Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Serpicant, King of Beasts

When the Authority created the universe, he created all possible Forms of beasts.  And prime among them was the King of Beasts: the Serpicant.

But some of the Forms were disharmonious.  They ruined the landscape, incited men to sin, or made unpleasant noises.  The serpicant was one such disharmonious beast--it was simply overly good at catching and killing humans, the favored creations of the Authority.

And so the serpicants thrived while the humans dwindled.  And since the serpicant was pleasing to the Authority in its own way, he did not destroy it, but instead separated it into two animals: the lion and the snake.

Since that day, lions and snakes have been mortal enemies, each sensing their own incompleteness mirrored in the other.

by herbert dicksee
a man who specialized in drawing deerhounds
The Arrogance of Wizards in the Age of Serpents

"What heaven cleaves," said Kadoom the Ur-Wizard, "I can join."

Kadoom was incandescent in his ambition.  No wizard before or since has ever shown more alacrity towards abomination, nor talent for it.

The recreation of the Serpicant was the first blasphemy that saw Kadoom driven from his kingship and into exile.  Despite being suppressed by the church, the process of their creation is common knowledge among wizards.

It is said that it involves the marriage of a viper and an lioness.  Since no priest of the Church will ever preside over such an act, it must be performed by a demon of appropriate rank.  In the consummation of that marriage the viper is consumed entirely--being too small to serve as a proper husband, the serpent functions as his seminal issue, and disappears into the lioness' tissues.

Four months later, the lioness will lay a single black egg.  She must be separated from it immediately, since she will instinctively destroy it if given a chance.

The actual incubation is best performed by a slave, or an ostrich.

(This is the actual method to make a serpicant.  It's not hard to do at all (compared to some of the shit that golem manuals require).  It's a ritual that isn't abstracted.  If the PCs ever find themselves with possession of a captive lioness, you might mention (remind the wizard) that they just need to get a demon to conduct a wedding.)

Biology

Weasels, snakes, and daschunds all share a similar bodyplan.  Narrow, sleek, and compact.  They're meant to fit into small places, where they will kill animals smaller than them.

They have short, powerful legs, good for pushing but not for jumping.  They have powerful jaws and strong necks, that they use to crush and shake their prey.

Digression: I remember playing WoW and fighting dragons.  Their attack animation was often just a little claw swipe, like they were reaching out to pick up a beer.  Or a single dainty bite.  It's very different from how predators actually catch and kill smaller prey.  Crocodiles, dogs, lions: they bite it across the back or neck, they pick it up, and then they shake the shit out of it.

If it wasn't circle-strafing and breathing fire, that's how a dragon would kill you.  It's like being in a car crash that keeps repeating.

Usage

There is a niche for intelligent, persistant, and cruel enemies.  Ones that are tactically brilliant and infuriatingly proactive.  (The opposite of 3 orcs who just sits in a room waiting to be killed, although those orcs have their place, too.)

Remember in Jurassic World, when all the mercenary dudes realized that they were fighting a cagey, clever mini-Godzilla?  That's what you're going for.

Keep them clever.  A single serpicant will use it's poison cloud to drive it's prey into disadvantageous locations.  In a dungeon, they may even try to drive the party into other rooms, where other monsters can attack them.

 "Go kill the serpicant that lives inside the wooden palace." is a good quest, but it gets better when there turns out to be two of them.

about 5' tall at the hump
it has fucking thumbs
it could choke you if it wanted to
Serpicant

HD 6  AC chain  Bite 2d6+grab
Move 15  Climb 9  Int* 15  Str 18  Mor 7

Immune to Poison.

Opportunist - Deals +2d6 damage when attacking with situational advantage (surprise, prone, held enemy, blind enemy).

Spit Poison- Usable 3/day.  50' range. Spits a glob of noxious poison.  On a direct hit, treat like acid arrow except that it is poison damage.  Regardless of what it hits, though, the poison quickly forms a toxic yellow fog that fills the air within 30'.  This fog blocks vision beyond 10' and deals 1 damage per round to every creature in the fog.  Anyone who opens their eyes within the fog must make an easy (+4) Con check each round or go blind for 1d4 days (where 4 = permanent).  Without a strong wind, the fog will last for 1 minute.

Tactics
  • Never engage in a fair fight.  Engineer traps.  Kill one, then retreat.  Use the environment to your advantage (leverage that Opportunist ability).
  • Use your poison cloud to drive enemies out of defensible positions, and to create advantageous environments.  Maybe just spit poison and then run away in the confusion, returning 10 minutes later.
  • Kill them one at a time.  Bite an enemy, hold on to them, and then just shake them until they are dead (Opportunist).
Treasure
  • A nest will have 1d2 eggs, each worth 1000g.
  • In the hands of an alchemist, serpicant blood can be used to enhance all manner of poisons. But anyone can render the blood down into 3d6 Antidote potions.
  • Adamantine collar inscribed with wizarding insignia, with 3' of adamantine chain.
  • Pearl-covered serpicant saddle.  Worked leather, dyed crimson.  Pommel hides a poisoned punch dagger.  All worth 1500g.

Friday, January 27, 2017

How I Write An Adventure

I'm partially writing this in response to Patrick's excellent post about how he writes adventures.

I write them very differently.

Many Boxes At Once

I don't work on single adventure at a time.  I multiplex.  (This is partially why I so rarely post any adventures.  The other reason is that I'm never satisfied.  The other other reason is that I'm a lazy shit.)

I have a folder named Fingers of the Maggot. . .

I have a folder named Fossil Dungeon.

I have a folder named Bad Druid.

I have a folder named Asria Hexcrawl.  Subfolders for the House of Healing, Unicorn Farm, Clay Town, Rat Puzzle Dungeon.

I have a folder named Abasinia Hexcrawl.  Subfolder for the Plateau of Leng and the Bronze Colossus.

I have a folder named Goblintown.  Subfolders for the Witch Ravine, Filth Library.

I have a folder named Mount Maggaroth.  Subfolders for the Doppleganger City and the Living Mountain.

I have a folder named Gazebo Dungeon.

I have a folder named Telescope Dungeon.

And then when I have an idea relevant to one of those dungeons, I put it in the appropriate folder.  (Someday I'm just going to publish 10 dungeons at once and it's gonna be great.  I'm sure that's how it works.)

Sometimes I sit down and brainstorm ideas for a specific dungeon, but more often I just come home, pull up the computer, and remember all the DnDable ideas I was exposed to that day.  (Watch Adventure Time, you'll come away with a couple.)  And then you just sort those ideas into the most appropriate box.

But when I just need a dungeon now and I'll have enough content in one of those folders to sketch out a dungeon in the half-hour before the game begins. And honestly, running a dungeon for your players is the best way to (a) get ideas for your dungeon and (b) expose your dungeon's weaknesses.

telescopes confuse the shit out of me
I think I'll actually use a microscope for inspiration
The Telescope Dungeon

Originally this one started from an unfinished blog post.  It was a living dungeon written backwards, with the deepest room first, all in the voice of the eldritch horror that had been summoned to inhabit it.

But as I started filling it with ideas, I started hating it.  The cruel, naive voice of the eldritch horror became stale and inelegant.  So, a bunch of shit got thrown out, and a lot of stuff got revised.  The ancillary dungeon feature, a telescope that distilled exotic species of light from stars, became the main feature.  The eldritch horror has been reconcepted as a wizardly bid for immortality involving a series of interdimensional fleshtunnels of infinite length.

I like it better now.  Everything that goes into that folder now follows one of three themes, in decreasing order of priority.
  1. Alien light.  Light in general.  Sight.
  2. Failed immortality.  Monsters with different types of flawed immortality. 
  3. Non-Euclidean Shit.
I moved some stuff out of other folders and into the Telescope Dungeon because I felt it belonged there better.  I also don't want too many overlapping concepts in my different dungeons.

I'm also trying to stay away from body horror shit, because I always do body horror shit.  I'm failing utterly.

Tip #1: Don't Commit

Don't draw your map too soon.  This ties you down to a single idea and restricts you.

I start with a very simple concept sketch.  In this case, the telescope dungeon is a tower with a big lens on top (or at least it used to be) and beneath it is basically just a giant microscope that separates alien starlight by wavelength (or at least, the Centerran equivalent of wavelength) and diverts it into different side chambers.  It's going to be super-vertical.  Like 10+ floors, each of which is usually only 1-3 rooms.

That's enough detail to get the brain juices flowing, without baking them.

Yes, having a concrete map of the dungeon will allow you to draw interesting conclusions.  If you put the myconid town next to the ship of honorable ghouls, you'll immediately start coming up with prouctive ideas about how myconids will interact with ghouls.  That's good!  But you'll have time for that step later.  Right now you need to be unfettered.

Apply the same philosophy to: 
  • Your backstory.  Keep it general at first. 
  • Your monsters and NPCs.  Make a list of concepts like "floating tyrannosaur head" and a list of roles like "guards the big ruby" before you start fusing them together into "tyrannosaur head that guards the ruby".
  • Your loot.  Keep concepts and goals separate.
Tip #2: Focus On the Functional Bits

Write snippets.  You'll have time to sew them together later.  Here are some example snippets:
  • This room has an effect that blocks light.  Torches are visible as muted orange things that can be seen, but shed no light.  The effect is caused by a single enchanted brick in the wall.  The effect is strongest there (torches dim near the center of the room, and near the ceiling, because they are nearer the enchanted brick).  The brick can be pried out as loot.
  • In this part, a halfling can actually enter the optical tube and squeeze into the next room.  The next room contains something mildly dangerous and something mildly useful.  Alternatively, they could also pick the lock (difficult) or find the key later on in the dungeon.
  • In the telegolemetry room, there are four pods.  One is sealed closed.  A PC can sit on one of the other three to control one of the giant golems inside the reactor core.  The golems can work together to restore power to the facility.  They can also break down the glass separating the reactor from the rest of the dungeon (this is a really bad idea).  The sealed pod contains an mad, old, immortal wizard who is also plugged into a telegolem.  When he notices the party messing around in the reactor, he'll try to break the glass.
  • A monster cloaked in darkness.  If anyone has darkvision, they can see it.  This is a very bad idea, since it will drive you mad if you look at it.  (The wizard cloaked it in darkness for his safety.)  IDEA: This seems like it would go good with the darkness brick room.  I'll put it in there.
  • 2D projector can turn 3D things into 2D things and vice versa.  (As duodimension).  IDEA: Scatter 2D treasures around the dungeon that can be turned back into 3D treasures here.  IDEA: Put 2D enemy shadows in the dungeon somewhere.  They're much easier to fight if you are 2D yourself.
  • Slobs: These are fucked up immortal people.  They are super-brain damaged from all the times their heads have been smashed open and the dungeon has put them back together again.  Each one has 1-3 behavioral expectations based on its role (some inaccurate) and if these expectations are met, they're cheerful (if unreliable) allies.  If they are contradicted, they'll flip out and attack you.  Something about them makes them especially odious to fight.
  • Ouroboros slob: Formed from guy who went mad and started practicing autocannibalism.  Is basically a giant flesh-snake man eating himself, except he grows as fast as he can eat himself, so he's just a disgusting loop of autocannibalistic insanity.  Expects other people to eat him?  Expects other people to stop him from eating himself?
  • *Potential Slob Stats: HD 2, at the end of every turn that he takes damage, he heals all HP damage, max HP goes up by +2, and he grows a new head (out of the wounds) with a bite attack for 1d6.
  • The Phoenix.  They call it that because it's a bird (mostly).  It hunts the party.  Whenever it dies, it comes back with an adaptation that makes it harder to deal with.  (You kill it with fire, it becomes fire-immune, etc).
  • The Infinite Fleshtunnels are each a random dungeon generator that creates a linear series of rooms, each with a different theme.  They can only be entered once.  There's at least a mile between each "room", so exploration can be quite the ordeal.
  • Rooms radiating out into the spectrum (ROYGBV) and the anti-spectrum (Ulfire Smaudre Pallow Jale Dolm Purple).  Each one collects a different type of light.
  • Players killed in a certain area of the dungeon automatically resurrect with a mutation (?) and a 1-in-6 chance of becoming a hostile slob.  IDEA: The Phoenix can be killed permanently if the machine (?) is destroyed, but without the machine, the players lose their free resurrections.
  • I really want there to be a part where a slob is fused with the wall in a giant gross flesh heap.  And he's immobile and harmless, but he's like, "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD KILL ME KILL ME KILL DESTROY MY BRAIN" and "YOU MUST KILL ME NOW OR I'LL SCREAM" and if you don't kill him, he starts screaming (summoning the thing that lairs in the light collector below) and if you do start killing him, the flesh heap shudders and he is pulled into the ground still screaming and begging.
Snippets can be map fragments, ideas for traps, or just scenes that you think would be cool.  

Tip #3: Watch Your Goals As You Sew It Together

This process isn't linear, it's iterative.  You keep going over your dungeon until it feels fleshed out.  Playtest it.  Rewrite it.  Try to come up with a reason why each part of the dungeon exists.  Try to come up with reasons why you should remove it.  

Cut away all the parts that aren't awesome.  It's better to have a small, excellent dungeon that it is to have a bloated, generic megadungeon.  (Deep Carbon Observatory > Rappun Athuk.) Be aggressive in your deletions.  Remember that amputated content can go back into your slush pile.

Keep doing this.

Towards the end, make sure you complete the dungeon checklist, make sure that your dungeon has the topology (linearity, interconnectedness, etc), and flow control (i.e. Will the players encounter the statue garden before they encounter the medusa?)

perhaps the Phoenix
by Mavros-Thanatos


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Hobgoblins, Half-elves, and Half-giants

Genetics doesn't work the same in Centerra.  The race of your children is mostly determined by where they were born, for example.  (Accents are the shibboleths and the grounds for discrimination, not skin color.)

And of course, ogres are made from children via a specific diet and certain treatment.  

But making ogres from children is just the tip of the iceberg.

by tsvetomir georgiev

Hobgoblins

Goblins are right horrible little bastards, and everything that joins them at their table will also become a right horrible little bastard, too.

It doesn't take long.  A few months of goblin food will do it.  If you join them in in their songs, the process will hasten even further.

Goblins sometimes do it intentionally.  They you in a pit full of goblins.  They feed you their horrible food (usually at least 5% goblin secretion by weight).  They force you to play their horrible games, such as stomp-rat, piss-glug, and wrestle-worm.

And you'll dwindle.  First one inch, then another.  You'll be six inches shorter before you're done.  Your nose will lengthen and fresh rows of sharp teeth will grow in behind each other, like a shark's.  Your hair will flee from you.

Your eyes will yellow and become beady.  Your skin becomes a sickly shade of green.  And your mindset will become goblinish--rapacious, curious, hasty, loud, quiet.  You will not be pleasant to be around, and the only people who will tolerate you will be goblins and other goblin-men.

There are many goblin-men (and goblin-women) in Goblintown.  (Stats as normal humans, plus darkvision and the personalities of goblins, including the lack of self-preservation.)

Humans are not the only thing that goblins can transform thus.  Goblins can make everything horrible.  (Daniel Dean has said this before.)

Expect to see long-nosed goblin dogs skulking around Goblintown, They sneak into rooms and shit in your boots.  They piss in any open container of drinkable water.  Packs of them will bite open your packs, swallow valuables until they gag, and then run off with bellies of silver.  And they never bark, only ever mustering a wheezing laugh or mad yowling.

There are goblin pigs, which are a bit like greenish, long-nosed pigs, except for their remarkable flexibility and their habit of shitting in their own mouths.

There are goblin bats who--to be perfectly honest--just shit on everything.  They'll follow you quietly until combat breaks out and then they'll try to shit in your eyes (10% chance per bat per turn, blind until you wipe it out + disease chance).

And you'll find all sorts of other goblin-animals in Goblintown.  Goblin hippos lounge in the filth-fountains.  Goblin geese will whack the shit out of your kneecaps.  They're all shitty, hairless (although not featherless), greasy, and slightly smaller than usual.

Setting Note: I never liked hobgoblins as "militant goblinoids who got their shit together".  I always felt that orcs could fill that niche better.

a classically smug elf
from Lord of the Rings
Half-Elves

Elves (and by this I mean low elves) surround themselves in beauty.  This requires them to insulate themselves from the rest of the world.  

And insulation requires walls, of course.  Some walls are temporal, some are spatial, and some are literal walls.  (But even the literal walls are subtle--an enchanted forest that diverts all travelers from the elven city at its heart, and thwarts all attempts to map it.  This is pretty bog-standard as far as elven isolation magic goes.)

But even elves sometimes need to interact with their neighbors.  

This is a repulsive idea.  Everything that is not an elf or of elven manufactures is usually repulsive at beast, and nauseating at worst.  (If the average party of gore-spattered adventurers bursts into an elven wedding, expect half of the elves to cast disintegrate spells and the other half to spend their first turn vomiting into their silken napkins.)

So that is what elven slaves are for--except they aren't slaves.  They're loyal little brothers and little sisters to the elves that they are forbidden to meet, less their ruin their older siblings delicate appetites.  (It takes very little to ruin an elf's appetite.)

These pseudo-slaves are usually elevated into pseudo-elfhood through the administration of elven hormones and genetic activators.  (Of course, the elves don't know the science behind their own elevation.  They only know that making certain types of wine from certain types of plants turns elven children into elven adults.  The plants of course, were genetically engineers millennia ago for this very purpose, although the purity and potency is a tiny fraction of what was originally intended.)

So elves give their loyal slaves elf-drugs to make them more elfy.  When administered to a prepubescent human slave, the result is the creation of a half-elf.  Confusingly, they are also called elf-men and elf-women.

Like all responsible pet owners, elves spay and neuter their little siblings.  This makes them easier to control and explains why elves are always buying human babies (or stealing them).  It also means that if you want to play a male half-elf in one of my games, you're not going to have any testicles.  (We can discuss the plausibility of a quest to recover them from the elves.)

A half-elf looks a lot like an elf, minus the extra foot of height and twitching xenophobia.  Unlike elves, they can be PCs.

They are agile, beautiful (by human standards), and wise.  In fact, most people think that half-elves are actually elves, never suspecting that their more agile, more beauteous, more genocidal masters lived deeper in the forest, disgusted by the possibility of having to talk to a human king.  (The hair!  The pores on their faces!  The smell of defecation!)

Sidebar: Dragons also breed clans of loyal humans called drakencults!

Half-Giants

Little is known of this particular transformation, but we do know that it requires at least two things (a) large volumes of giant food consumed over a year, at a minumum, and (b) marriage to a giant.

Other possibilities (the consumption of giantish breast milk, beating a giant in a contest of strength) are rumored but not confirmed.

Half-giant Stats
(posted here not because they are good, but because I don't want to lose them)
Str +1 or Str 14, whichever is higher.
Once per day, can treat Str as if it were 20.
Can zone out and build buildings as long as you have enough raw materials.  Can only ever build buildings (towers but also things like bridges) and earthworks (trenches) due to weird racial compulsions.  More giants working together can build exponentially larger buildings.  In one 8-hour building frenzy, the giants can build X * Y * 100 square feet of wooden house, or X * Y * 5 square feet of stone house, where X is the number of giants and Y is also the number of giants, but Y maxes out at 5.  Usable once per day.