Sunday, February 28, 2010


Connie's new miniature arrived the other day and it is fat.

One thing about halflings is--all the miniatures are fat. The picture in the 3.5 players guide is not fat, but the minis are fat. Female halflings are fat.

Female halflings remind me of a conversation I had over a beer with a comedian I know:

C: "She was kinda--a bigger gal. I don't know why I just said that instead of just 'she's fat'--'gal'--does that make it sound better?"

Z: "Maybe--'Gal' suggests, like--she's independent and from the midwest, and knows how to cook."

C: "It's a skillset."

Z: "Yeah."

Ok, so this halfling, she looks prepared, right? This gal.

Connie's verdict:"She's cute."

Cute? Connie's gal looks like she'd have had Sauron gutted and fileted and've been halfway through redecorating Mount Doom while Frodo & company were still tripping over mushrooms and getting grabbed by trees.

The unspoken assumption is that girls' characters look like the players. Basically. Until further notice.

Occasionally someone will issue an adjustment--like Kimberly Kane tells us her barbarian's butt is bigger than hers (and hers is not small)-"like Ice T's wife, Coco".

Connie, a natural D&Der--(in the same sense that the detectives on The Wire are always calling each other "natural po-lice") is pretty experimental about characters. She's got a dwarf, too now. I haven't asked if it has a beard.

In the beginning Connie had a half-elf rogue. Which is the standard around here. Both PC and player have a penchant for black leather with gold studs--the elf has it on her wristband, Connie has it on a pair of heels she left here last week.

But the that character got lost so she went halfling rogue.

Connie is not fat. Connie spends nearly every night squirming around on a pole to loud music, which is good exercise.

Personally I know some very attractive fat girls--or BBWs, as they're known in the Industry--none of them play D&D for some reason.

Connie likes throwing stars, but really that's just a style thing--in combat, it's always a scimitar.

I have never asked why.

Really though, she's the eyeball. What do your stripper eyes see, Connie? She remembers to look for things. She will check quietly for exits and weirdness. She leaves cliche stuff like backstabbing to the other rogues, mostly.

Frankie likes to sneak, but she makes a big deal about it "No-one can see me!" "Yes, Frankie, I know. No-one can see you."

Connie, on the other hand, remains calm and subtle at all times--falling 200 feet down a shaft, getting in KK's way when she turns into a werewolf, missing enemies over and over again the way 1st-level rogues are wont to do. She doesn't care.

Or doesn't appear to. She can be a little passive aggressive. Are you looting a body, Connie? "No, I'm just going to find one of the dead spiders and stab it a few times."

I think maybe passive aggression is a hallmark of halflings.

Oh don't mind me, I'm just taking the Ring to Mordor, though I Do Not Know The Way. And I'm like three feet tall. And have half as many hit points as you. Don't mind me.

That's ungenerous though, Connie is not a flashy player, but she dots the I's and crosses the T's. Like you imagine Sam is doing while Frodo's busy being all emo. Only she's hot and not annoying or a gardener and wears leopard skin pants.

Really much better than Sam, I suppose, actually.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Reference Pictures For Adventures I Haven't Written

This is from a Polish version of D&D called "Crystal of Time", courtesy of elves ate my homework. Though the girls are probably pretty sick of spiders by now.

Mount St. Michel

That's a D14 on the end of this Celtic thingamabob.

I imagine this thing being about twice the size of those castles.
A St George from Sweden
Jerry Uelsmann, I think.
Another Swedish St. George
Don Maitz. Very cosy. (And I'm using the British spelling on purpose.) I pretty much believe this whole picture. I like how the wizard has a Vermeer rug. In fact, I like nearly everything except the wizard's face and hand.
That's what the inside of a goblin palace's fungus garden looks like. In case you were wondering.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Getting Around The Uncertainty Principle

"(Some Game) is the worst game because, sooner or later, (Some Awful Thing) always happens."

"No way, I've been playing (Some Game) since (Some Year) and (The Awful Thing) has never happened. What are you talking about?"

"Look at the (Rule Distinctive To the Game)--it always leads to (Some Awful Thing), the only reason for it is (Some Dumb Reason)."

"That's not true, (Distinctive Rule) leads to (Distinctive Awesome Result)!"

"Shuh! I've never seen it!"



This is the essential form of nearly all arguments about RPGs on-line and in publications, from D&D Edition Wars, to stuff on blogs, to arguments over GNS theory.

The problem here is, the actual thing usually at the heart of the discussion--the ding an sich as the Germans would say, the "thing-in-itself"--the thing that is being evaluated, is not the published rules of a game, or the economic success of a game, or the influence of a game, or even a person's subjective response to reading the rules--it's how actual sessions of play turn out.

And we have very little shared data on that, because--outside conventions, which are an unusual and exceptional case where the normal social rules of gaming don't necessarily apply--we don't usually watch groups of total strangers play RPGs. We can't say: "Look, see? See what Jed just did right there when he tackled the Snot Goblin? That's what I'm talking about! That's why Shared Narration with an Unfocused Universal Table Resolution System, with Low-Metagame and Nonstandard Fortune Mechanics always leads to Biscuitfiddle-Rundlegrumper-Style-Play!"

When arguing about RPGs on-line or in a publication (real-life is a whole other thing and is not what I'm talking about), generally, both parties have seen the same rules and can make common reference to the rules, and that's it--that's the end of the shared experience they can refer to.

I was going to say this is like arguing about a movie when both parties have only ever seen the script, but really, arguing about RPGs without direct reference to actual play events is like arguing about a movie when both parties have only ever seen whatever How To Write Your Screenplay book the screenwriter read before s/he wrote the movie.


For example:

Without going into my actual thoughts on Ron Edwards' GNS theory (that's a whole other kettle of fish), I've read the essays about GNS theory several times (the theory is basically that there are three types of gaming goals and that bad game experiences are--often or usually, not sure which--the result of gamers trying to play a game whose goals don't match their own) and I always get hung up here in the last part of Edwards' introductory essay:

I have met dozens, perhaps over a hundred, very experienced role-players with this profile: a limited repertoire of games behind him and extremely defensive and turtle-like play tactics. Ask for a character background, and he resists, or if he gives you one, he never makes use of it or responds to cues about it. Ask for actions - he hunkers down and does nothing unless there's a totally unambiguous lead to follow or a foe to fight. His universal responses include "My guy doesn't want to," and, "I say nothing."

I have not, in over twenty years of role-playing, ever seen such a person have a good time role-playing. I have seen a lot of groups founder due to the presence of one such participant. Yet they really want to play. They prepare characters or settings, organize groups, and are bitterly disappointed with each fizzled attempt. They spend a lot of money on RPGs with lots of supplements and full-page ads in gaming magazines.

These role-players are GNS casualties. They have never perceived the range of role-playing goals and designs, and they frequently commit the fallacies of synecdoche about "correct role-playing." Discussions with them wander the empty byways of realism, genre, completeness, roll-playing vs. role-playing, and balance. They are the victims of incoherent game designs and groups that have not focused their intentions enough. They thought that "show up with a character" was sufficient prep, or thought that this new game with its new setting was going to solve all their problems forever. They are simultaneously devoted to and miserable in their hobby.

My goal in developing RPG theory and writing this document is to help people avoid this fate.

I don't know these guys. I believe that the author of this essay has met these guys, or people he believes are these guy (he has no motive to lie about it) but I can't genuinely say whether I believe these guys "are the victims of incoherent game designs and groups that have not focused their intentions enough" or whether these guys even actually are the bizarre sad-sacks they appear to him to be because I have not studied the case.

I would like to make sure we're talking about the same phenomenon before discussing what may have caused that phenomenon.

(Note: I am aware that the author of the GNS essays and his allies do attempt to document games in order to help them talk about games and design new ones, I'm just using this as an example of a time where it'd help to have that kind of document.)

Now I am totally ok with arguing about how RPGs should be or could be. Whether you call that "theory" or "arguing with somebody about games" is irrelevant. What I'm saying is: when making sweeping statements about RPGs, it helps to refer to specific, recorded instances of play.


And where are those?

Thanks to the internet, fucking everywhere.

The first unedited actual play recording I ever heard was this podcast of the Cthulhu adventure Horror on the Orient Express.

What immediately struck me was how bizarre it was to be listening to it at all--if you really think about it, it's extremely rare to find yourself observing people you don't know casually sitting in their own homes hanging out for days on end.

You hear what this one thinks is funny, you hear what that one thinks is offensive, you hear what this one assumes everybody knows, you hear all the assumptions of a social context (a real one, not a fictional one) that isn't yours at all--which is surprising.

And this isn't just overhearing something for 10 minutes in a restaurant--the recording goes on for 20-some hours--the artificiality imposed by their knowledge of being recorded melts away fairly quickly and what's left seems like a fairly honest document of how these people roll.

Unless you're a private detective or a certain kind of lawyer or a very dedicated peeping tom, its unlike anything you've heard a thing like this before, because 99% of the time you're set up to eavesdrop on other people's lives (on TV, usually) it's fictionalized or framed in such a way as to entertain you. Not here.

The second thing that struck me is they were very likable people.

The third thing that struck me is that they play in a completely different way than I would have--a way that would've bored and frustrated me, in many cases. And one which, if accurately described in words, would have led me to believe these people were not my kind of people at all. (They do a lot of shopping, and role-play through meals with very detailed descriptions of what they ate, and nothing ever happens during the meals.)

The fourth thing that struck me was they seemed to be having a lot of fun.

The fifth thing that struck me was, had I been there, as a player or GM, the game would almost certainly've been totally different, because--in a Heisenberg-uncertainty-principle-type-way--you being there makes everybody nice with a brain (and these people are nice and have very big brains) try to alter the social contract (perhaps unconsciously) to fit your play style.


Point being here, the actual play recordings that are now becoming available on the web are, really, the very first time there's actually been lots of data (that both sides of an argument can refer to) to back up one side or another in arguments about what does or doesn't equal fun in RPGs. All the sales figures, surveys, and hearsay anecdotes are nothing compared to this.

Some notes:

-If you go to the WoTC site you can hear the Robot Chicken guys play D&D 4 and you can also click somewhere else and hear the Wil Wheaton + web cartoonists crew play the same system with the exact same DM. The games are different in every way. Does system matter? Does DM matter? There's some data right there.

-If you go to (the same site that has the Horror on the Orient Express recordings) there are recordings of that group playing Keep on the Borderlands using D&D 1. It is completely different in every way from how anyone I know would've played, but it actually sounds remarkably like the Robot Chicken people playing D&D 4.

-Same module, different edition. Same group, different module. Different group, same system, different genre--how do these things affect play style? Now you can do side-by-side comparisons.

-I've heard people describe games as "a really intense session of...." generally not meaning intense just as in "exciting", but intense as in "psychologically difficult but possibly cathartic" for the player. I have never ever had anything remotely like this happen in a game (and am not sure I'd find it at all interesting or fun) and I'm not sure how it would work--if someone who is into this kind of gaming can point me to an actual play recording that they feel fits the bill, I'd be glad to listen.

-Marketing--WoTC puts up (mostly unedited) actual play recordings--does anybody else? If not, they should.

-Retro clones? For things like battle mechanics--watching or hearing an actual play recording is infinitely clearer than reading the mechanics in a book and comparing them to other retro-clones to see which you like best. Get on that.

-Academics? Need to write a paper for your sociology class? Start listening to actual play recordings. "This paper is based on a survey of over a hundred recordings of..."

-"You would like _____, you should try it!" Nobody has enough time to try every game in the world. Listening to some people play it, however, this is something we maybe have time to do.

-GMing advice? A recording's worth a thousand words. I would LOOOOOVE to hear side-by-side recordings of (say) James Raggi, James Mal, and Jeff Rients all running the same module for their respective groups.

(-side note: our show will be edited down, because it's meant to be a show, so it doesn't exactly fit the 'raw data' bill that I'm describing here. Nevertheless, I may get some long stretches up one day for scientific purposes.)

-Fun? Fun is the goal. And you can hear fun. A recording can end an argument about whether something can be fun.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


...the inhabitants of the dead city had, no doubt, some elaborate and beautiful name for them, but we just call them Vomiters. Victims of some disease--probably synthetic, definitely magical--they still appear on occasion, looking ill and looking pitiful, they stagger and moan and cough and reach out their hopeless hands and then hopelessly open their hopeless hellmouths, and out comes almost anything. Always a beast, always terrible--two in ten seconds, during the worst fits. Roll d100 + 5 and consult the corresponding page in the monster manual--or any other method you prefer.

They are, for all that, ordinary and capable of being killed by ordinary means--and will welcome it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Some More Nice Things About Dungeons

A corridor made of grey stone, ten feet wide and sixty feet long.

What's in there?

The only thing in there--the only thing in the classic, platonic dungeon is what you (the DM) put in there or what you (the players) brought with you.

You come to a town.

You come to the edge of a forest.

What's in there?

All kinds of stuff. The players are going to assume the forest will have trees, mushrooms, grass, lichens, maybe birds, hidden nests, dirt underneath the grass, rocks, and millions of other things that might tactically or thematically complicate the situation if they decide to get interested in them--and the same thing times a thousand in a city or a town. The adventurer in a town has access to all kinds of resources that you may or may not have thought of when writing the adventure.

This makes adventures based around the classic dungeon (and any interior space you use in a game which resembles a classic dungeon--a stripped-down Death Star, a Tron-like computery world, etc.) fundamentally unlike all other kinds of adventure.

A dungeon (at least a classic dungeon -- if you make a dungeon out of a spooky old house where people still live this may not be true) is just this big geometric platonic space with no features except those you decided would be fun. It's almost perfectly equivalent to starting with your little piece of graph paper and slowly drawing in rooms and monsters and traps and features.

Unoriginal Observations on Dungeons and Plot

In an adventure where the players are free to roam a civilized or uncivilized area, what, if anything, relegates the players to only those areas which the DM has put in effort ahead of time is plot.

As is true of many location-based adventures, a dungeon doesn't need a pre-designed plot because the only things in it are interesting things or at least things the DM assumes are interesting. As has also been pointed out before, limiting things in this way actually, paradoxically offers a great deal of freedom since no matter which way the players turn within the dungeon, there's something presumably game-worthy there.

Front-Loading the Artificiality

Basically by having/letting/suggesting that the PCs go down into a dungeon the DM is saying "Here are a number of ideas I'm willing to run with, you pick the ones that interest you and if you combine them or do something with them that I wasn't prepared for I totally accept the responsibility to keep going with it anyway because it was my idea in the first place that these things were interesting."

By having/letting/suggesting the PCs go around outside or in any kind of normal space the DM is often---whether he/she knows it or not--obliged to say in subtle ways "Here's where the adventure is, if you stray too far, I might get boring."

Now, naturally, at this point we'd talk about "winging it" which is all well and good and fine and often results in awesome adventures but often the players are as interested in getting to the well-thought-out stuff that the DM has got ready as the DM is and so they have to make a decision about whether they want to access whatever pre-thought-out creativity the DM (or the published scenario the DM is using) has in store or start a kind of totally improvised game that they know they will be constantly aware is going to be a totally improvised game.

The dungeon adventure is an agreement to go back and forth about certain things which are provided by the players in the form of their characters and what they are carrying and provided by the DM in the form of whatever he/she drew into the map. However, within those bounds both sides are pretty much agreeing to play ball all the way.

The not-dungeon adventure involves constant conscious attention from the DM to either keep the thing on track or to decide that she/he can deal with the thing not being on track and constant semi-conscious attention from the players to finding reasons to want to find the plot or trying to decide whether the improvisation they've pushed off into is as interesting as they thought it would be once they decided to ignore the plot.

Neither one of these is better than the other. I've got no problem letting my players run around outside.

I just think it's worth explictily pointing out that the physical space a game is supposed to be taking place in has profound effect on RPG design and the flow of the game at the table, and on what an RPG or a given day of RPGing is about. The transition from battlefield adventures to dungeon adventures essentially created RPGs as we known them--the transition from dungeon adventure to wilderness or town adventures introduced the whole idea of "plot" (in the sense of something pre-outlined rather than emergent) to RPGs.

Non-dungeon adventures generally require the DM start to employ a whole set of cinematic tricks which are now considered standard. It's possible to build a dungeon adventure completely around the idea of proper managment of resources over a sometimes-elided amount of time, in a more open scenario the DM has to constantly make desisions about whether to make the players role-play all the way through their taxi cab ride or just say "ok you're there" and whether to make them pay the rent or ignore the landlady and just go ahead and move them to the next scene that the DM thinks will be dramatic. This can have all kinds of unexpected effects, including tipping the PCs off to where the plot is when, in-game, they shouldn't know.

Dungeons are just as artificial as pre-fab plots and cinematic techniques, but the dungeon takes all the artificiality of a DM-constructed world and front-loads it--you accept that you're going to a place that's all stone and there's only a few things in it, and after that, it's often all seamless.

Dungeons And Information

Before it's been explored, the dungeon (or any interior space with a limited number of exits which you expect to keep the players busy for a decent chunk of game time) functions like a horror or investigative situation. What's there? Could be anything, we'll have to open the door and see. The DM has information, the players don't. Limited information is also the only way to run classic horror or detective stories if you want the players to feel anything like the way that the protagonist in these stories presumably feel.

It's exciting because Hey, look, the unexpected! It also puts all the power in the GM's hand.

However, once a dungeon room has been explored it switches genres and it now becomes a tactical element--or whatever the PCs want to use it as. It's empty and they're heavily armed, so basically the PCs now "own" that territory--in a way they don't necessarily "own" places and things they discover ouside the dungeon situation. For example, you find a room and there's a prisioner there--the players can decide to use this prisoner to test traps and stuff. (Or they can decide to ask him/her all about his or her in-laws--point is, s/he is now something they get to play with.)

Information is the key to the players being able to play any kind of tactical game (you are here I'm here, there's a wall here, the monster is over there, etc) and once a dungeon area has been explored the players have a fairly clear tactical canvas to play with in a way that just saying "ok, you're on a street here's an ogre" doesn't provide. The dungeon has a thing here and a trap there and a pit here, the dragon's in this room, that's the sum total of what you have to work with--go!

Dungeons and Problem-Solving

This points up another interesting thing about dungeons:

Tactical play and also "PCs decide what issues they want this story to be about"-type play can't usually happen at exactly the same instant as horror and mystery because tactical play and player-interest-driven play both rely on the players having lots of information and horror and mystery rely on the players not knowing what's just around the corner. However, the dungeon, by definition, must have two states--the explored and the unexplored--so the dungeon adventure has phases that allow both halves of the equation.

Outside the dungeon, this kind of plot structure also appears in a lot of places--for example, in certain noir movies and books. They start out with mysteries being revealed (in game terms--GM revealing to players stuff s/he has already written) and move on to the detective using those revealed elements--the mob boss's secretary, the photographer with the horrible secret--to foil the villain.

It also appears in adventure stories--the hero discovers a bizarre world that operates by bizarre laws and then uses those very laws and rules to defeat some big baddie occupying it.

The difference in game terms between the dungeon adventure and the outside adventures is that the dungeon requires very little real work on the part of the GM to make this interesting "use the rules of the weird place against that weird place" alchemy happen--all the GM has to do is provide enough details that do enough different kinds of things and any PC worth his/her salt will figure a way to recombine them in a way the GM hadn't thought of, whereas in an "outdoor" adventure there's always the posibility that the PCs will bring in some resource that is less interesting but equally effective.

Dungeons as Limited-Resource Scenarios

The reason is because the dungeon is, like the "ticking bomb" and the "bus can't go under 50mph" situation, a limited resource scenario. They make it hard for the PCs to just go to some setting-implied off-screen source of authority or weapons or money or doctors to solve problems.

If the DM wants Chinatown-like twists and doublebacks outside a limited-resource scenario she/he has to either accept that they might not happen or stick them in him/herself, whereas this kind of necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention reasoning is encoded into the basic premise of limited-resources scenarios. If the players are running around normally, this is harder to do without making the situation seem artificially restricted ("The gun store is closed. The glass is too thick to break. You see a police rover.")

In traditional art there are basically two kinds of sculpture: the kind where you take a chunk of stuff and carve things away until it's the shape you want it to be--"subtractive" sculpture--and the kind where you pile up material until it's shaped the way you want it to be shaped--"additive" sculpture.

In an "outside" adventure, the DM has to think of every single boring way the problems could be solved (police, doctors, friends, cars, trains, puzzle-solving experts) and cut them out of the situation ahead of time or right there in front of the players, like a subtractive scultpture. It can be hard because you have to subtract away every single thing that could make the situation boring. So you're sitting around thinking about boring. In a dungeon, it's additive--there's nothing but a blank piece of graph paper, to which you add only fun.

In other words, in a dungeon it's relatively easy to create a situation where the solution to the problems provided (or created) has to be interesting and unexpected. And that's neat.

Food For Thought

Q: What are the four game systems that are most commonly (and accurately, in this writer's opinion) described as obviously "broken" or at least in bad need of rules hacks in order to play smoothly and/or emulate the genre they're supposed to be emulating?

A: D&D (all variants), Rifts (and the rest of Palladium), Vampire (and the rest of White Wolf-old system), and Call of Cthulhu

Q: What are the four most successful RPGs, in terms of bringing people into the hobby?

A: D&D (all variants), Rifts (and the rest of Palladium), Vampire (and the rest of White Wolf-old system), and Call of Cthulhu

Monday, February 22, 2010

Four Ways Of Looking At A Vampire

So the girls are vampire hunting. They really don't know much about the vampire yet, and, frankly, neither do I.

But I do know I hate to waste a monster, especially a high-level one, especially with a group of players that've never fought it before.

So I've been thinking about my options, and reading up, and thinking of how to wring every drop of doom and danger and scheming and minion and mood and campaign fuel out of the situation...

(No, you are not allowed to post "Don't worry what tha' other mofos, do! Just do it man! Don't overthink it! i'm sure whatever you think up will be awwesumm!" in the comments. Thinking is my idea of fun. Thinking about how I want this to roll is a pleasant problem to contemplate.)

What follows is not so much four different types of vampires (the pennangalan, the moroi, the strigoi, etc.) as four different kinds of ways vampires are treated in stories. Obviously, there are lots of other ways, (Abbot and Costello Vs. Dracula, for example) but I'm just talking about pre-modern stuff and modern stuff that copies the classic templates...

Puzzle-Monster/Disease-Victim Vampire

(Die! Dracula! Die!)

From this point of view, a vampire is a category of monster mainly distinguished by the fact that it requires special tricks to kill it. Sunlight, stakes, running water, etc. Like a medusa or a hydra. The tricks and rules are well-defined and usually adhere closely, in-game, to the tricks and rules the players know from out-of-game sources like TV and books. The theme of vampire-as-disease-victim (as opposed to vampire-as-curse-victim or vampire-as-personification-of-evil) is important since the idea that there are specific rules for infection is really important.

This is the obvious D&D default vampire.

The nice thing about this aspect of vampires is that there is more broadly-known and consistent lore about vampires than any other monster (like are wights vulnerable to acid? Who knows? But vampires don't like garlic, we all know that), so if you're designing a strategic or tactical challenge using the Old School D&D motto "player skill not character skill" it's hard to beat a vampire for a foe that PCs can really think about before kicking down the door. The more the PCs know about any given situation, the more opportunity there is to see the situation as a strategic challenge. Here are the rules--go!

Typically, if a PC ends up as a vampire, then it's hard to escape sticking pretty much to this model, since it's relatively easy to describe a vampire this way in game terms and then just let the PC do whatever they want.

Movies typically look at vampires this way for the most part because then they don't need as much backstory. Even profoundly arty movie vampires--like Werner Herzog's Nosferatu or Andy Warhol's Dracula, end up, despite all the metaphors involved, having a lot of the puzzle-monster vampire about them.

Spooky Screw-You Puzzle-Monster/Disease-Victim Vampire

(Everything you read in Dracula is wrong)

As above, only the DM goes on wikipedia, looks up "vampire" and reads something like this...

In order to ward off the threat of vampires and disease, twin brothers would yoke twin oxen to a plow and make a furrow with it around their village. An egg would be broken and a nail driven into the floor beneath the bier of the house of a recently deceased person. Two or three elderly women would attend the cemetery the evening after the funeral and stick five hawthorn pegs or old knives into the grave: one at the position of the deceased's chest, and the other four at the positions of his arms and legs. Other texts maintain that running backwards uphill with a lit candle and a turtle would ward off a stalking vampire. Alternately, they may surround the grave with a red woolen thread, ignite the thread, and wait until it was burnt up. If a noise was heard at night and suspected to be made by a vampire sneaking around someone's house, one would shout "Come tomorrow, and I will give you some salt," or "Go, pal, get some fish, and come back."

...and so, instead of the standard post-Hollywood stakes-and-sunlight model, comes up with some weird new vampire with new vampire-killing rules.

While using unfamiliar folklore to define the vampire has the advantage of making it spookier (at least if you go with the old-women-with-the-knives type of thing, the running-backwards-with-a-turtle thing might not exactly bring the arcane terror), it has the disadvantage of taking away the player-knowledge-comes-in-handy tactical aspect, plus it could be read as just a Fuck You from the DM if the players don't know about it ahead of time.

Ghost Story/Curse-Victim Vampire

(Dracula--Love Never Dies)

A vampire is what's become of an individual person with an individual history and so getting rid of the vampire involves somehow tying up the loose ends of that person's life or otherwise dealing with them, possibly in addition to the "usual" vampire-killing methods. Getting rid of the vampire will necessitate finding a lost love, righting a wrong, satisfing an oath, moving a symbolic object etc. The vampire's predatory nature is nearly always pretty obviously a sexual metaphor.

From this point of view the vampire is less diseased than cursed, his or her condition is specific to him or her. Though the vampire might be able to create more vampires with its bite, its own vampirism isn't necessarily the result of another vampire's bite (that would make the vampire less unique)--it could be some sort of divine punishment or the result of an improper burial. This kind of vampire can have unique abilities tied metaphorically or symbolically to its past or situation, and often enacts magical-thinking-ghost-type-behavior-patterns like, for example, if the vampire died by suicide then it lives in a well and tempts everyone who looks in or if the vampire's mortal body was killed by someone with red hair it always attacks people with red hair, etc.

In this case, the vampire is the center of a traditional ghost story--curses and taboos are in effect, and the PCs have to enter this system of spooky thinking in order to get rid of the vampire. It typically appears in an investigative-type situation.

(The closest obvious referent in D&D here would be Strahd from Ravenloft, who always seemed like a sort of a Castlevania-style Dracula-clone puzzle-monster sitting on top of a megadungeon with a little of the romantic ghost-story stuck on top. Probably the proportions of each vary from DM to DM.)

Sometimes aristocratic vampires are this kind of vampire and sometimes they aren't. It depends on whether you're supposed to be sympathetic to- or intrigued by- the aristocrat's history or whether his/her aristocraticness is just basically a metaphor for his/her vampireness.

In general, vampires are scariest when they aren't there yet--and the ghost story vampire emphasizes this aspect. S/he is just sort of an excuse for all the other moody and spooky things--like how in Lovecraft the actual monster is less the point than just the atmosphere of madness and terror that it generates. The plot is the real monster, the vampire is just the thing that gives it a center.

Demonic/Mythic/Evil-Force Vampire

(Dracula--from dracul, meaning "dragon")

A vampire is like a demon or is a kind of demon. It personifies evil forces (generally ones associated with animalistic rather than civilized behavior), and while its nature is vague and insubstantial and partially metaphorical, it's extremely powerful. This is the kind of primal evil from the dawn of time found in the oldest myths and is often distinguished from other demons only by the fact that it drinks blood. It often looks more like a creature than a human. It does not scheme, it simply preys.

Slaying this vampire will require either epic-level skull-splitting with some sort of gimmicks that make the PCs the equal of the mythic heroes that killed these things back in the day or righting some sort of larger-scale spiritual or moral wrongness. This kind of vampire is, above all, blasphemous, and so the solution to the vampire, viewed from this angle, will often involve invoking piety, righteousness, or divine intervention.


It goes without saying that in most stories these kinds of vampire overlap--just as the classic vampire themes of disease, lust, and blasphemy overlap. But in looking at pre-modern vampire stories, it's usually pretty easy to fit the story pretty squarely into one of these three models.

Anyway, six first-level PCs against a vampire is going to be a long-haul adventure, so I've got a while to think about it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


So I made this rule...

(Ok, "rule" is maybe too strong a word.

"Snap decision" maybe is the word here.

I mean, "phrase." Anyway...)

The decision was that, ok, since the PCs are in a creepy little town at the moment instead of a big city then they have to use the AD&D Player's Manual Equipment list instead of the DeLuxe stuff available in 3.5.

"So, ok, ladies, you say you're going to shop before you go up and kill the vampire, what are you buying?"

So if you're familiar with the AD&D equipment list...

What do you think they want? What do you think drew the roving eyes of my players when they got vampire slaying on the brain and 200-some g.p. burning a hole in their collective pocket?

That's right, the livestock.

Top of the second page. The one where it says what armor is what armor class.

Gary gets a lot of static about all the pole-arms on that equipment list, but what about the ox? What's up with that, Gary? Did that come up a lot?

Yeah, so the girls go shopping...

I want a dog. I want a hawk! I want a pigeon. I want a guard dog! I want a pig, a warpig.

"A warpig? There's no warpigs."

"Why not, I mean why not just..."

"There's no fucking warpigs!"

So they walk out of there with a guard dog, a hawk, and a pigeon.

I rolled some dice for this hawk. How well-trained is this hawk? Apparently it can be directed to attack things smaller than it and it can deliver things.

The pigeon can deliver notes because otherwise what's the point of buying a pigeon? Seriously?

I am actually kind of thinking this is some real Old School game balance issue here. Like anybody with 30 gp or whatever can buy a hawk. Why doesn't everybody have a hawk?

Y'know why?--maybe--it's because my players are as rules-exploitive as any other Old School player, but then plus on top of that they're girls, so they want warponies and biting donkeys.

That came up, that actual thing--like "Hey, if I get a donkey can I train it to bite people?"

"There's no fucking biting donkeys!"

And unlike maybe the guys they're not distracted from the livestock section by the weapon-damage chart on the opposite page.

Which is actually wise because--seriously cleric--a mace? Fuck that, check out the damage for a wardog bite. That's a 2 hit dice monster you got right there. Right off the equipment list. Suck it, celestial badger.

So then after shopping then they've got these animals working overtime.

I tell the pigeon to drop acid on the magic statue, I tell the hawk to dump flaming oil on the vampire's house, I tell the guard dog to run into the acid fog cloud...

That was kind of not maybe the best tactic for a dog-lover, that last one. 2d6 is kind of a lot for even an AD&D 2+2 HD wardog to handle.

"Yeah, the cloud clears and your dog's dead."

"What? Can I take him to the Spider Cult and kill a kid and get him revived?"

"They don't do dogs."

"I loved that dog!"

"We got 80 g.p., we can buy two more."

Unfortunately, by that time all the locals had fled, what with all this vampire-baiting and animal-assisted arson the ladies had gotten into. They took their livestock with them.

But then the girls figured, Hey, free armor!

So then they were creeping around the armor shop in the dark.

"You hear something rustling behind the armor."

"I cast Color Spray at it!"

"Mrrrowwwl! Thuk."

"It was a cat?"


"Can I train the cat?"

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Experimental Super Friends Day, Pt. 2

So this is a post about how this experimental day of D&D went.

Quick re-cap: multiple plot-threads, multiple rule-sets, brand new character class, mass combat, a few more things, too. Probably just click that link up there if you're really interested. Anyway...

Connie and Satine In The Puzzle-Temple

I could've written way less puzzlestuff than I did for the puzzletemple. They spent most of their time debating how to get past various obstacles--which was fun for them, so it was cool.

Also, since the set-up required I cut from team to team, it gave me a natural way to do that:


"Ok, I'm going to tie a rope around my waste and get a running start and jump as far into the pool as I possibly can."

"Ok, you run, and then you leap--what's your strength?--ok, you leap fourteen feet over the the black muck aaaand...CUT--Mandy and Frankie, what are you guys doing?"

Mandy, Frankie, and the Mass-Battle Rules

So Mandy, Frankie and occasionally KK (she had errands to run and so was in and out) faced Gorth's unhallowed legions openly on the field of battle.

Mandy, realizing she was outgunned, kicked off the fight with a classic of asymmetrical warfare...

Being me, I had this idea a few months ago that a first-level wizard should be allowed to, in addition to the usual spells, be allowed to choose ANY one spell in the book--Power Word Kill, Summon Worst Thing Ever, Alter Reality--so long as it had a 50% chance of backfiring and affecting the caster. The Poorly Learned Spell rule.

Mandy'd picked Acid Cloud. Mandy ran up to the War Witch Squad, used Acid Cloud, rolled poorly, it backfired, she went down to zero, along with most of the Witches. Let it never be said she's not a true Suicide Girl.

Meanwhile, Frankie--showing up to play after a very long and sleepless night the precise nature of which gentlemanly discretion prevents me from describing--spent a lot of time actually unconscious.

KK showed up long enough to lead some elves in an attack on some abominations and then find a loophole in the rules and then was immediately laid low by a combination of a hideous bite to her PCs face and a bad burrito to her actual self.

So here's the deal with the loophole and how to avoid it:

The mass combat rules I whipped up make everybody more vulnerable. Close combat is over fast. This is fine for the rank-and-file troops. However, I really do not feel comfortable telling my players (many of whom have just now gotten used to the normal combat system) that all of a sudden they have one hit point.

So I worked it out so that once a PC is engaged, they and whoever they're personally fighting fight according to normal D&D rules, while everyone else uses the fast rules. That way you get your mass combat cake and get to individual-valorously eat it, too.

Trust me, it isn't that complicated. You fight like normal for a bit, then go around the table seeing how all these mini-battles on around the table turned out. Most will end with someone dying.

The only hitch to remember is: give the PC and his/her personal foe a few rounds of fighting (neither side has to go down, you can move on halfway through), THEN go to the mooks, resolve their combats, THEN move to the next initiative countdown.

If you resolve the mooks first, then what happens is some of the mooks and their enemies die, which leaves the PC standing there fighting while surrounded by a bunch of unengaged pals and going "Well can any of these rhubarbs get over here and help me?" and you have to go "No, not til their initiative comes up next round." Which creates a sort of annoying time paradox.

If you do it PCs then mooks, however, it works like a charm. Plus the Pcs face the interesting choice next turn of whether to have their units help them or engage somebody else on the field.

The main dirty little secret to making D&D work as a wargame in this way is: when you modify it as much as I did, then basically it's almost not D&D --which is not such a big deal, so long as you warn your players first.

One other note--next time I design a scenario like this I want to make sure both sides have lots of distance attacks. If one side doesn't have them or doesn't have many, there are way less dimensions to the strategy involved, since basically at some point you have to charge into close combat and then the dice do most of the work.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Frankie eventually clericked Mandy back to consciousness and the girls managed to handle both the enemy and the mass combat system despite KK's indigestion.

Joe V. Gorth

And what, then, of Joe, lone first-level rogue charged with the task of distracting the evil wizard who set loose all this archvillainy in the first place?

Remember Joe's task is merely to distract the fearsome Nth-level mage, not destroy him, but still: things don't look good for Joe. And nobody wanted to help him.

So omigod, dig Joe...

First round:

Move Silently and Hide In Shadows up behind Gorth.

Roll, roll, succeed succeed.
I figure, hey, Gorth's a busy man, directing a whole battle from atop his giant disembodied hand in the center of the battlefield and of course, posesses the arrogance of all wizardkind. So yeah, he's not gonna notice this gnat creeping up on him since he's got an empire of pain to run.

Kind of a Flash-Vs.-Darkseid thing developing here.

Second round:

Joe climbs up the tower and then the hand, from behind, naturally.

I figure, Gorth gets lots of modifiers, he's gonna notice this shit. But no, he rolls a 1.

Third round:

Joe taps Gorth on the shoulder while holding up the severed head of medusa which he remembered to write down on his equipment list from when he chopped it off during the first time he ever played, this past Thanksgiving.

Joe may have thought to do this because he works in special effects and so has probably seen Clash of the Titans 20 times. Fucking Ray Harryhausen.

Now I figure:

Wizard, eldritch wisdom, reflex save, he's gotta have something going on, right? So I roll and yes, Gorth is indeed on the ball enough to not turn around.

So now what's the most interesting horrible thing Gorth could do without looking Joeward? I figure: look down, use Animate Object on Joe's shoes so Joe is forced to skitter and tap-dance off the tower.

Down goes Joe, falling damage takes he, but he's got 2 hit points left because he's tough and lucky.

Fourth Round:

Gorth pulls out an eyeball and drops it on Joe to go see what it is that Joe's up to. The eyeball gets turned to stone, ok. So now Gorth knows he's got a medusa head.

I walk over to my minis shelf and pull down the biggest, scariest monster I haven't used recently (this warhammer ghost guy) and tell Joe Gorth just summoned it.

Joe runs and runs. Gorth goes back to what he was doing.

Fifth Round:

Joe get sick of running, turns around and tries to see if this medusa head will work on the ghost. It doesn't but then the ghost attacks and Joe realizes it's just an illusion.

And then:

I think there's no chance Joe'll be able to sneak up on Gorth again, but Joe realizes that--

he climbs halfway up, then grappling hooks the wizard, yanks him (opposed strength roll) off the giant hand, the wizard falls right next to Joe.

Initiative. Joe wins, stabs the facedown (trying to avoid the medusa head) wizard in the back, rolling a 19. That's a critical with a dagger on a prone opponent. Now, still, nowhere near enough damage to hurt Gorth at all but I figure you're a rogue and you roll a 19 to the back you gotta get something, right? So I say Gorth basically loses a turn.

So Joe grabs Gorth's one-eyed head and tries to pull his face up to look at the medusa head. Opposed strength roll. Gorth manages to keep his feeble wizard head down. But then:
initiative, Joe wins, tries all over again. Succeeds, now Gorth's made of stone.

Nice job Joe.

Then everybody got together (in total Justice League style) and fought a giant two-headed snake. They beat it.

The Only Thing I Didn't Really Test...

...was the alchemist class. It worked ok this time, but I feel like the real test is how it works once Satine starts running out of potions and has to try to mix up new stuff.

Anyway, successful test, basically, just next time I need to make sure Frankie gets enough sleep before game day and KK lays off the cheap mexican.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Experimental Super Friends Day, Pt. 1

I had this idea to do a sort of "Super Friends" style adventure (or "Gardner-Fox-Era-Justice-League" style if you're hardcore like that), where the group breaks up into teams to simultaneously deal with various menaces.

The experimental (for me) bit was that I wanted to make each "thread" of the plot involve completely different sub-rules, or at least challenge the different teams of players in totally different ways.

I like things in the game that serve to differentiate the characters from each other through action--like this one's the strategist, this one's the brute force, this one's the puzzle-solver, etc. (I know this sounds kind of like the "roles" in Type 4 D&D but really it's a little more than that--it has more to do with play style and personality than what you actually do in a team fight.)--so it's important in this set-up that the nature of the different sub-challenges be laid out for the party in advance and that each player got to choose which sub-challenge to take on.

There are obvious downsides here--in order to make it happen you have to railroad the PCs into the plot a little harder than I usually like, and of course it involves Splitting The Party and doing "cut scenes", which is a pain for reasons I probably don't have to explain.

So it was an experiment.


The Set-Up

After the party successfully returns from a quick errand for the Cult of the White Web, the Cultists declare that the party's retrieval of this thingy makes them The Chosen Ones and say that, according to The Prophecy, they are the ones destined to save the world etc. etc.

From who?

The Cultists lead the party through a forest of dead trees to a cliff looking down into a valley.

Down in the valley is a great wargame-scale battle in the ruins of an ancient city, (I start hauling out the minis and scenery)("holy shit" they say)"It's just packing material from the microwave" I say)...

...but all the participants in the battle are motionless and covered in webs.

The cultists explain that 4,000 years ago Gorth The Unfathomable (evil wizard) was trying to take over the world with his army of witches and abominations and the forces of good united against him blah blah blah and anyway point is that Gorth was about to win the fight so the Spider Cultists wove a spell that froze the battle in time for 4,000 years and it's been sitting here in the forest ever since.

During those years, the Cult of the White Web has been studying the battle and running magical simulations and trying to figure out how to defeat Gorth when the spell finally expires. (Which is like tomorrow at dawn of course.)

They've decided that only one strategy can possibly defeat Gorth (all aboard), and that only The Chosen Ones (the PCs) can enact it. So fucking cheap, I know, but bear with me...


And That Strategy Is...

One team must go into the enigmatic Temple of (I don't think I ever gave it a name, actually)... that which is spawning Gorth's army of abominations--whatever it is--and destroy it or plug it up or make it consider a career change or whatever.

This is the puzzle dungeon part of the adventure, low on fighting, high on me explaining weird architecture and the PCs trying to figure out how to get past it.

Connie (dwarf ranger) and Satine (gnome alchemist--test-driving the character class) took that one.

A second team must direct and aid the remnants of the outgunned anti-Gorth army in the field, and destroy Gorth's forces (using these mass combat rules)--or at least hold off the enemy until the other teams succeed. (Nobody asked why the Spider Cult didn't just use their 4,000 years to recruit another, bigger, army peopled by soldiers who also didn't want the world taken over by an ancient lunatic, or why a pair 1st-level elves with a couple hit points each--Mandy and Frankie--were supposedly going to be better generals than, say, a general, but if they did I'd've just said "Hey, that's the Prophecy, ok?" If it's good enough for the founding myth of the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it's good enough for me.)

The third team has the unenviable job of distracting the mighty Gorth (who stands in the center of the field, directing his forces from atop a giant hand...

...which I represented with an upside-down one of these...
) that Gorth is unable to direct, heal, and buff his own forces.

This dangerous task was taken by our pal Joe--mind-bendingly plucky non-adult-industry newbie--and nobody else at all. Good luck with that, Joe.


So how did it go?

Did Connie and Satine manage to find the source of Gorth's hideous abominations?

Was the test-drive of the alchemist class successful?

Did Mandy and Frankie have the strategic chops to rout Gorth's army?

Did D&D manage to stretch itself to handle wargame-style combat rules?

Did Joe get Bigby's Crushed into a pile of 1st-level dust immediately or just very, very, very quickly?

Did I manage to DM this mess with any semblance of aplomb?

Find out tomorrow, on the next episode of Super Fr...I mean, D&D with Porn Stars...

Six Blind Swordsmen For The Price of Zero

Dude, six Zatoichi movies totally free. Internet, i was just kidding, I love you again.


It sounds good, doesn't it?

Let's say that all the time now.

Invites less arguing and hair-splitting than "old school" or "rules lite", and doesn't make you sound as fat as "homebrew".

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

About The Show

Here's what I can tell you about the show:

-It'll be called "I Hit It With My Axe".

-It's for a website called The Escapist, which also publishes James Maliszewski's column. They apparently heard about this blog and decided to get in touch.

-There'll be a new episode every week for a year.

-It'll be like us actually playing D&D in a continuing campaign you can follow. It's not scripted so I guess it's a "reality show" but unlike other reality shows, it is funny.

-So, yeah, that means that I have to run two campaigns, one for when we film (so it's easy to follow on the show), and one for our normal games. The filmed episodes pick up after this session.

-For those keeping score: I won't be posting Actual Play reports from the filmed games (that'd ruin the surprise). I will still be posting Actual Play reports from the unfilmed campaign, which starts here.

-The cast is the usual suspects: Me, Mandy Morbid, Satine Phoenix, Kimberly Kane, Connie, and Frankie (four porn people, a stripper, and a hairdresser)--plus a rotating guest slot of our friends who are newbies or people who don't live in LA, and they'll be models or adult industry types--the guest for the first adventure is Sasha Grey, the guest for the second adventure is Justine Joli.

-The rest either is a secret or I don't know.

I Know You Meant Well But Circumstances Force Me To Regulate On You

Warning: this will be boring and stupid. I hate the internet for making me do it. I will try never to do this again. As readers, I ask that you please never force me to do this again.

EDIT: The folks who did this (Judd, etc.) have since apologized and recorded a disclaimer onto the beginning of their show. Like I said way at the beginning, they meant well. They just made some mistakes. They've admitted them.

I'm leaving this post up because it clarifies why that disclaimer is up there.

To The People Who Did This About This:

First, thanks for noticing, thanks for reading sort-of carefully and kind-of having respect for it, and thanks for telling me about it.

Second, we all know that people are way better at listening to podcasts than reading, so your misinterpretation of what I said will get way more attention than what I actually wrote and so it's already over and you win and I lose (especially with your target audience), but, just for shits and giggles, let's fact-check your show:

-To Judd--I am not "lumping lot of different indie RPGs together". In the post I write very specifically about a certain kind of indie RPG. Thus the phrases: "The more interesting indie RPGs I've seen" and "the most interesting and original indie rpgs I've seen" "A lot of the innovative new games". Also note, I only talk about games I've seen. Re-read the post. That was not a post about all indie games, it was about the kinds of player-generated-content-heavy indie games I find interesting.

-To Judd-- I never said my players "don't want to make up worlds", I said they are moody and they sometimes want to do x and sometimes want to do y--and they often change their tack 7 or 8 times in 7 or 8 minutes. It is not the desire to tell the story that they lack, it's the desire to tell the story in the same way for three hours straight. You seem to have missed the main point of my post, which was that D&D supports multiple play styles simultaneously.

-To Judd--I have no interest in the "comfort" of having a few simple choices or a pre-generated premise. I have an interest in investing creativity in character creation (if I feel like it) or in strategy (if I feel like that instead) or in world-building (if I feel like that) or in role-playing (if I feel like that). I am not into D&D because it is limiting, I'm into it because if I choose to neglect one aspect of RPGing, the game swells to fill the gap, leaving me free to concentrate my energy wherever I want.

-All three of you seem to think I'm looking around for a new game and am frustrated that I can't find an indie RPG that I can play. That's not what I say. Here's what I actually say about the 2 games I mention "That sounds fun, I'd play that." Not "I'm dying to play a different game in addition to the one I'm already playing, but I just can't find one because of all my misconceptions."

-The notion that players don't "tell the story" in D&D is unique to people who don't have fun playing D&D. D&D and other traditional RPGs divide the storytelling and creativity duties in complex and interesting ways that all game designers would do well to study. For example: without creative problem solving and thinking up shit the DM didn't, you will die in any game I run.

-We don't play 4e. We also don't play a mishmash of 1 and 2e. If you want to know the rules we play with you can look around on the blog.

-Also, two minor gripes:

-As someone (sort of) points out on the show: nowhere do I suggest that my players couldn't intellectually handle the rules of the kinds of games I discuss, merely that they don't necessarily want to place their creative effort where a given game asks them to place it.

-Also, as someone points out on the show: when I say that the games in question "lower the creativity ante" for the publisher, I do indeed mean simply in the design of the setting. I know creating a game requires creativity. Yeah, despite your stated fear of taking things out of context, you totally did take it out of context.

To The Canon Puncture Guys And Several Other People In The Blogosphere Who Meant Well, I'm Sure, So Shall Remain Nameless:

Ever go to a restaurant with your grandparents and they keep saying "You could have ravioli, you like ravioli, right? Oh, and they have cheeseburgers here--want a cheeseburger?".

Remember how annoying that was?

But that was ok, they weren't being condescending, because they were too senile to remember that you already learned to read.

RPG bloggers, on the other hand, have no excuse. Please stop recommending that I, in my benighted ignorance, "should try" games everyone and their blind, deaf, incarcerated aunt has already heard of and has read all about on the web. I'm an adult, I can read the menu myself, I blog about RPGs every day, I know about Mouse Guard and Dogs In The Fucking Vineyard and Rolemaster and whatever game you think I will enjoy more than D&D. I have google, too.

Plus I'm having an awful lot of fun playing the game I happen to be playing now and am pretty busy what with playing that game, running a TV show about it, plus having a job and a life. When I say "Hey, I have no idea what to do today, someone recommend me a new game" THEN you can tell me all about how I "should try" whatever your favorite game is.

To Arnold, The Guy In The Comments Section Under The Canon Puncture Podcast, The Guy Who Said These Things About Me:

[Edit--I've removed this part of the post because "Arnold"'s comments have been removed from the page. Pretty much because and only because I wrote this.]

To All Other Indie Gamers:

I will do you the favor of assuming Arnold doesn't represent you.

To All Other Indie Gamers Who Read The Comments Under The Canon Puncture Podcast And Didn't Immediately Call Arnold Out On His Condescending Lunacy and Bar Him From Commenting Ever Again:

I will do you the favor of assuming there was an earthquake or tsunami wherever you live or your wife was giving birth and so that prevented you from doing that.

To Anyone Dumb

This is not an "indie gamer vs. old school thing", this is a "Zak vs. Some Guys Who Didn't Read Something Zak Wrote Very Closely" thing. It has no greater meaning and should not be interpreted as an excuse to start arguing some more.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Finally! The Magic Item Challenge Results

Remember this thing? It's a magic item and I had a thing in this blog about how we were all gonna write it up as a magic item.

I decided it was Forgetting Dust.

Forgetting Dust removes whatever it touches from the memories of men, women, and beasts.

The unusually high concentration pictured here is enough to not only cause the glass and vitrine to be forgotten, but to cause the location of the room it is in to be forgotten, to make mapping the building the room is in impossible, and to cause the location of the city in which that building, room and pile of dust lie to become permanently obscure to all travellers, despite the fact that it lies along a major trade route.

The room also contains a number of powerful and terrible devices as well as maps, pets, poems, poets, founding documents of various religious faiths, chemical formulae, musical scores, and dinner recipes that were all deliberately placed in the room (generally at great cost and with great difficulty) over the course of milennia by those who wished them forever forgotten.

Here are the rest of the write-ups...

Tetsubo said...

Chalice of the Broken Vow

At one time this chalice was used as part of the commitment ceremony for a Paladin order. The greatest of their host has sipped holy water from it for a hundred years. But when one of their most trusted members brtrayed the order and became a Blackard the chalice shattered into it's current form.

The youngest and newest member to have joined the order took up the brioken remains and vowed to redeem her fallen companion. After years of questing she finally succeeded in redeeming his soul even as she drove his life from his corrupted body.

If a vial of holy water is drunk from this vessel the drinker takes 3d6 damage but benefits from a Greater Restoration spell. It will only work for any one individual once.

Rod said...

The Broken Hourglass

When the cork is placed in the source of the sand, time stops for all but 1d6+1 randomly chosen creatures within a 100 foot radius of the hourglass. If there are insufficient creatures within the initial radius to make up the rolled number, the hourglass casts a progressively wider net until the quota is filled.

Rod said...

Alternate, possibly better idea -- it's 1 randomly chosen creature for each alignment.

James said...

This is a Relic. It is "That which was Shattered," and "The Despair of Gods." In various legends, it is known as "Cerridwen's Cauldron," "The Holy Grail," "The Cure for the World's Pain," and several other names on several different worlds. Originally, a gift from the gods, the vessel was shattered when mortals refused to repent of their wickedness and sought to use this beneficent item in selfish ways. Blessed water continually pours into the cup, but, the water now turns to Sand before it reaches the vessel. The cup will remain in this state until such time as men and other creatures finally learn to treat themselves and others with decency.
A grain of Sand taken from the Relic will serve as the ultimate Bane. It may be used as a Wish, so long as Evil is the purpose, though this destroys the grain. Furthermore, a grain of the Sand may be used in a formula for Lichdom, cutting the research time and cost by as much as a third, and increasing the chance for success by an amount to be determined by the DM. Also, the bearer may cast Harm, once per day, so long as he carries a grain. Due to it's very nature, everyone within a 100 yard range will suffer a cumulative 10% penalty to all rolls for each grain of sand present. Also, anyone actually carrying a grain, will become ill, losing one point of constitution per day, for each grain carried. These may be restored via the usual means.

squidman said...

The Tabernacle of The Forgotten One This object is a tabernacle used by the order of a long forgotten god. It’s a box two feet wide, four tall and three deep. It was made in ancient times, crafted from black wood and covered with lead plates. Upon closer examination, the plates will reveal symbols and markings in the form of pressings, but most of them are unreadable. The front panel is a door opened by a magical key/glyph, the inside, in contrast to it's outside, is full of white light.

...Little is known of the tabernacle or the order to which it belonged. It is said that it was an unholy cult which--due to it’s dark rituals and human sacrifices--has been outlawed throughout the civilized lands. Thus the Tabernacle was created as a portable altar, that could be easily disguised and transported without suspicion.
Those who have spent long years investigating the tales and scraps of information that have escaped the flames of inquisition, still debate about the nature of the tabernacle. The old manuscripts describe it as a fountain and a glass chalice. It is not clear what sprang from the fountain, some sources say water, other claim that it was a substance of unknown origin, grainy in appearance but liquid to the touch. The cult believed that what was inside was literally the substance of their god.

...It is known that at least once the ancient artifact was nearly destroyed. Many hundreds of years ago, the cult was discovered and its hideout was overridden by paladins and clerics. Almost all of them were slain by evil magic, but the strongest champion of law prevailed and finished the last of the dark priests. He then decided to destroy the tabernacle--beginning with the chalice. When he grabbed the chalice, the attention of the forgotten god started to focus upon him.

The Evil One was tempting him by sending visions of power and splendor but, when the holy man resisted, the god started tormenting him with images of horror and pain. The cleric was trying to keep his sanity and fulfill his mission, but his will was weakened by the long battle and the many wounds he had taken. His mind was giving out but in the last effort he tried to destroy the chalice. As he raised his hand to cast it against the floor, in a sudden flash of sanity, he realized that he was standing in a middle of a large and powerful glyph.

...He suddenly understood that the evil god foresaw the destruction of the cult and had his priests prepare a trap. Now he knew he was to be the next leader of the cult, his tormented mind finally gave out to the evil power, but it sent one final command to his hand-attempting to smash the chalice. The action came too late. The blow was too weak and the the chalice was only partially damaged.
That is the last known mention of the tabernacle or the cleric... It’s important to note that the PC’s should be aware of the potency and danger that the Tabernacle represents. Perhaps the party’s wizard can decipher some of the symbols on the surface of the lead enclosure, maybe a famous bard has came across a fragment of an obscure tale of a long forgotten cult... The whole artifact is immune to any divinations.
Upon drinking from the chalice the character has to roll a d12, effects below. If players decide to pour the liquid into anything else, it automatically changes into sand. 1 - the character has an epiphany in which he is shown the true nature of the Forgotten One and goes mad, no save throws, no nothing. Just plain MAD! 2 - the god looks favorably upon the mortal and grants him a wish 3 - the god decides to share a piece of his unholy knowledge with the hero, PC looses two pints of intelligence but gains 2 points of wisdom 4 -the god sees the person worthy and blesses him/her. That works like a Cause Fear and Iron Skin cast on that person by a high level wizard, and lasts one day 5 - the god decides to heal all wounds of the drinking character 6 - nothing happens 7 - nothing happens 8 - the god doesn’t see the person worthy, s/he is dealt 4d8 damage, with no saves or reduction whatsoever 9 - the god decides to punish the person by paralyzing them for as long as the DM wishes (but not permanently) 10 - the god is angered by the mortal and punishes him/her by permanently draining 1 point of strength and constitution 11 - in punishment for disturbance, the god permanently drains character’s level 12 - the god sees the mortal as a useful tool and transfers part of his consciousness (or a demon servant?) into the PC’s body. From now on the PC becomes prone to blackouts during which the evil power takes control of his body...

Barking Alien said...

I'll tell you what it once was...
Guthryndael's Goblet.

The 'Goblet', also known as 'The Blue Goblet', though this was not its true title, was once a painting by the famed artist Guthryndael of Gael'Bannon, also known to be an alchemist of some skill.

It was said that Guthryndael made and mixed his own paints and often did so using his alchemy knowledge. Many people whisper that this made his paintings seem unnaturally realistic. Was he a fantastic painter or a talented amateur mage? Who can say.

Was is known is that the 'Goblet' was eventually purchased by a minor noble of the Gaullegue Empire and he in turn passed it on to his eldest son. Now this son married a most attractive and sweet young woman, who truth be told he did not deserve. Many a night he would come home from an evening of drinking, womanizing and other foul passions and strike at his lovely young wife. One evening, with his mind both fogged and heated, he went to hit her hard with a closed fist. He missed and struck the painting and the room echoed suddenly with the sound of shattered glass.

When servants and guards entered the chamber they found the young noble on his knees, clutching his arm. In place of his hand was a writhing, twisting mass of blue tendrils, all of which tried desperately to choke its wielder to death.

Tales say the young noble died soon after. The yong wife inherited the keep and remarried a distant cousin of the noble (the family always prefered her presence to their own blood anyway). She and her husband live there to this day and last I had heard one of her children is a painter now, or an apprentice on their way.

The ruins of the 'Goblet' and the frame that held it now sit in a distant and forgotten corner of the keep's deepest dungeon. Some say that criminals guilty of striking their wives and/or children are left in the section of the dungeon the 'Goblet' occupies. Once in a while a guard or grounds keeper can be seen carrying away a large sack stained deep blue.

Others say the keep's original owner, the young noble son, is locked down below as well, now little more then a mass of blue tentacles and hunger, smelling of pain and old paint.

At least...this is the story I know.

Al said...

That's the "Cork of Dessication."

If placed into a bottle or other container, it will transform up to 1d6 gallons of liquid into a fine dry powder. Upon speaking a command word, the powder will immediately transform back into its original liquid state. Magical potions, poisons, oils, etc, all retain their normal effect despite the alteration in form.

Originally intended to facilitate daring new forms of alchemy, these Corks have nonetheless been put to less conventional uses, such as smuggling or assassination.

myrystyr said...

It is not a magic item.

It is debris from an altered timeline. Any magic that is detected is residual energy from time travelling. Anyone inspecting the debris, taking part of it, or remaining in its presence for more than a few minutes will dream of alternate realities the next time they go to sleep. This may cause nightmares.

Also, anyone who comes in contact with the debris has a chance of attracting psychic predators (such as the Thought Eater). They are also placed on a watch list by the Time Lords, or equivalent dimensional guardians.

Chris said...

The Dryest Martini.

Anyone holding this deliciously astringent beverage may make two Encounter Reaction rolls and accept the better of the two. The wielder must maintain an air of slightly caddish sophistication and attempt to communicate in bon mots and one liners at all times.