 3d6". Change the AC to descending for old D&D, leave it as-is for later versions.).

My only problem is this 200+ page dungeon is set in ancient Greece and, although I love the Greek monsters, man was their fashion sense appalling. So I printed it out (the dungeon section is easily readable at 4 sheets per page, so you won't necessarily run out of paper) and am going through it removing sandals and togas and inserting Warhammerish terror, Gygaxian weirdness, and the occasional crossbow.

It is unbelievably excellent for this Mad Libs approach. There's a lot of monsters, a lot of treasure, a lot of standard traps ("Pit Trap, Concealment 16"), a few interchangeable mcguffins, and various factions warring all over the dungeon. There is absolutely nothing that makes you go "Oh, if I don't do it in ancient Greece this makes no sense" or "Well that whole section is a bust if I take out the tunnel in room 206."

Like I said, it's a simple, solid, very big, and very customizable piece of work. It's the Ford Mustang of dungeons.

And free.


Oh, and someone let me know that over on RPGnet they're arguing about whether my players are Actually Porn Stars. Seems like they're mostly talking about Mandy, which is weird, because she's the one who's done the fewest movies.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

City-State of the Incorrigible Slacker

Hey Mandy, can you help me get everyone's attention?

Thank you, Mandy...

Hey DMs! Here are some city maps you can re-key for your campaign--
just write "New Haven Performing Arts Center"="Mages Guild Headquarters" and "Pine Ave."="Street of White Death" or whatever. Click pics for bigger JPEGS.

Then, at the end, turn it around and watch your players be all "Holy shit, we were in Toronto all along..."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Another Brick In The Wall, Part 3

Here's the map I created using the Another Brick In The Wall Dungeon Generator.

I decided the dungeon was the home of a mad wizard and his jackal-headed henchmen and that it had just been invaded by elves right before the PCs showed up so there's casualties everywhere and combat still going on. It's keyed, but I had room to draw little sketches in each to sort of give me an idea of what was going on in each zone even without the key.

This is the best room--an elf that's been turned super-fat by a spell during the fray and is unable to fit out the door. If the PCs manage to squeeze around him they can find a secret door.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

My Mongrel Game


New rule--we (and by "we" I mean everybody in the blogosphere, including you) are calling it Type ___ D&D from now on. As in, "Type 3.5 D&D" or "Type 4 D&D". This solves many philosophical problems, plus makes all the versions of the game sound like demons, which is good.


I can only live with a house full of Type 3.5 books so much longer. My rapidly levelling-up players have begun to creep around the Player's Handbook and ask unsettling questions like "What's a skill point"? I fear soon they will all want a level in Demonborne Fleshtoucher or some shit. Plus the original books look so much cooler lying around your house. I am soon to re-acquire the AD&D books.

Problem is, once you give someone a toy, you cannot take it away. So I have to stitch together a mongrel game of the old rules which I like, and the new rules which everybody here is used to.

So, Type Mongrel:

-You can be whatever class or race from whatever type D&D you want. Except, for obvious reasons, any kind of bard.

-Experience point awards and levelling-up will be as 3.5. No x.p. for traps.

-Beholders will appear to be spherical eye-ball monsters rather than the deformed product of a night of incautious passion between a bell pepper and the Kree Supreme Intelligence.

-To hit and AC will be as AD&D so I can use the chart.

-Hit points, damage, and ability-score bonuses will be as 3.5--except the base-attack bonus, which won't exist (melee and missile bonuses will).

-# of spells and class abilities will be as AD&D except what anybody's already got when we make the switch at the beginning of the game.

-Saves will be as 3.5 because come on AD&D. Wands, staves and rods?

-Thieves will have whatever skills (a "skill" was/is interpreted as the privilege of re-rolling a failed ability score check roll to do the relevant thing--that is if you have "climb" you can roll twice on your strength to climb a rope and use the best result) they had from 3.5 before the switch + normal AD&D pick locks, find traps, etc. chances. However, no new skills may be acquired after that unless you can make a really good case for it or are exceptionally attractive.

-No feats, skills are only for thieves.

-Barbarians can still Rage as in 3.5.

-Spells you already have remain as-is. As for new spells--if you can find it (in any type of D&D or any other game, for that matter) you can have it. Precise effects of non-AD&D spells may vary slightly from what's printed, according to DM fiat. A standard sleep spell will generally get a save. Anyone using anything from Eldritch Weirdness will be considered totally badass.

-You can use any weapon or armor you've already got, but unless you're a fighter you can't just pick up any old new weapon or armor once the switch happens and expect to be good at using-/moving in- it.

-Racial bonuses will be 3.5. Gnomes will be treated as dwarves, only midwestern and possibly homosexual. Dark elves will not get a level-modifier for purposes of calculating x.p. because I forgot and accidentally levelled Frankie up early and, hey, considering how new she is to all this and how she almost ket the party get TPK'd twice due to having forgotten her Drow's once-per-day abilities, I think it's ok to handicap her a bit.

-All monsters and other foes will be custom-built to fit Type Mongrel stats.

-The top halves of Mariliths will look like hot chicks--as in AD&D, but will appear to be capable of ordinary movement and locomotion, as in Type 3.5.

-If you want to take a level in something, as in 3.5, I say ok.

-If you want to try to kill a god rather than some Mickey-Mouse "aspect" of the god, be my guest, just remember its HP and damage will be 3.5 scaled.

If anybody reading this sees any major translation problem I haven't foreseen, please speak now before it blows up in my face.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

I Hit It With My Axe

L to R: Tiefling Cleric, Half-Elf Barbarian.

Yesterday's game

Character Generation With KK

Unlike the rest of my players, KK is one of those people who would, in the natural course of events, never end up playing D&D. She's just doing it because everybody else is.

I had to start at square -1 with KK. Like--"Elves have pointy ears...ummm...girls like to play elves, dwarves are short people with beards..."

I mentioned that half-orcs have fangs.

KK said she liked fangs and so that sounded pretty good to her.

KK then pointed out that she had fangs. She showed us how, yes, indeed, she had naturally unusually sharp canines.

This started a long discussion betwixt my players about blowjobs, professional and otherwise, the eminently reasonable theme of which was: it's good to keep unusually sharp canines and blowjobs as separate as is practical.

At the end of which KK then asked--"Ok, so what am I? A Fangor Beast?"*

"No, you are a half-orc."

I then showed KK a picture of a half-orc.

Then KK changed her mind and decided that she would be a half-elf.

Now, class...

(Does anyone besides me find all this discussion of "race-and-class" with new players always seems pseudo-marxist for a second before you remember what you're talking about? Anyway...)

Well, fighter seemed a good bet, but, knowing KK, I also made a decent pitch for barbarian. And that, indeed, is what KK chose.**

My Defense of the Barbarian Class by Zak S.

Now a lot of old-schoolers don't like the barbarian. It is, to them, the beginning of the path of nano-specialization that leads eventually to players being like Dragonfondle Darkslickers or whatever, and, more importantly, away from the original generic Gygaxian labels which said your character was either Trained to Fight and So Was A Fighter or Trained To Use Magic And So Was A Magic-User and the rest is entirely up to your players' imagination--a fighter might be a duellist, a gladiator, an old soldier--that was in your hands, the numbers only told you so much.

While this is fine and good for those of us inclined to investigate and philosophize about such things (DMs, basically) or for people aching to kill some kobolds so much they will do it under any name (12-year-olds, basically), the old names are far from evocative, and when dealing with a full-grown dyslexic adult who has somehow managed to go her whole life without hearing about basically what a gnome is supposed to look like, you need evocative.

"Warrior" is decent, but implies so much less--"barbarian" on the other hand, this means something to Kimberly Kane. It means fucking Metal.

(Dethklok is a close runner-up to Warcaft for Best D&D Gateway Drug of the Early 21st century.)

So my approbation for the barbarian class is based not on the mechanics, or the philosophy, but on the name. It is a good name. It says what needs to be said. Smashing will be done by this character.

"I like smashing stuff," says KK.

Now, I will go on to say that I now appreciate the mechanics of the 3.5 barbarian as well. Here's why:

DMs, how many times has this happened to you?

"Ok, what do y'all want to do?"

"I hit it with my axe."

And your heart sinks just a little because that player might as well have just said "I hit it with my axe a-fucking-gain!" or "I hit it with my axe because what the fuck else am I gonna do?" or "I hit it with my axe and though I'm ok with that for now, next week I'm trying out for the football team and if I get picked then screw you guys..."

Now, the barbarian is perfect for this kind of player because it gives the player an in-game excuse for not knowing what the hell is going on in the plot and not really caring. The barbarian, archetypically, cares for naught but skull-crushing, as does the first-time player who would be well to choose the barbarian.

(Is this player necessarily stupid? No, although, if asked, this player may self-identify as stupid. KK does, on occasion, but she's really extremely unstupid--for example, she knows more about taking a decent photo than I ever will--and I have a master's in fine arts from Yale. This is merely the kind of player who doesn't like puzzle-solving-as-recreation.)

The person who says I Hit It With My Axe in just this way likes to fight, but is yet uninitiated into the wondrous magical universe of tactics. (Or even the wondrous magical world of running away and coming back when you've levelled-up.) I have no doubt, in my game, that he or she eventually will be, but there is that crucial in-between period when the person (the person you like and want to play with) is deciding if they like this game at all, where combat walks the line between too-simple-to-be-interesting-and-too-complicated-to-be-comprehensible-especially-since-like-even-dominoes-drives-this-person-nuts.

So, into this void comes the quintessential 3.5 barbarian trait--Rage. In addition to definitely being Metal, Rage gives the axe-wielder something to think about:

Rage can be used only once per day.

To Rage or not to Rage?

Now, this isn't the most complicated choice in the world, but it is about the level of complexity the dyslexic, dysnumeric, dominophobic player can handle in an early game, plus it engages a surprising number of subtle judgements:

Is this the boss monster for today? Why or why not do I think that? Have all the underlings I've been killing til now point to this guy?

When's the next time I'm going to get to rest?

Wait, so my hit points get better but my armor class gets worse? What does that mean?

In other words, it slowwwwwwly introduces the meat-and-potatoes player to what's going on in the game and to the rich and surprisingly vast pleasures of Fictional Resource-Management. Of which pleasures I surely do not need to expound upon to a bunch of D&D bloggers and DM's.

So, Anyway...

Point is, KK, despite appearing to be a 20-something-year-old professional adult-film actress with an apartment in the Hollywood Hills, is actually the I-Hit-It-With-My-Axe Jock that you've all known since you were 14. He was playing because his best friend was, and so is she.

Her character is named Rookia. As in: Rookie+ambiguously fantasy-sounding-suffix. (Though I prefer to think of it as Ruhkya--with an umlaut but I don't know how to type those--as in a vaguely-Icelandic or Finnish warrior-princess name. Tell no-one.)

So this game is all about trying to keep KK entertained despite the fact that she showed up on the day where I had just decided to do a day where I pushed things a wee bit away from the full-on hack-and-slash.

Every second of not-fighting provoked vicious eyerolls from KK. There was a map, there was a prisoner, there was a puzzle with cubes, NPCs with names (I could feel the eyerolls stab me in the heart as I pronounced them--Maleketh, Ettengeth, Gormengeth), there was an encounter where fighting was unnecessary, there was a book with writing to be deciphered, and Connie deciding in the middle of everything that she wanted to know what kind of elf her character half-was and so we had to look up all the kinds of elves, oy, then, thanks to my oh-so-clever-random-dungeon-generation-method there was what felt like a year of everybody bumping into walls trying to figure out which way to go.

Oh, my heart was fearful. All she wanted was to hang out with her friends and we had unfairly inveigled her into our horrible and involuted game.

But then there was some fighting...

Most of the encounters were cakewalks of the oh-hey-wait-there's-five-PCs-now-and-you're not-all-rogues-anymore-guess-I-shoulda-given-that-guy-more-hit-points variety, but that seemed to suit KK well enough. I felt KK's threshhold for enjoying-rolling-moderately-high-numbers-and-then-having-the-resulting-imaginary-bloodshed-described-to-her fast approach.

Oh, but then...

The Perfect Storm

I couldn't have planned it better.

Also: I didn't plan it better. The dungeon was randomly generated plus I hadn't even realized the PCs could get where they went from where they were to start with until they were nigh-upon the One-Eyed Thrall Wizard.

Plus, I'd kept forgetting to spring the Damsel-In-Distress-They-Saved-From-A-Tentacle-Monster-That-Was-Following-Them-Around-But-Was-Actually-A-Doppleganger on them and remembered to do it only when the big fight came around.

Plus, by the time the fight came around, an eldritch curse had already melded KK and Mandy into a sort of grotesque siamese twin.

Plus, Mandy's first tactic was to summon a random monster. Which I handled, as usual, by selecting wholly at random from the entire CR 1/3 thru CR 1 monster list and which resulted in a pseudo dragon.

Plus the dice hated everyone, especially the veteran players.

So, then here's the situation:

All the party members knocked unconscious except Frankie--newbie dark elf rogue with 3 hit points--and KK, on the floor, out of Rages for the day, siamese-twinned to an unconscious Mandy...


The Thrall Wizard and The Doppleganger, both in perfect health (20+ h.p. each), and a snake that the wizard had created out of a wasted arrow.

Now, those of you who read last week's actual-play report about Frankie's first game will remember that Frankie likes--almost exclusively--to sneak. And to do almost nothing else.

You can see how the proclivities of these two new players might create discord in the party. It's hard for Frankie to go around sneaking into unexplored chambers while KK is itching to murder things.

And they are both so terribly, terribly new to all this. Did I have a TPK on my hands?

Frankie (cowering in the corner, watching her misfired arrow turn into a snake) "What do I do? What do I do?"

Mandy (metagaming from beyond the vale of consciousness): "Run away!"

KK: (from the floor, hauling Mandy's dead weight, being fanged by a doppleganger) "Blaze of glory, Frankie! Let's do it!"

Breath was baited, and the dice did roll...

It was hideous, grueling and slow:

KK whacked at the doppleganger, landing effective blows,

The pseudo-dragon bit the wizard, who failed his poison save and fell asleep,

Then KK got knocked out,

Frankie got in a good shot on the doppleganger, but it yet lived, biting her for 2 hit points, leaving her with one,

(and alone)

The pseudo-dragon flew to the doppleganger, bit it, failed to poison it, (the whole table hanging on every die roll now) and dematerialized, its 4 rounds of existence ended,

and then Frankie remembered about the whole cause-darkness-then-backstab-business.

And that was that for the doppleganger.

Collective sigh of relief.

"Um, what's this white potion Satine has?"

"Well since if you're a dark elf you know that's a Drow healing potion."

And it's all cake once the 4th-level cleric's healed.


KK liked that so much she took a photo of the tabletop and twittered it.

We'll see if we can keep it exciting.

*Called it.
**Half-elf barbarian? No sweat. In my campaign White Elves are the pitiless creepy viking-lore kind of elf with blond braids and broken teeth.