Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Carnivorous Water Garden

An extract from what I'm working on:

The Carnivorous Water Garden

An oval space 200 yards in diameter under a blue sky - whether it is a shallow pond or waterlogged turf or something in between is not important. The only important thing is that it is sloppy sogging wet to the depth of a human's knees, and every inch contains coiled carnivorous bladderwort. Their yellow flowers stand up from the surface in their thousands, swaying gently in the breeze.

In the centre of this oval space stands a plinth on which two stone hands are positioned as if grasping upwards for something. A spear made out of the same type of stone and of similar design stands plunged into the wet bog 50 yards from the plinth, and when this is placed into the hands, the fists close around it. This spear symbolises that which was once owned by Itxlub, and returning it to its rightful place causes the doors to his mausoleum to open [see Area 6]. Movement in the marshy area is slowed to 1/4 the normal rate.

The air throngs with tiny albino flies, on whose larvae the bladderworts prey. These flies sap psychic energy and use it to breed. Any sentient being which enters the marshy area loses 10 XP per round. Once the cumulative total drained XP reaches 200, the albino swarm begins to undergo frenzied breeding. They come together in a dense, swirling cloud and the accumulated psychic weight begins to bend and flex reality in the dream world. Pressure is forced outwards and storm clouds gather overhead. The air grows cold and winds begin to swirl. The very air itself stretches, twists and writhes - and the effect on the human body is yet more profound. Anyone remaining in the marshy area three rounds after the flies begin to breed is squeezed, crushed, and wrung out, taking 2d6 hp damage per turn. The flies cease to breed after 6 rounds.

Seven servitors stand around the edges of the oval, positioned at the N, NE, SE, S, SW, W, NW. These are constructed from jade green ceramic material. Each is fixed in place and cannot move - a torso planted into the ground. Water constantly gushes from the mouth into a bowl that is held in the fists; periodically the servitors throw the contents of their bowls over the bladderwort field, scattering fresh water across its surface. The servitors are not aggressive, but if anybody attempts to remove the spear from the area, they will cause enough commotion through their movements to bring about a random encounter.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Sable-Vested Night, Eldest of Things

Thoughts return to the setting in which day and night both last a century.

In the last post on the topic, I described the following:

The City Standing Like a Candle in the Night - a walled fortress inhabited by a great and advanced civilizations able to magically last the night. The PCs would begin there, at the very bottom rung of the social order, early in the night - just a year or two in. Surrounding them would be all kinds of opportunities for adventure. Intrigue in the City itself. Raiding nearby "digger-type" settlements with huge underground caches of valuables (perhaps one of which is abandoned and forms, essentially, a megadungeon, with many of the defences still intact). Stealing from dwarf or gnome toll-takers at a nearby migratory choke-point. Searching for caches left by migratory peoples. Tangling with orcs and other night creatures. Searching for hermits or elder beings who do not move with the regular cycles? Trying to track an infamous Laputa-like floating castle?

As a setting, I think rather than being early in the night I would place the City at the precise point at which dusk segues into night. This is a world in which the sky is dark grey clouds laced with the orange-gold of a permanent sunset. It is cold but not glacial. Snow lies in patches but when the weather comes it is mostly sleet or hail. The forests and mountains are quiet: the animal life is preparing for hibernation or migrating to follow the sun. The last stragglers of the nomadic tribes pass to the West. The creatures of the night begin to appear. The things which have spent the last century underground begin to stir...

In the vicinity for PCs to explore/interact with are:

  • Underground stores left behind by migrating nomads
  • Lairs of hibernating beasts
  • Magic moving castle of an archmage which prowls the world searching for magical artifacts
  • Cults or religious orders who worship the night (or perhaps view it as the coming apocalypse/millennium)
  • Things emerging from the night itself - demons, wraiths, ghosts and so on
  • Dwarf settlements permanently underground, some of which lie abandoned
  • Mysteriously-abandoned "digger-type" citadel
  • Vast reindeer herds who move with the dusk gradually eastwards, and their herders
  • Settlement at a specific choke-point for travelers, run by psionic gnomes
  • Things within the City itself (natch)
  • Hermit arch-mages, witches and so forth hunkering down for the night
  • Elder gods who stalk the night
Above all I like the idea of the night being an actual physical presence, almost, which is older than the day. The night was there before there was light - and there are things in it which are the oldest things in the world. It's not that the night is the absence of day; rather, it's the night which moves. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Elementary Principles of Dungeon Drawing

I have recently been watching a series on Netflix called Abstract: The Art of Design. It's one of a family of Netflix documentary series that includes other topics such as chefs and artists; these things are basically a collection of hour-long hagiographies of specific people at the peak of their professions - you get no criticism of the subject whatsoever or any indication that they are anything other than perfect and perfectly happy - but still, they make for interesting viewing. (I think this is partly just because it's interesting to hear people talk in an informed way about a subject you know little about, and also partly because, let's face it, hagiographies are supposed to inspire, and that is what they do.)

Watching programmes about design makes you think about design, and in my case, dungeon design. There are lots of blog posts and other resources out there about how to make dungeons, and some of them are truly excellent. (Benoist's series on The RPG Site is the best of them.) There are interesting and innovative ideas about specific tasks such as keying (like the Dungeon Shorthand). There are thoughtful discusses at the level of principle (like Philotomy's Musings). But I don't think I've ever come across anything that is specifically about the design of a dungeon at the level of actually drawing it. When you sit down with a blank piece of paper, how do you actually draw a good dungeon level? How do you arrange the rooms and corridors to best effect? Where you do put the entrance and exit? Where do you put the traps and treasure? (Assuming you aren't random-stocking?)

So, let's think about it. You will have your own opinions which you are free to post here, or elsewhere. But here are some for starters. (Note: I almost never stick to these myself, but whenever I don't, I regret it.)

1. Rebuttable Preference for NSEW

Snazzy weird shapes and arrangements of rooms look good on paper but in my experience are really hard to explain at the table without ending up with the DM doing lots of drawing, which defeats the purpose of having players do the mapping. For this reason, I have a very strong preference for rooms which are basically rectangular or square (circles and hexagons are less good but okay; triangles are difficult; anything else is a pain). Similarly, I much prefer exits to be identifiable as a cardinal direction, and ditto for corridors to go in those directions. ("The corridor goes north," is so much simpler than "The corridor goes straight ahead for a bit, and then sort of bends to the left, and then corrects itself, and then bends left again...")

Fig. 1:

2. Symmetry is Lazy

It's easy to fall back on symmetry when you're having difficulty thinking. I'm sure you've all experienced this: you've drawn part of a dungeon and you're getting tired and so you do the DMing equivalent of a rorshach print and effectively fold it back on itself so you get twice as much bang for your buck, with one half of the page mirroring the other. This, in my experience, tends towards the drab, but also leads your imagination down a bit of a cul-de-sac - better to be expansive and keep sections of dungeon asymmetrical. (It's also somewhat unrealistic - architecture is rarely if ever symmetrical in real buildings.)

3. It's All About Connectivity

Perhaps the most important thing is connectivity. Compare Fig. 2 with Fig. 3 below.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 2 may have lots of rooms and a relatively complex layout but there are very few options for exploration - it is basically a railroad. At times PCs can go on detours, but these always lead to them having to retrace their steps, and their travel through the dungeon is ultimately limited to describing a glorified circle. This is bad.

Fig. 3 on the other hand is the same map but with connecting corridors added. Suddenly there are lots of options for the PCs when exploring, and also excuses for monsters in different parts of the dungeon to interact with each other. The PCs can actually interact with the map, once they've explored it, by taking shortcuts and setting up ambushes.

These maps are small and simple (and I have over-done things with Fig. 3 to make a point) but the principle is just as important in a dungeon with 100 rooms. Connectivity makes the experience richer for both DM and players.

4. Speed-Bump, Barrier, or Deflector 

From the perspective of PC movement, just about anything you can place in a dungeon that isn't treasure will be one of three things: a speed-bump, a barrier, or a deflector. Any monster, trap, puzzle or NPC has the potential to either:

  • Slow things down briefly (pause to kill some goblins or rescue the dwarf from the pit trap; resume)
  • Prevent progress entirely (big scary dragon or pit of level-draining ghost vipers is too dangerous; PCs don't move past it and hence an area of the dungeon is closed off until they can)
  • Deflect travel in a different direction (NPC tells the PCs about treasure in a certain room, puzzle leads to secret door, etc.)

This is worth considering when placing items in the dungeon after the rooms are mapped out. Anything you put anywhere will have one of those effects.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

[Modern Book of Lairs] II: Aboleth - Secumbei's Bath House

People on Google+ have been accusing me of being a COMPLETELY FUCKING IDIOTIC MORON or words to that effect for not doing things in ink or in a printable format. Well, I am nothing if not responsive to constructive feedback, so I've done this one in ink. I'm not sure if I will in future because the time spent increases threefold done this way and the ethos of the project is short-hand. But I will scan them in a way that can be printed and also will link to the files on Google Drive.

Text reads as follows:

Secumbei the Aboleth

Ancient marble bath house of a forgotten civilization lying in the depths of a cave system far below the surface of the earth where light never penetrates. Secumbei the aboleth found it and made it his.

Aboleth - HD 8, AC 16, DMG d6 (x4)
-Surrounded by slime (save vs poison or switch ability to breathe air for ability to breathe water)
-Telepathic enslavement 3x/day - save vs magic or be enslaved
-Victim of tentacle attacks must save vs magic - failure makes skin translucent during which time it must be kept wet or suffer d12 DMG (lasts d6 rounds)
-Improved Phantasmal Force 3x/day, Audible Glamer at will, ESP at will

(1) - Entrance cavern - stairs lead up to (2)
(2) - Helix, Secumbei's slave. Frail old man who uses reverse psychology to warn PCs they definitely shouldn't go through the 3 sets of double doors ahead. Untold horrors lie beyond, and he begs to be taken to surface. Claims to have lost memory of journey here.
(3) Bath chamber. Marble columns and tiles. Gleaming and pristine. Contains statues in SE and SW corners. Both of naked women with fish heads, carrying tridents, stone golems who attack on Secumbei's command. Eyes are aquamarines, 2000 gp value each.
(4) Pool. Fountain in centre pipes water from unknown pure source. Secumbei lives here.
(5) (6) - Guard chambers. Each contains two slaves. In (5) is kuo-toa priest, 7th level, AC 16, glue shield (1 in 4 chance of enemy weapons sticking), harpoon, Net of Suffication (victim dies in d6+1 rounds as net encloses/constricts). Also 7th level duergar, hammer, plate mail, shield, Ring of Truthlessness, Displacer Cloak. In (6) are two elven adventurers, enslaves - 7th level mage, AC 12, spells - Dimension Door, Hold Person, Dispel Magic, Lightning Bolt, Entangle, Web, Mirror Image, Hold Portal, Magic Missile, Light, Shield. Potions of Gaseous Form, Luck, Diminution, Clairvoyance. Gold necklace with opals - 5000 gp value. 7th level fighter, AC 16 (elven chain), longbow, sword, Horn of Blasting.
(7) Was once a changing room. Mosaic on walls of nude females. Now contains aborted dead egg from a failed "pregnancy" of Secumbei. Organs can be harvested for Potions of Water Breathing (x12), Potions of Water Elemental Control (x3), Potions of Purify/Putrefy Water (x6).
(8) As above but mosaics of nude males. Close inspection reveals they are all looking at a yellow mosaic sun. Prising free the small tiles reveals hole containing map to an area of the dungeon.
(9) Once a caretaker or cleaner's room. Overgrown with hibernating fungus which is edible and gives eaters enhanced sense of smell for 1 day (never surprised).
(10) Four deep gnome slaves, remnants of hunting party, they now watch over captive in (11). HD 4+6, 2 in 6 magic resist, Blindness/Blur/Change Self 1/day, AC 18 (deep gnome banded mail + shield), stun darts x 10 each (stun victim for 1 round, and slow for 4 rounds), sleep gas darts x 3 each, acid darts x 3 each (2d4+4 DMG). 
(11) Musabori the Paladin. Holy warrior from distant land, apparently immune to ESP, but Secumbei keeps him captive for further attempts - hoping to break him. Chained upside down from ceiling. Is an 8th level paladin, naked, no equipment (most magic items used by Secubmei's slaves were his). 

Monday, 13 February 2017

[Modern Book of Lairs] I: Aarakocra - Ma-Chee's Family Fortress

Comments on recent posts lead me to start thinking about creating things that are playable without any, or with very little, preparation. The old Book of Lairs was cited as being an exceptionally useful example of that kind of material. That volume passed me by, but there's no reason why I can't write my own. I'm going to work my way alphabetically through the 2nd edition MM, creating a lair for each entry, and post them on the blog.

The rules are:

1. Each lair and all the necessary description fits on a page of A4.
2. It's done long-hand in pencil, which has become my optimal way of working and is how I think all DM prep should be done.
3. The tone should be vanilla and conventional enough to fit into anyone's D&D campaign.
4. There is not too much editing and perfectionism and preferably the whole thing is finished within an hour.

First up is the Aarakocra. The lair is Ma-Chee's Family Fortress. Here it is for you to print out.

But because I am such a kind person, I'll also transliterate my handwriting into text.

The text at the top right reads:

Female aarakocra with polygamous household of males and beta females with offspring. 

Aarakocra male: HD 1+2, AC 15 (cloth armour, wicker shield), DMG By weapon +1

Juvenile/beta female: HD 1, AC as equipment, DMG By weapon

Ma-Chee: HD 3+3, AC 16 (bronze mail), DMG By weapon+2

Mo-Bak: HD 3, AC 12, DMG By weapon

Two-headed owlbear: HD 5+2, AC 16, DMG 1d6/1d6/2d6/2d6; if both claw attacks hit, does 2d8 additional hug damage

Kolit-Ma: HD 2+2, AC 16, DMG By weapon+2

The text bottom left reads:

Five aarakocra can summon an air elemental in 3 rounds

Aarakocra can fly and dive attacks do +4 DMG

Then underneath is the room key.

1 - 3 guards. Juveniles (m). Lookouts - 2 will fight while 1 raises alarm. Slings, obsidian axes, cloth armour.
2 - Picture room. Zigzag patterns daubed on walls, befuddle the human eye. Dizziness for d6 turns for those examining (-2 to all dice rolls). 
3 - 4 males, husbands of Ma-Chee. Spears, slings, cloth armour, wicker shields. Shiny ancient electrum pieces x 24. Secret entrance to passage to (11), concealed by stone slab, requires combined STR 40 to move.
4 - Shrine to mountain god - disc of feathers around round bronze circle (100 gp, weighs 400 cn). Skulls of dead ancestors. Defilers are cursed while on the mountain (-2 to all rolls). 3 arrows placed as offering are heart seekers - always do max DMG and wound as magical arrows.
5 - Ma-Chee's chamber. 6 non-combatant children, 5 eggs. 4 males, obsidian axes, wicker shields, cloth armour. Ma-chee and her wizardress Mo-Bak.
6 - Treasure room. Wicker pots lined with leather x 6. 5 contain mix of sps, gps, cps (200 each per pot). Sixth pot contains quipu spellbook of Mo-Bak. Sleep, hold person, stone skin, magic mouth, darkness 15' radius, shocking grasp, audible glamer.
7 - Latrine. Stench causes vomiting and weakness (-4 to rolls for d6 hours on failed save vs poison).
8 - Pet. Mutant two-headed owlbear. Sits in darkness mourning meaninglessness of life unless alarm is raised or going to latrine (1 in 10 chance when PCs enter (7)). Remnants of local knight errant - bones, rusty armour, silver ring + garnet, 1000 gp value.
9 - Juvenile lookout - sling, cloth armour.
10 - Pit. 2 captives, human, one male one female, from local settlement. Pit covered in moss - attempting to ascend/descend unassisted results in fall for d3 DMG.
11 - 6 beta females, miserable, cooking stew on permanent fire. Obsidian clubs, slings, cauldron of stew sits on top of wooden slab covering entrance to secret tunnel to (3). 
12 - Ma-Chee's "favourite" husband, Kolit-Ma. Cloth armour, wicker shield, carries Javelin of the Storm - does 3d6 electric damage if used outside. Kolit-Ma will attempt to use it outside caves, thrown from feet while flying. 

Reading through, the only thing I realised I missed out when sketching it was that these caves are supposed to be a cross section of a mountain peak, with the entrances on either side.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Desert Island Spells

What would be your desert island spell list? Not the spells that would be useful on a desert island, note. This means simply your favourite eight D&D spells.

Mine are, in no particular order:

1 - Augury. Fortune telling is, naturally enough, difficult to pull off in an RPG. Augury in its AD&D incarnation is a surprisingly elegant way of doing it. 

2 - Hold Person. As a DM I love this one for hostile magic-users - out of pure sadism. I think being immobilized and not able to do anything is almost the most annoying thing that can happen for a player in a game (even more annoying than death in some cases). And sometimes it is fun to annoy people.

3 - Hallucinatory Forest. I have never seen it used, but there is something endearing about this spell. Every now and then, amidst the melange of different influences making up D&D, you catch a glimpse of something that looks like it came out of a fairy tale. Hallucinatory Forest is one of those moments.

4 - Nystul's Magic Aura. Almost pointless, and yet...and can imagine situations in which it could be used, and such a situation would be really cool. Like using the magical aura to leave a clue for an associate in a cloak-and-dagger scenario, or to mislead an evil wizard, or something. It's the kind of thing you look at as a pretentious 12-year old DM and your mind explodes with all sorts of interesting ideas that you know your gaming group with its 12-year old members will never get anywhere near doing, because it's nothing to do with killing orcs.

5 - Prismatic Spray. For sheer FUCK YOU value, there's probably not much better than this spell. 

6 - Leomund's Tiny Hut. If only Scott had had this available to him on his journey back from the South Pole. I love the idea of a bespoke spell purely to allow PCs to survive in hostile environments, simply because it implies that that's the kind of thing PCs might want to get up to. 

7 - Magic Mouth. Like Nystul's Magic Aura, Magic Mouth is almost worth its own existence just for the uses you can imagine for it. Also, who can resist the idea of a rock or table or vase suddenly sprouting a mouth to spout a message to somebody? It is pure, childlike fantasy, and there is nothing wrong with that.

8 - Cacodemon. Demon-summoning is one of my favourite fantasy tropes, so this has to close off the list. As with Hallucinatory Forest, the existence of this spell hints at something altogether different from the typical genre influences of D&D, except this time it's Dr Faustus rather than Brothers Grimm. 

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Something I Can Use at the Table

Not often, but sometimes, you come across people in RPG circles who almost bemoan creativity - as though it is a dangerous thing and the less of it the better.

Typically the argument goes something like this: "I don't want a weird exotic super-imaginative setting or module. My players won't read it or engage with it and it will be too difficult to pull off. Just give me something I can use at the table!"

Something I can use at the table is the lowest common denominator of the RPG hobby. I think what these people mean is that they want adventure modules that can be played out of the book with minimum fuss and don't put up any hurdles to accessibility for the average non-DMing player weaned on Tolkien, Weiss & Hickman and maybe at a push Steven Erikson. "I just want to have some fun," the implication seems to be. "Kill some orcs and steal some treasure over beer and pretzels!"

I can completely accept that accessibility and usefulness are virtues. We all have time pressures. Prepping for a game each week takes time. But "something I can use at the table" is such a trivially low bar that I have to question why anybody would want to pay money to anybody else for producing it. The length of time it takes to read and familiarize oneself with 36 pages of "something I can use at the table" is surely longer than the amount of time it takes to draw some squares and circles on a piece of paper and go "Orc guarding treasure here, goblins here, poison gas trap here, dragon there" - am I wrong? In other words, why are you looking for "something you can use at the table" to pay money for when it is trivially easy to make it up for yourself and spend your money on booze?

Don't misunderstand me. Killing orcs and stealing treasure in a dungeon is great. But in what universe does it make sense to pay actual money to another person to come up with it?

If I am paying money for an RPG product I want to pay for something I could not have come up with myself in any reasonable time frame. Usefulness is almost secondary - I can do useful. What I can't do is Deep Carbon Observatory. No? Am I missing something?

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Three Levels of Operational Closure in Fantasy Literature

You can create a taxonomy of fantasy based on the operational closure of the setting. I'm writing this on my phone so I'll be brief.

Operational closure means how self-contained the setting is.

The first taxon is the thread that goes Tolkien-Eddings-Martin. Here, the setting is an entirely operationally closed one. It purports to be self-contained entirely, and moreover to abide by internally consistent metaphysics and tone. Its paradigm RPG setting is the Pathfinder one.

The second taxon is the thread that goes Vance-Wolfe-Harrison. The setting is physically operationally closed (it is self-contained in the sense that it is independent of any other reality) but not metaphysically so. It exists in counterpose or contradistinction or ironic juxtaposition to our own reality.

The third taxon is the thread that goes Machen-Ende-Holdstock. The setting is operationally open. It assumes the existence of another reality (our own) and the story is based upon the interactions between those two realities.

I am going to end this brief post by saying that as I get older I rank these three approaches in reverse order. The most difficult but important fantasy stories are I think in taxon three. The easiest but least important are in taxon one. This is in direct opposition to how I would have ranked the different approaches at age 18.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Once You Pop You Can't Stop

A clerihew is a four-line poem in AABB rhyming format. It should have the name of the subject in its first line, preferably at the end of it. That's about it for rules. "Clerihew" comes from the name of their creator, Edmund Clerihew Bentley. My favourites are:

“I quite realised” said Columbus,
“That the Earth was not a rhombus
But I am a little annoyed
To find it an oblate spheroid”


It only irritated Brahms
To tickle him under the arms
What really helped him to compose
Was to be stroked on the nose

Once you've started composing clerihews it's really difficult to stop yourself. For some reason last night while I was waiting for the missus to get ready to go out I started writing D&D-related ones. I was going to say I apologise if you've already seen some of these on G+...but actually fuck you, I apologise for nothing.

Do not have any shoulders
But when push comes to squeeze
What they really long for is knees

Love a tickle
But what gives their lives spice
Is human sacrifice

Rhymes with "flagon" and "wagon"
That's about it
For clerihews they're shit

Aquatic elves
Like to pleasure themselves
With special breeds of sharks
Which attach to their private parts

What is weird
About a duergar's beard
Is its grey hue
And its smell of dried poo

Dated elderly spinsters
And got himself written into their wills
In order to pay the bills

Water weirds
Are feared
For causing palavas
At swimming galas

Are uncomfortable in frocks
But get one in a muumuu
And it'll be a great hit amongst the glabrezu

(I genuinely do apologise for that one.)

A centaur
Will snore
And dream
When on ketamine

Gandalf the Grey
Said "Hey,
"Has anyone seen my staff?"
Saruman had hidden it for a laugh

Drizzt Do'Urden
Was certain
That at the sight of his scimitar Legolas
Was jealous

That's enough D&D clerihews for today I think.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

A Map of a Memory World

I did some doodling with maps for BGSJ earlier, by way of illustration of how things are looking. This is by no means a final version - a proper artist will do that. Just for fun. Sorry it's a bit dim.