Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Nuss

The Nuss first appeared in the extraplanar wilderness adventure, Extent of Gamandes.

Hunger for the Form

Far off, in the void between worlds is a region of chaotic, vital energy. There is no matter there, but the ether is thick with a potentiality of form and movement.  The beings that dwell there, the Nuss, clamor for material existence.  

The essence of each Nuss expresses a different, unique form. They long to inhabit mortal flesh, "erupting" it into whatever form they have waited an eternity to express.

The Nuss look with contempt upon mortals that express only one stable form during their long lives, vainly resisting change. Worst of all is the mortal habit of producing near-identical offspring - an act of supreme selfishness!

If they had the chance, they would use the material realms more wisely. They want bodies, to share if they must, so they can show the selfish the blessed joy of eruption!

While most Nuss express random, distorted and frequently crippled shapes, a few are chosen for the sacred duty of converting mortal flesh to their joyous cause: the Harbingers of Nuss.

The Harbingers of Nuss

Harbingers are 8' tall abominations with trilateral symmetry (three wings, three legs, three arms), topped with an eye-encrusted mass.  Their blade-like wings beat constantly, emitting a constant, fluttering hum.

They move and fight with equal ease in any direction, though they are somewhat ungainly on the ground. They can fly at incredible speeds, however: faster than the eye can see, tearing the sky with a deafening noise.

Their hollow-tipped spears inject the essence of a Nussan form; anyone stabbed must resist with restorative magic or heroic fortitude, or begin 'erupting': taking the shape of the Nuss whose essence was injected. From the moment of injection, complete transformation can take as little as 6 days.

Harbingers are not interested in martial glory, only bringing forth new eruptions. They will retreat from stiff resistance and wait for a chance for an ambush, but they are determined: unworthy Harbingers are recycled.

Each Harbinger carries d6 doses of Nussan essence.

B/X D&D Stats

Armor Class: as +2 Chain
Hit Dice: 9*
Move: 90' (40')
Attacks: spear / kick
Damage: 1-8 / 1-6
No. Appearing: 1-2
Save As: Elf 7
Morale: 9
Treasure Type: Nil
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 1600

The first target injured by the spear must save vs. Poison or be infected by Nussan essence.  If the saving throw is failed, a transformation starts immediately, completing over the next 6 hours.

Roll randomly to determine the limb and what it is transformed into:

1-head, 2-left arm, 3-right arm, 4-torso, 5-left leg, 6-right leg

1. Warty spheres
2. Tough, rope-like umbilicals
3. Tentacled mats
4. Branching worms, with many legs or none
5. Toothy, stud-like protrusions
6. Dozens of tiny, bead-like eyes

Unless it is removed by cure diseasewish, or similar spell, another transformation will occur each following day for a total of d6+1 transformations.

Dungeon World Stats

Intelligent, Devious, Cautious, Planar
Poisoned Spear (d10), Near
HP 10; 1 Armor

Instinct: to inject transforming essence
Land and strike suddenly
Weave and change directions
Leap into the heavens with a thunderclap

Saturday, 29 November 2014

The Extent of Gamandes

This adventure goes off in a new direction for me, an extraplanar, apocalyptic wilderness!

Led by their mad Emperor, invading Void Gulls have slain the demigod Gamandes in his home plane. Unfortunately, their chaotic Nuss allies have turned on them and cannibalized the invasion force to meet their alien thirst for corporeal existence.

What can adventurers gain from this place before Gull void weapons tear it apart completely?

As always, the text and art are released under cc-by-nc.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Void Gulls

Deprived of their home plane long ago, these alien gulls have adapted to the void that howls between realms. When found in the material plane, they are found in small patrol or scouting groups.

They are keenly interested in sorcerers and summoners of all types, and will abduct them opportunistically, hoping to extract magical secrets from them.

They move by 'glide-hopping' - bouncing up on their one leg, and flapping for a few feet before hopping once more. In combat, they seize prey with their rubbery fingers, and deliver axe-like blows with their bony, tripartite 'beaks'.

Gull 'nests' are ruled over by a void-bringer, a gull with considerable magical ability. The presence of a nest in the material plane is a dire sign.

EDIT: Void Gulls appear in the extraplanar wilderness adventure, The Extent of Gamandes.

B/X D&D Stats

Armor Class: as +1 Leather
Hit Dice: 4+1*
Move: 120' (40')
Attacks: claw/claw/beak
Damage: 1-4/1-4/1-10
No. Appearing: 1-8 (3-24)
Save As: Fighter 3
Morale: 8
Treasure Type: C + N
Alignment: Chaotic
XP: 200

If either claw attack hits, the gull has briefly seized its target and may strike with its beak.

A nest of 13 or more gulls will be ruled over by a void-bringer, with the abilities of a 6th level Magic-User.

Dungeon World Stats

Group, Intelligent, Organized, Planar

Beak hammer blow (d8+1); 9 HP; 1 Armor
  • Mob a solitary victim
  • Flee to fight again another day
  • Drag away a hostage
  • Conduct a ritual to tear open reality and let in the void

Torchbearer Stats

Might: 3
Nature: 4 / Hacking, Seizing, Gliding

Conflict Dispositions

Kill: 4
Attack +1s, Hammer Beak
Maneuver +1D, Rubbery Wings

Drive Off: 4
Feint +1s, Grabbing Claws
Defense +1D Mad Hopping

Flee: 8
Attack +1s - Rubbery Wings
Maneuver +1D Rubbery Wings

Armor: Leather
Instinct: Abduct a wizard or elf

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Reverse Level Benefits for AD&D

This is me playing around with AD&D level perks - instead of getting the perk as a result of collecting XP, you have to adventure to get the perk yourself, and you get XP as a result.

For example, in AD&D, a 9th level cleric can build a place of worship. In other words, collecting 110,001 xp lets you make a building.

Turning this on its head, you can try to make a place of worship whenever you like, and if you pull it off it'll earn you 30,000xp.

What happens to the game if you reverse all of the perks this way?

Here's all of reverse-perks I worked out:

The Perks

When a cleric builds a place of worship - a building of not less than 2,000 square feet in floor area with an altar, shrine, chapel, etc. - they earn 30,000xp.

When a cleric attracts 100 followers, they earn 30,000xp.

When a cleric constructs a religious stronghold (a fortified castle, monastery or abbey containing a large temple, cathedral, or church of not less than 2500 square feet on the ground floor), they earn 100,000xp.

When a cleric clears an area and establishes monthly taxation of not less than 9sp per inhabitant of the area, they earn 50,000 xp.

When a fighter establishes a freehold, some type of castle and clearing the area in a radius of 20 to 50 miles around of hostile creatures, they earn 30,000xp.

When a fighter attracts and pays a body of men-at-arms, led by an above-average fighter, to the well maintained freehold, the fighter earns 30,000xp.

When a fighter establishes and collects a monthly tax of 7sp per inhabitant of their freehold, they earn 10,000xp.

When a paladin finds and retains a warhorse of unparalleled quality, they earn 6,000xp.

When a ranger attracts a body of 12 or more followers, they earn 50,000xp.

When a magic-user finds and learns a new spell, they earn the spell's level squared x1,500xp (e.g. finding and learning a 2nd level spell earns 6,000xp, a 5th level spell earns 37,500xp).

Weird.. why?

Mostly I'm just playing around. One of the things I've said in the past is that class/level perks insulate the character advancement from the events of the game.

Stuck fighting undead baby kraken at sea? No worries, you'll still earn that precious xp that will make you a better magic-user or sneak thief, even if that seems a little weird.

In a way, it's a pre-packaged heroic character arc on rails, the player-side mirror image of a linear adventure.

Another observation: rules like this prevent something from becoming the focus of the game.

For instance, if you automatically attract religious followers when (as a cleric) you acquire a certain amount of treasure (xp), the GM and players don't need to get into the business of trying to attract religious followers. It just happens, as if by montage.

Similarly, in The Regiment (Apocalypse World-based WWII game), there's a downtime move that causes hours, days or even weeks of leave to breeze by in a single die roll, because while downtime is vital to war-weary soldiers, the game isn't about the downtime.

Maybe that's what you want, maybe it's not.

One of the things I'm playing around with these days is mechanics that have the greatest possible effect on the buildup of campaign capital, and I think this sort of design decision is a central one.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Monstrous Effects on Terrain

If you haven't seen it, there's an amazing video on YouTube about the effects that wolves had on the geography of Yellowstone National Park.

Yes, the geography.

It's worth the watch, but in short, wolves prefer to hunt in areas where they can easily ambush prey. As a result, this keeps deer out of valleys and gorges where they can be easily trapped by natural barriers like cliffs. Without hordes of deer stripping everything down to shorn grass, areas quickly sprung up into dense thickets.

In some cases, whole valley systems turned into forest in less than a decade.

This allowed a whole forest ecology to spring up - birds, beavers, rabbits, mice, hawks, foxes, badgers, bears, etc.

Since forest roots stabilize soil against erosion more effectively than grass roots do, the rivers tend to straighten, following narrow, deep channels instead of shallow rivers that meander their way into loops and bends as a result of rapid erosion.

The presence of wolves changed the rivers.

Why Not Monsters?

If wolves can do this, why wouldn't monsters?

Imagine a pack of lion-sized wyverns.  They spend ages on the wing, in great flocks, descending on anything meaty that lets itself get caught out in the open.

With no way to evade them in open grassland, grazers must stay near enough to the edges of forests so they can run for cover. As a result, out in the open areas, saplings are no longer being stripped of their soft back and shoots, so they can sprout up. Eventually patches of this develop into copses.

When the copses are mature enough to provide cover from wyverns, the grazers can occupy them, making brief forays out into the grasslands when the coast is clear.

Eventually, you wind up with a patchwork; large copses of tall trees, separated by wide lanes of grasses.

Stripped of their saplings and underbrush, the forests are robbed of their next generation, and eventually turn into skeletal stands of dead trees - which make perfect wyvern roosts.

Since nothing grazes so near to wyvern flocks, these skeletal stands soon thicken with underbrush, rejuvenatigng them.  Eventually, the grazers have stripped all the nearby copses, and so wyvern and deer alike move on, beginning the cycle anew.

Useful Knowledge

What's important about this isn't my ability to predict the evolution of a complex ecosystem, maybe I've got it all wrong.

But who cares - we now have an interesting telltale of the presence of wyvern packs: copses separated by lanes of grasslands, with occasional stands of dead trees choked with underbrush.

This is very distinctive, enough that players could soon learn to recognize it as a sign of wyvern activity.

Brainstorm More!

I turn it over to you. What other terrain effects could monsters exert?  Whether or not you get as far as the resulting ecology, what are the raw pressures that various creatures could exert?

Herbivore Patterns

  • Imagine giant blight ants that only eat mature trees (they do something with the wood, involving fungus).
  • Imagine river-swimming herbivores that can come just far enough onto land to remove riverside vegetation.
  • Beavers cause flooding with their dams, perhaps certain underground dwellers divert underground water sources.
  • Foragers that turn up the soil.  (Ankheg burrowing brings in flocks of birds, looking for freshly revealed worms.)

Predator Patterns

  • Ambush chasers prefer close, confusing terrain, driving favored prey elsewhere.
  • Airborne hunters prefer sparse, open ground.
  • Droppers need overhanging branches or cliff faces.
This is of course to say nothing of the weird shenanigans that intelligent monsters can get up to.

What else?

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Interesting and Useful Dungeon Descriptions

A question I see from time to time in various forms is, "How do I make dungeon descriptions interesting?"

One possible answer looks like this:

Random Dungeon Details (d1000)
01-03  Bad smell (d6: 1-2 sulphur, 3-4 decay, 5-6 methane)
04-06  Manticore poop
07-11  Blood stains (d4: 1-3 old and flaky, 4 fresh)

Random charts are great, and this will liven up even an empty room. Interesting descriptions are fun!

The information, however, is going to be useless to the players. Why? It's not connected to anything important going on in the dungeon. (1)

Essentially, this is a red herring table. A few red herrings are fine to spice things up, but because they're a waste of time, they tend to score low as gameable campaign capital.

Adventuring in a Dangerous Place

Imagine a place so dangerous that the players can't afford to be distracted by red herrings. Just by coming in here, they've accepted a level of risk that would drive most folks to terror, because death could be lurking around every corner.

There might be great rewards, even potential allies, but there are also threats that they don't stand a chance against, and they don't know where those are.

Everything the party does spends a precious resource - time, light, magic, their unbroken bodies, their sense of direction, or just their luck.

Everything they use up might be needed later, every step forward invites an untimely death, or maybe a lingering one: the dungeon is only the halfway point of their foray!

Not only that, they still have to get home, and that's even harder than getting here. Sure, they know the way, but now their rations are stretched, they may be nursing injuries, threats along the expedition path might have been alerted by their first trip through, not to mention they might leave pursued by horrors from the adventure site itself.

Add to this the mundane difficulties of exposure, getting lost, and random mishaps.
disgusted manticore

What Do We See?

To survive this deadly place, what they need is information.

So when they say, "What do we see?" they're not asking for an "interesting" description, they're asking for a useful one. They need information that will help them stay alive:

Should we go around this corner? (If we do, will we die?)
Should we use this spell now? (If we do, will we die later?)
Should we turn back? (Are we already too beaten up to survive the trip home?)

Random Trivia Knowledge is Power

For players to want to risk their lives collecting information, they have to believe it's going to pay off. This means they need to believe that they are surrounded by useful information.

How do you do this? (drumroll) You surround them with useful information!

In fact, for practice, why not strip out everything else, so that absolutely everything they see can help them learn:
  • What sort of place is this? (What can we expect of the layout of the rest of it?)
  • What's been happening here? (What might happen again, soon?)
  • What's in here with us? (Where is it? How do we prepare for it?)
  • What does it want? (Should we avoid it?)
  • How bad is it? (Is it a militaristic, vengeful gestalt? How brutal is it with prisoners?)
In general, useful information reveals a pattern that lets the players predict what's coming.

I'll write more about other types of control, but that's the most basic. If you know there are four grues and a gold crown down below, you can make an informed choice about whether to go downstairs.

Stocking Dungeons With Useful Information

When stocking a dungeon this way, I like to think of the underlying patterns as emitters, spewing evidence everywhere.

Keep the emitters few in number, since each one is going to lay down lots of evidence.  An emitter might be the site's plan - what sort of building is it?  This can give players an idea of what sorts of rooms they might encounter, and (if the site follows a traditional plan) even give them ideas about the layout of undiscovered parts. (2)

Dungeon inhabitants are emitters - they move around, they defecate, they gather food, they improve their lairs, they leave signs of their culture and their other activities.

Important events are also emitters. What happened here?  A fight? Was the place repurposed?

Also consider the effects of weather, time, and flowing water.

Emitters don't just generate evidence, they also interact with one another. This is most of the fun in laying down evidence.

Strange Evidence

Sometimes, evidence makes no sense on its own. This is wonderful! The players (who by now have been trained to know that everything they see is a clue), will know that it means something, but they might not realize what. This creates an itching in their minds, so satisfying (and memorable) when it's scratched and the pattern fits into place.

In one of my dungeons, an abandoned monastery protected by a gatehouse, every single wooden fixture had been removed. There were no tables, beds, chairs, pews, furniture of any kind. Even doors and door frames were missing.  I didn't explain this up front, just pointed it out with each new room they entered.

Temple of the Second Try

Here's a bunch of evidence from an example adventuring site, in the order the players might encounter it.  I worked this up by writing out the emitters first, thinking up evidence, thinking up how the emitters interact.

Here's the emitter list:

1. A cult built a temple in the center of a small lake.
2. There, they achieved their goal of summoning their evil demigod
3. This triggered the formation of a sinkhole directly under the temple, killing everyone
4. The abandoned site was later inhabited by orcs, who adopted the cult's religion

Here's the evidence that players might encounter as they move through the site:

The Forest
  • hunting trails are everywhere
  • some are older and more overgrown than others
  • Galu devotional fetishes hang from boughs along the trails (symbols shaped from woven grasses and twigs, daubed with blood)
  • the Galu fetishes are not the usual sort, and are made in the shape of an unfamiliar symbol
  • any Galu encountered (that the party doesn't scare off) will be unusually friendly, inviting the party to join them at their camp
The Depression
  • in a low-lying area of the forest, the trees are much younger than elsewhere
  • a stone causeway, some 4' off the forest floor, runs east-west through the trees of this area
  • crazy doctrines are etched into every hard surface of the causeway, showing scenes of a huge, tentacled demigod appearing over human sacrifices on an altar
  • a large alterpiece radiates wavy lines
  • the etchings have been crudely vandalized, with large, Galu-proportioned stick figures added to the scenes
The Temple
  • at the end of the causeway is a temple
  • its crowning icon is the same symbol as the fetishes
  • it's etched, just like the causeway, but the vandalism is all below 7'
  • the temple is of the same architectural style as nearby human towns
  • the back half the temple, including the altar, has fallen into the sinkhole, leaving just the front facade and a bit of the sides
  • the temple doors are reached from the causeway, and are locked (as they were during the ceremony)
  • the Galu go in and out by skirting the edge of the sinkhole
  • around back is the Galu camp, animal-skin tarps stretched between the inner walls of the temple's entryway
  • the Galu have erected a wooden version of the altarpiece shown in the etchings at the edge of the sinkhole
As soon as the opportunity arises, the Galu will try to overpower the party, confine them and sacrifice them.

The Sinkhole
  • Some of the huge rubble pile at the bottom of the sinkhole is recognizably bits of temple
  • the rubble is strewn with refuse from the Galu camp
  • several Galu bodies are visible, as are a couple of trappers
  • The golden altarpiece (unrecognizable and battered) lies under rubble, near the top of the pile

So, this is a simple enough adventure site, but everything present can help the players understand either what's happening here, or their likely fate if they let their guard down (which is important if Galu have been established as territorial, but not especially violent or brutal).  Lastly, the etchings and the sinkhole form a crude treasure map.

Making Knowledge Useful

I'm going to revisit this topic again. In particular, I think there are some tricks to making knowledge more useful.  But before I get to that, I need to talk about integrating one-page adventures into a sandbox campaign!


(1) A fast-thinking GM can, of course, rationalize any detail and provide at least a tenuous connection to what's going on in the dungeon. What dungeon has a hard time producing blood stains?

(2) Note that this means the randomly generated dungeon is essentially an ongoing, architectural red herring.  Endless, purposeless geometry, reminding you over and over again that there's nothing to be learned and you should stop thinking about it.

Monday, 6 October 2014

What Will They Do With Us?

So the party's been pursued, run down, overcome and captured.  Now what?  This is no time to go soft on them.  What good are the Star Queen's brutal gnoll mercenaries if they let the prisoners get away, allowing them to reach the Place of Bright Stones?

What Will They Do With Us? (d6)

1. Kill us all
2. Eat us one by one
3. Make slaves of us
4. Mutilate us, take our stuff and let us go
5. Drag us before their leader to answer for our trespasses
6. Parley to find out what the misunderstanding was

Brutal enemies roll twice, taking the lower result. Merciful enemies roll twice, taking the higher result.

When? (d4)

1. Immediately
2. After they catch their breath
3. After a brief confinement
4. After an eternity of confinement

Rash captors roll twice, taking the lesser result. Contemplative captors roll twice, taking the higher result.

Capricious captors invariably change their minds given enough time. Re-roll on the first table (ignore Brutal and Merciful effects). Maybe they eat three of you and merely rob the rest.

Confinement might mean being tied up near the fire, sat on, impaled through the hand on something tall and sharp, tossed in a hastily dug pit (which they made us dig), or rotting in an actual prison.