Sunday 28 December 2014

A Litany in Scratches

Several astute readers have wondered where adventure #3 is.. here it is!  A Litany in Scratches.

This was the scenario I concocted for a Torchbearer playtest some years ago - though of course at the time it was a few scribbles and bullet points, rather than clean maps and a PDF.

I was fascinated by a style of pacing I'd seen in a one-page dungeon, 'Zombie Elves': the players go quite a ways in, through creepier and creepier stuff, before finally the ceiling falls in and they're suddenly fighting for their lives.

Torchbearer is largely about dungeoneering logistics; players are constantly aware of the load of their packs, the limited space they have for anything extra, and the short distance that their food and light will take them into (or out of) dark, dangerous places.

This scenario unfolded slowly; the two adventurers inching their way through the darkened gatehouse, searching and finding little, and wondering where all the doors had gone. They got a bit scraped up in the ravine after tangling with a vampire bush, which was good as it made them pretty wary of the tree branches in the cloister. When they figured out what the tree was up to, they were properly creeped out!

This didn't deter them from climbing down into the shrine, however, for a scene whose memory I treasure: the duo desperately trying to decide what to toss out so they could carry more treasure, all while listening to the Master's cackling, and the sloshing of the undead advancing on them. This cemented in my mind that defeating the dungeon is not the end of the adventure, it's just the start of what might be a long and dangerous journey home - especially if you've left your tinderbox behind.

For reasons I forget now, the players decided to flee through the catacombs, running directly into the barricade.

That was awesome - it was like the sickening punchline to a long joke. I had mentioned the missing furniture at every opportunity, and now, standing in knee-deep water lit by their last torch, listening to an army of crypt servants coming to tear them limb from limb, the mystery was solved. Alas!

As always, the adventure and all the art is released under Creative Commons cc-by-nc.

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.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Non-Mechanical Difficulty Levels for Monstrous Threats

In Ben's original West Marches campaign, he arranged the adventure-filled regions of his wilderness in order of challenge, more or less. The further you were from town, the more likely you were to be in an extremely dangerous place.

This works fairly naturally in a game like D&D, which has an extraordinarily steep power curve. A party of tenth level characters can take on large numbers of monsters that are quite dangerous when they first set out.

In other game systems, though, power levels aren't nearly as steep.  In games like Warhammer FRP, Burning Wheel, or E6 (and I hear RuneQuest), characters don't ever get so powerful that they can laugh at mundane threats like they can in D&D.

In games like this, what are some ways to pull off escalating difficulty?

In Dungeon World, and its stripped-down cousin World of Dungeons, there's almost no quantification of monster power level at all.  These games aren't about flat power curves, necessarily, (they just don't make statements about power) but the effect is the same. What are some non-mechanical ways to tweak the danger level?

Ben tells an anecdote about his players fleeing from goblins for days, ultimately having to run so far they fled into a vermin-filled swamp.  He also talks about the barrow wights in the otherwise pleasant Wil Wood - dangerous, but easily avoided, and in fact not that easy to find.

These got me thinking about non-mechanical difficulty levels for monstrous threats in general.

The lens I'm looking at this subject through is stocking a west marches-type wilderness map, so I'm thinking of this in terms of concentrations of monsters - factions, settlements, lairs, and so on. It could be a single owlbear, or an entire subsurface city of Derro.

Here's what I've got so far.

Controlling the Degree of Danger

This is the general principle - how much control do players have over the degree of danger? Can they get a taste and pull back, or does moving forward risk pulling down more than they bargained for?


It's easy to get away from Slow monsters. Maybe they're just slow all the time, maybe they're fast in short spurts but can't match the adventurers for endurance (like cheetahs). Maybe they just suck in the terrain the encounter occurs in. In any case, the players can control difficulty by just walking away.

It's much harder to escape from Fast monsters. Maybe they have a terrain advantage, maybe they know shortcuts. Maybe they have mounts, or long legs.  But as long as they can find you, they control the distance.


Unorganized monsters can be dealt with piecemeal - maybe they communicate poorly, maybe they hate each other. Angering one won't necessarily mean angering the others, and even if it does, they're not organized enough to do anything about it.

Factional monster concentrations are broken into smaller groups that don't quite get along. They have great communication within the smaller groups, but organizing beyond that is fraught. Pissing off one faction probably won't prompt an immediate reaction from the others, could actually win friends.

Cohesive groups have set internal conflicts aside, and are willing to pull together for the common good, sometimes rapidly.

Militaristic groups are not only willing to work together, they've drilled for it. Sometimes they're praying for it. Their response to external threats will be quick and decisive.

Gestalts are extremely dangerous - they are so cohesive that the entire community can respond as a single organism.


Defensive creatures just want to be left alone - they might even avoid the party if they can. If cornered or attacked, they might react violently, but the motive is to intimidate intruders to drive them away.

To Territorial monsters, on the other hand, just being around is a threat.  Moose might not want to eat you, but they'll pursue you until you wish you'd never set eyes on them.

Vengeful monsters don't just want you gone, they want you to remember them. Maybe they send bounty hunters, trackers, rangers or wargs after you. Predatory monsters are similar.

Proactive monsters aren't waiting to stumble into you, they're on the lookout for threats before they develop, and will act to neutralize them before they get out of hand. They know what you people from the lowlands are all about, and they're not having any of it.  If they get the drop on you, they'll mess you up just to send a warning.


The quickened trees of Grilwood might be organized, vengeful, but are so Oblivious that unless you smell like orc or try to cut one down, they probably won't even know you're there.

Inattentive monsters aren't expecting to meet anyone, while Alert ones do from time to time.

A Vigilant threat, on the other hand, may have scouts, spies, keen senses, or magical scrying.


The Sarlacc and Blood Willow are nasty, but controlling your exposure to them is relatively easy because they're Stationary.  Territorial monsters might be bad, but they're not so bad if their territory is only the graveyard you were digging in.  Some are Site-Bound and don't leave the site where they are found, others will venture in the Local area, and some will have a wider Territory. Still other threats will have a Regional reach, able to come and get you long after you thought you were safely back in town.


Singular or threats can be dealt with decisively (whether by evasion, bribery, negotiation, or violence) in a single encounter.  Numerous creatures are not so easily dealt with, and Hordes are impossible to stop with anything less than an army, or cataclysmic magic.


How well does the party understand what they're dealing with? Do they know the lay of the land, the nature and disposition of the threats? Are their weaknesses, strengths, and motives understood?  If the threats are Understood, the party is at least aware of how much trouble they are likely to bring down on themselves. If the threat is Unknown, the party may not realize it's in danger at all.

I'll talk a lot more about this in another blog post.

Other Qualities of Disposition

These factors have a more complex effect on threat level.

Inaccessible sites are those with obstructed approaches - defenses, narrow defiles or bottlenecks, town walls or ruined fortifications, difficult ascents or caverns, or a long trip across the desert. These barriers may confine the danger making the surrounding area safer, but once the obstacles are crossed, retreat can be difficult.

If a threat is Hidden, this takes control out of the players' hands, and multiplies the effects of the threat's territoriality.  Hidden/Predatory threats are a big problem, while Hidden/Defensive sites may never be found at all.

Sealed threats are somehow confined, imprisoned, or penned in.  Perhaps a cave-in has trapped underground dwellers, a barricade is preventing the crypt ghouls from flowing into the rest of the dungeon, or demons are trapped behind a door of black granite. These barriers offer parties at least an opportunity for control - don't break the seal, and you're safe.  Once the seal is down, however, it's usually hard to put back.

In some cases, only experienced parties can break the seals, which is a useful way of shaping the danger level.

Overall Threat Level

These individual factors all combine to produce an overall threat level.  Fast, Militaristic and Predatory makes for a much greater threat than just one or two of those factors. 

By these standards, it's easy to see why the barrow-wights of the Wil Wood aren't a great danger to parties that wander through the area - they may be Territorial and Unknown, but they are also Unorganized, Inattentive, Hidden, and Site-Bound, giving players a lot of control over the danger they invoke.

The goblins, however, were much more dangerous - Fast, Cohesive, Vengeful, Alert and Numerous.

The Orcs of Tirru-Stryggal from adventure #09 are almost as deadly as they come: Hidden, Regional, Vigilant, Fast, Militaristic, Predatory, Fortified, Unknown, Numerous.  This is a threat that will destroy all but the most prepared and capable parties that tangle with them.

P.S. Once My Enemy, Now My Friend

Interestingly, the danger posed by these various qualities flips around when we consider our allies.  It's much more useful to make alliances with Fast, Cohesive and Vigilant settlement than with an Oblivious, Factional and Site-Bound group.  Those are like to bring as much trouble as they do aid.  Hidden, Inaccessible and Sealed supporters aren't very useful either!

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Gameable Campaign Capital in Exploration/Adventure Campaigns

Bear with me while I muse on a few things I'm trying to sort out. All I'm really trying to do here is label an idea, so I can refer to it later - this is first in a short series.

Campaign Capital

Emily Care Boss came up with a useful term, Story Capital, as a label for the way that as a campaign progresses, fictional elements like player deeds, NPCs, nations, a favorite tavern - whatever - become laden with meaning and emotional investment.

For now I'm going to use the term 'campaign capital', because I'm looking at this all through the lens of exploration/adventure games rather than story games or character-driven games, but I mean more or less the same thing.

Now, I want to take about gameable campaign capital, meaning accumulated capital that can provide fodder for ongoing play.

This leads to a sort of spectrum: campaign capital from least gameable to most gameable:

1. Fondly-Remembered Deeds (aka Remember that Awesome Thing We Did?)

This type is common in linear dungeons and travel-intensive quests. Challenges were overcome, Bargle died and got left behind, great battles were fought. It's awesome, and all in the rear-view mirror.

It's not really relevant to ongoing play because it's four hundred leagues back, and anyways why would we go back to that dungeon we collapsed?  Still, remember when Garridor rolled 20 and critted the lich with his lantern?  That was awesome.

2. GM-Initiated Recurrence (aka Boba Fett! Where?!)

At this level, the GM is bringing things back into play.

Actually, you've got to go back to Zoundheim all because the lich's phylactery was smuggled out by those death cultists you never took care of.  Then it turns out they were the ones who hired you in the first place.

The campaign capital gets reused, and now it's even more awesome - the little groove in your memories gets dug a little deeper.

Lasting curses and injuries inflicted by enemies also belong in this bucket.

3. Player Consideration (aka Bring More Bloody Arrows From Now On)

At this level, the players are aware that things come back into play, and realize that they're worth preparing for.

If the GM has made a recurring threat of harpies, the players may not be seeking out or avoiding harpies - that's in the GM's hands (or the hands of the random encounter table) - but they've figured out that it's a good idea for everyone to have a ranged weapon.

This isn't an exciting example, but play is being shaped by the mere memory, the threat of flying monsters.

For something to quality as this level, it's got to be the players that are bringing it back into play. This is important - not because collaboration is magical or anything like that - but because there are more players than GMs. The more people around the table that can bring something back into the game, the more gameable that thing is.

4. Hard-Won Assets and Options (aka Let's Introduce This Guy To Boba Fett)

This is player-initiated recurrence.  Elements at this level are both useful and worthwhile for players to bring back into play, and they have the means to do it (perhaps at some cost).

Maybe it's allies, maybe it's just a shit sandwich they've figured out how to serve to someone else.  Either way, it's a tool that they control (or can influence).

(This taxonomy is 100% complete and authoritative, and I didn't just make it up right now.)

Okay, So What?

Yes, good question. After all, in urban intrigue or investigation games, player-initiated recurrence is so common you don't even notice it. Your bookie is threatening to beat you up, you can get in touch with him any time you want by phoning him. It's trivial.

Right now I'm thinking a lot about exploration/adventure based play, and I notice in many cases that hard-won assets and options accumulate a lot more slowly.  Part of it is that travel is so difficult (which is why you need explorers and adventurers in the first place!), so hard-won assets are often far away.

You met the queen and you made friends, for instance, but when the harpies are attacking, the Queen and her honor guard are forty miles away where they can't help you.

In adventure games, the usual hard-won asset is character advancement - more hit points, spells, and dish out way more damage with their haul of magical weapons.  But these rarely bring the history of the game back into the present.  Sure you have a +3 sword, but after three adventures it rarely matters where you got it from.

This is what I'm currently noodling on - what are good ways for exploration/adventure games to quickly build gameable campaign capital?

My ideas right now revolve around patterns of clues, the value of knowledge, and fiction-connected advancement. More soon!

The Necromancers' Wish

Here's adventure number twelve, The Necomancers' Wish!

An ancient mine that one yielded a strange and magical pigment, now used by a tribe of beastly goblins as a tomb for their necomancer-lords. Over the centuries, the spirits interred there have accumulated into a potent ancestral host, who have bequeathed a weird and transformative power upon their successor..

The theme for this adventure is transformation, generally involuntary - sometimes harmless, and sometimes not.

The Necromancers' Wish is meant to be placed in your campaign near a wilderness or desert: just beyond the last settlement is a series of caves embedded in a cliff.  Smoke has been seen coming from the cliffs, as has happened on many summer mornings.

But this time, there's a strange disquiet in the town, and those who can sense such things believe it's an omen of bad things to come.

Map Art

Like the adventure itself, the map art is released under the cc-by-nc license.  Have fun with it!

Mines of the Ricalu

Thanks again to everyone who's been supporting my adventures on Patreon!

Thursday 18 September 2014

A Metric for Campaign Lethality

I present the milliwhack.

This is a measure of the rate at which characters become involuntarily unplayable (through non-resurrected death, crippling, permanent incapacity, concept-destroying transformation, maiming, reduction to idiocy or insanity, going permanently MIA, left for dead as the mind-controlled thrall of an Illithid, campaign-ending TPKs, etc.)

A campaign's milliwhack (mW) rating is calculated as follows:

1. Add up the number of involuntary-unplayable events (usually character deaths, but see above).
2. Divide by the number of sessions in the campaign.
3. Divide by the average number of players per session.
4. Multiply by 1000.

For example:

I played about three years of bi-weekly, Paizo adventure path 3.5e and in that time we had two TPKs and perhaps two PC deaths in the interim. Call that 60 sessions with a party of 4-5 (so, 9 unrecoverable deaths) so that play style rates 33 milliwhacks.

11 deaths / 60 sessions / 4.5 players-per-session * 1000 = 41 mW

In four one-sessions games of four-player Fiasco, I've seen maybe two deaths (both mine). So that play style rates 125 milliwhacks.

2 deaths / 4 sessions / 4 players-per-session * 1000 = 125 mW

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Dirty Hex Crawl

In which I propose a campaign structure inspired by John Wick's Dirty Dungeons!

Home on the Range

West Marches style, play starts out with a single explored hex (perhaps a 30-mile hex, it doesn't matter much), and a safe community where the party starts and ends all of their adventures.

Play starts off like Dirty Dungeons. To recap:
  1. Players decide what the adventure is, by pretending they've researched it extensively in the town's library, wizard's tower or tavern, and explaining what they've learned.
  2. They take turns describing the threats of the dungeon.
  3. Minor threats earn them a bonus die, and major threats earn them two. These all go into a pool.
During the adventure, players can use the bonus dice to help themselves out with rolls.  (The precise mechanic depends on what game you're playing, it could be Advantage in D&D 5e, or a +1 forward in Dungeon World.)

For every five minutes they spend planning, the GM can introduce a twist - their information is out of date

The GM has the job of stitching this stuff together on the fly, which isn't for the faint of heart but is great fun.

When the adventurers get to the prize they're after, whatever that is, they can use the bonus dice to improve the quality of the treasure.  (Again, this will depend on what game you're playing.)

Dirty Journeys

When the players want to do it all again, there's a problem: they've exhausted the adventure potential of the region they've explored.  They need to explore!

This works exactly like Dirty Dungeons, except:
  • For every four challenges they create, their journey is considered to delve into one new hex.
  • The party needs to bring survival supplies: rations and so on.
  • Loot (and there's always loot) is incidental. The real payoff is that each hex ventured into reveals a potential adventure location the players can now research.
Now, the players can return to plundering with more Dirty Dungeon missions.  The difference is that any travel through the new hexes involves (at the GM's discretion) the challenges that were established, if they weren't somehow defeated during exploration.

These challenges do not come with bonus dice!  They just cause problems.  In fact, the GM is free to use twists to develop them further - perhaps bandits move into the home hex, or expand their operations, or their bandit shaman summons something nasty.  (In Dungeon World parlance, they've become a Front.)

Dirty Quests

If the problems encountered during exploration become too awful to ignore, the players can Quest to deal with them once and for all.  Perhaps the bandits need to be driven

This, too, is handled exactly like a Dirty Dungeon - the players design the bandit stronghold (or whatever) in the same way they'd design any other adventure: the players contribute challenges in exchange for bonus dice, and the GM adds any challenges that the party has to travel through.

Bonus dice can be pulled down for advantages, as usual.  Loot is incidental to the situation, rather than the goal, and bonus dice are converted directly to XP if the quest is completed. (Though at a lower rate than loot - this is after all a plundering game!)

Other Details

There's probably lots more that can be done with this - two things that come to mind are terrain and settlements.

If the GM is using journey twists to create durable terrain problems ("As you reach the end of the mud flats, you see a mountain range rising up to blue heights and white-dotted peaks.") that force players to move laterally.  Particular quests might involve trying to find secret mountain passes, or establishing relationships with communities that could provide guides.

And speaking of communities, while they may be wary at first, parties that prove themselves by accomplishing useful Dirty Quests might be able to establish new places to adventure from, cutting journey times (and dangers) significantly.

What the..

This will of course seem like a weirdly hippie way to plan a campaign, but it's definitely worth a try if you have players who are as stuffed full of ideas as the folks in my home group.  The player investment I got from playing a single Dirty Dungeon really surprised me, and as GM, I didn't in the least feel creatively alienated or anything like that.

I'm curious to see what would come of something like this. Send me your ideas!

Sunday 24 August 2014

Though Flesh be Vast

Here's the adventure to go along with yesterday's map preview.  This one started out with me wondering what it would be like if a dungeon were viewed by under-worlders the way we see the proverbial mountain-top monastery.  Remote, inaccessible, spiritual places.

Deep in the ground is the world of the dradkin, but with so little sunlight, they are dependent on scarce food resources. Starvation is a constant threat.  The cult of Inceraugh prophecies that one day their great under-good will show them a path to the surface, a fabled place where fat animals blunder about, grazing on a never-ending crop of lush plants that sprouts from every surface.

This adventure is potentially quite dangerous, because the dradkin are so numerous. Their society is breaking into factions, but the party will have to be clever to find and make use of them - or else be polite and generous enough to parlay their way into some hospitality. For now, at least, Incerat operates cohesively, so clumsy or ill-prepared attacks will be provoke punitive counter-attacks.

The rulers will be hard pressed to keep this up, however - the ritual avatar feedings must continue at all costs, and if Incerat's pious warriors are busy mounting a defense, the slave pens will soon be emptied.

Much of Incerat is lit (at least dimly), but consider being careful about PC light sources. If they are guests of the dradkin, they could easily become utterly dependent on their hosts just to get around.

Edit: here's a rainbow-tinted map that uses color to indicate depth beneath the surface.

Note on Power Levels

If you're using a system with a flatter power curve (e.g. Burning Wheel, Dungeon World, World of Dungeons), the threats as described will probably be ample. For established D&D characters, the pious warriors should be quite capable (e.g. 4-7th level fighters), with the fleshpriests having several levels of evil clerical powers in addition to the listed dradkin rituals.

Maps and Illustrations

Thanks again to everyone who's been supporting my adventures on Patreon!

Though Flesh Be Vast - Map Preview

I'm about to release an adventure for August, but while I'm still wrangling with the text, here's a preview of the map.

This one's a little different, it's a two-page map spread.  A series of natural caverns gives way to an underground settlement, with roads that extend into underworld areas beyond.

I'm experimenting with the use of old-school style blues grid lines to convey the scale. I'd be curious to hear they're useful or just distracting.

Saturday 2 August 2014

Making Circular Rooms on Isometric Maps

Once upon a time there was a wizard who was forced to work in a rectangular laboratory where the feng shui was all wrong and magical eddies formed in the corners and besides they were kinda dark which reminded him of the way his homunculus would go off and sulk when the wizard wouldn't let him do the important bits and it blew his concentration and none of his rituals or traps or evil plans came to anything so when the party showed up he wasn't even there for the boss fight and it was this huge anti-climax and everyone said the campaign sucked anyway and it turned into this huge nasty thread on reddit and everybody started playing story games instead.

Dungeons need round rooms.

Unfortunately, round rooms are tricky to draw on isometric (or axonometric) paper. With a top-down map you can easily use a compass, trace a quarter or shot glass or whatever.  I recommend this - I like to think I can draw and apparently even I can't free-hand a small circle very well:

I suck - anyone have a shot glass?
On an isometric graph, it gets even trickier, because the circle is foreshortened into an oval. But what sort of oval?

I find it helpful to make guide-marks.

The guide-marks in the four cardinal compass directions are easy enough to work out: if you have a circle with a three-square radius, you just count three squares north, east, south and west, leaving a guide-mark at each of the four spots.

But how wide to make the oval?  How tall?  The red and blue ovals are two alternatives that pass through the four guide-marks.  The red circle isn't bad, but it's not quite right.

Fortunately, we can work out the diagonal distances with a little math.  We know where the northern guide-mark goes, but what about the northeast (or southwest)?  That would tell us how wide to make the circle.  What about the northwest (or southeast)?  That would tell us how tall to make the oval.

Since we're using graph paper, we can use graph coordinates and a tiny bit of math to figure out where the diagonal should go.  The question to ask is this: how far north (or west) does the NE diagonal reach?  The answer is:

coordinate = sin( radians(45) ) * circle radius

sin is a trigonometric function, and the radians function converts an angle in degrees to the same angle in a funky unit called radians.  (Most sin function implementations expect radians.)  These functions are available in both Google Docs Spreadsheets and Excel.

For a radius-3 circle, you should get an answer that rounds to 2.1.


If you're using photo-editing software like Photoshop or Gimp, this is the only measurement you need.  (If you don't like doing calculations math, I'll provide a handy table for you, below.) Measuring this out on the graph paper looks like this:

I measured toward the southeast, but any direction would have done just as well.  The point where the dotted lines cross is also a point on the circle.  In your editing software, draw an oval that goes through all five points.

This isn't a Photoshop tutorial, but briefly: use the oval tool set to 'path' mode.  Start at the circle's center, click and drag.  Then hold down the Alt key to force the oval to be centered on the starting point.  Drag around until the oval you're creating passes through all five points, then release.  Use the 'stroke path' command to turn your path into a usable outline.

It should look like this:

The Traditional Way

If you're drawing a map by hand on graph paper, you'll probably need more guides that this.  As a reminder, guides can be drawn in any direction - here I've added the 45-degree diagonal reaching to the northeast:

We've drawn diagonals at 45-degree increments, so for the next level we'll cut that in half: 22.5 degrees.

We need a bit more math. I simplified before, because the north and east coordinates for a 45-degree diagonal are the same, but they won't be for our next set of diagonals.  The coordinates are:

coordinate 1 = sin ( radians( angle ) ) * radius
coordinate 2 = cos ( radians( angle ) ) * radius

For a radius-3 circle, our two new coordinates are: 1.1 and 2.8.  Mark your three coordinates (1.1, 2.1, and 2.8) on each of the four axes, then draw in guide lines for them, parallel the grid lines on your paper.

Use a ruler to make the guides nice and straight or the inaccuracies will add up and your circle will suck, and we'll be back to sulking homonculi all over again.

Admittedly it looks a bit intense, but it's fairly straight forward once you try it.  But what the hell is it for?  It makes more sense once you visualize your circle in there, and how it passes through the guide intersection points:

Rendering the Circle

You're now ready to pencil in your circle.  While you're doing this, there's one last bit of information that will help you: the angle of the curve at various points.  These are called the tangents (a tangent is a line that just touches a curve).

The cardinal tangents are easy to work out: they follow the grid lines:

The 45-degree diagonal tangents are also easy to work out - they're horizontal and vertical lines on your paper:

The Final Strokes

Now, since you're doing this traditionally, you've got no choice but to extrapolate from your guides and hand-draw in the curves.  This usually takes me a couple of tries for each segment, so I use a light touch and keep an eraser handy, but we have plenty of support from the all of the guides we've built up:

Do your circle pencil, of course, only going over it in ink when you're happy with your pencil version. The finished product should hopefully look something like this:

All ready for some magical rituals!

That Chart I Mentioned

If you don't have a calculator handy, you can use this chart:

If your wizard needs a lab bigger than 32 grid squares across, she'll have to use the equations. Comes with the territory.

Circles on the Brain

Of course, there's a reason I'm obsessing about circles. Once you know how to do a circle, you can use portions of circles to make all sorts of interesting things.

Here's the the start of a map I'm working on for an upcoming adventure, the hull of a mighty ark:

This has five layers of semicircles at each end of the ark.. which took a little while.

Thanks again to everyone who's been supporting my adventures on Patreon!

Thursday 24 July 2014

How far can you see on a hex map?

One of the key aspects of wilderness geography is being able to assess the lay of the land.  This is one thing that the traditional, top-down way of representing geography doesn't say much about.

If you walk north west from Nivereen, you'll emerge from the forest and be greeted by a view of the mountains across the valley.

That view might look something like this:

Or does it? Can we actually see the mountains from there?  What about if we climb the jagged hills to the west of the forest spur?  How far can we see then?

How far is the horizon?

It turns out that the main obstacle to seeing faraway landforms - besides atmospheric interference like fog or rain - is the curvature of the earth.  A consequence of this is that the viewer's altitude is a key factor in how far they can see. (If you go high up enough that you're in space, for instance, you could see nearly half the planet!)

Wikipedia has a wonderful page on the horizon that gives us all the info we need.  The few equations we need aren't that complicated:

Distance to Horizon (miles) = 1.22 x sqrt( observer's height in feet )
Distance to Horizon (km) = 3.57 x sqrt ( viewer's height in meters )

For a hypothetical, 6' tall viewer, this puts the horizon around 3 miles.  (As Steamtunnel pointed out, this is one argument in favor of using 6-mile hexes: an adventurer in the middle of a hex could see right to its edges.)

A 6' tall adventurer standing on top of a 30' town wall, however, could see further, about 7 miles.  An adventurer at the edge of a plateau, 200' above the plains below, could see 17.5 miles - quite a bit further.

Seeing Faraway Tall Things

Most of the time our adventurers are not looking at flat, featureless plains. The more interesting question is stuff like: how far away can I see that tower?  Can I see the mountains?

It turns out the answer is unexpectedly simple: all you need to do is know the horizon distance for the viewer's altitude, the horizon distance for the target's altitude, and then add them together.

So if I'm on the town wall, and I want to know how far away I could see a 100' tall wizard's tower, the answer is:

1.22 x [ sqrt( 6' ) + sqrt( 100' ) ] = 15.2 miles

Now, this is the distance at which we could just barely see the very tip of the tower - we probably wouldn't be able to pick it out of the grass.  Let's say we need to be able to see at least half the tower to recognize it, that gives us:

1.22 x [ sqrt( 6' ) + sqrt( 50' ) ] = 11.6 miles

On a hex map of six miles, we'd be able to make out the tower a full 2 hexes away.

The Meaning of Altitude

A key point I've glossed over so far is how to work out 'altitude'. This isn't elevation above sea level, but the height above the prevailing terrain.  If you're on a plateau 2000' above sea level, that doesn't help you see further along the plateau.

Only add the plateau to your height if you're looking down off it. If you're looking along the plateau, it doesn't count (because it will be the earth-curved plateau itself that eventually prevents you seeing further).

A Linear Approximation

Now of course, taking square roots at the table while juggling all the other GM duties is too much to ask, but I have a simplification that works well enough for the distances we care about:

6 miles + 1 mile / 50' of height

So if you're on a 200' cliff, looking down across a plain to see a distant tower or mature forest (50' to its halfway point), you can see it 11 miles away.

From flat plains, foothills (say, 1000' tall, resolvable when you can see the top half - so 400') could be seen 14 miles away (8+6).

From that same vantage point, large mountains (6000' above the plains, 3000' to the midpoint) could be seen 66 miles away.

Flying on a griffin at migratory altitude (e.g. 5000'), you could see those same mountains from 166 miles away.  (At this point, most likely the limits of atmospheric clarity would be involved, even in very clear air.)

If you climb the tallest tree in the forest, putting you 10' above the canopy, you could see the top 50' of the strange rock spire formation (that protrudes 100' above the trees) from 8 miles away.  (The top of the trees, here, is the altitude baseline.)

A Simple Legend

To help during play, I might work out a simple legend for various terrain types on my hex map. This just takes the height divided by 50', then by my hex width to work out a "visible-distance contribution".

Here's a simple legend for a 12-mile hex map with five types of terrain:

Mountain Peaks (5000-6000'): 8 hexes
Mountain Slopes (2500'): 4 hexes
Foothills (1000'): 2 hexes
Treetops (100'): 0 hexes
Rolling Lowlands (15'): 0 hexes

To use this, work out the height of the viewer and the target over the prevailing terrain, add those together, and add a free half-hex.

In the foothills, looking across more foothills toward distant mountain slopes?  4.5 hexes  (8-4 + 0 + 1/2)

In the treetops, looking to see where the foothills start?  2.5 hexes (2 + 0 + 1/2)

If you're on a mountainous slope (4) looking out across a vast, rolling flood plain (0) to a massive mountain range on the far side, you could make out the peaks (8) from 12.5 hexes away.

Easy peasy!

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Spanish Translations Continue

Over at La Torre de √Čbano, Hugo Gil keeps pumping out the Spanish translations of the adventures!  These have been quietly collecting on the Spanish adventures page, but I haven't mentioned them in the main feed.  Spanish typically has more letters than the equivalent English, so the dense layout is certainly giving Yugan a run for his money. :)