Monday, November 19, 2018

Cosmic Monster: the Apotropaiadon

Something like a reptilian crab.  Instead of claws, a pair of eyeless jaws lunge and snap at the end of its "arms".

Atop its back is a metallic membrane that curls and flexes, like a crown, or perhaps the sail of a dimetrodon.  The flesh of the shoulders blends evenly into the semi-translucent metal of the sail.

Light is reflected off the reflective sail and into a non-Euclidean direction, where its true face is.  This is how it sees.

When it wants to get a better look at its surroundings, it stretches and turns its sail, like a man holding a mirror around a corner.  As it moves, you can glimpse reflections of its real face.

It uses mirrors to copulate with itself*, and then lays its eggs in the same mirrors.  An egg embedded in a mirror appears as an optical distortion that sometimes pulses and crawls, like a lazy maggot.  Note that the egg doesn't bend the mirror or have any mass--it exists only as a bizarre lensing effect.

If the mirror is cracked, it will bleed.  If it is broken, it will disgorge the mangled larva and alert the parent.

This is the first cosmic monster that I've written about that is capable of easily communicating; you may want to brush up on your outsider psychology.


They are often called here in order that they might be coerced into guardianship, hence the name.


HD 5  AC chain  Bite 1d12
Move human  Int 6

Rewind -- Can undo the last 6 seconds (a combat round), at will.  Creatures who are engaged with the apotropaiadon will eventually notice this time-jump, while other creatures won't.

Option: Subtle Rewind -- The apotropaiadon begins combat (or negotiation) already knowing a good chunk about the party's abilities (or disposition), since it has already used this ability a few hundred times before the party noticed, learning by saying provacative things and making bold attacks.


Yes, the apotropaiadon can easily stalemate forever.

Yes, the apotropaiadon can easily just reset the combat round until the PCs all have missed their attacks and the apotropaiadon has succeeded on it's attack rolls.

However, you can't just say "the apotropaiadon is going to keep rerolling the combat round until it gets the results that it wants, so let's assume that all of your attacks are critical misses and all of the apotropaiadon's are critical hits", since there is a chance that the apotropaiadon might die from a critical hit on one of the rounds.  If it gets stabbed in the heart, it dies instantaneously, and never has a chance to use its ability.

My party eventually killed it by trapping it in a room with a crush-trap ceiling for six seconds, and then activating the trap.  Since the apotropaiadon couldn't rewind to a time before it was trapped in the room, it couldn't escape through it's rewind ability.

After rewinding time several thousand times and attempting everything it could think of (attacking different parts of the door, trying to jam the mechanism in different ways, pressing every brick in case it was a secret "off" switch) the apotropaiadon gave up, and died cursing the party on the other side of the door.

At this point, the party was not far from giving up themselves, having pulled the same lever a few thousand times.  (At least in the fiction.  The players around the table were like "fuck this guy, my character is going to pull the lever a million times, and talk shit every time".)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Cosmic Monster: the Xantherium

The floor was spotless a minute ago, but now a yellow spatter blooms in the stone.  They look like yellow carnations, trampled in the mud.

They do not move--each stain is stationary--but the whole pattern moves, like paint spots dripping from an invisible brush, slowly spreading away from the closed door they seem to have crept under.

They pause for a second, after entering the room, thickening as they darken.  And then then the stains head straight for the two thieves.  They appear like footprints.

From all around them, they can hear the stone groaning in its sickness.

More yellow spots gather, like clouds on the horizon.  They creep up the walls and dapple themselves across the lintel.  The stains are reaching, like the arm of a leper.

Finally, one of the thieves can bear it no longer.  He throws his pack on the ground and sprints across the stain.  He will kick open the door and sprint out, where the sunlight will warm his pale face.

His first three steps cross the yellow stain without incident, but on the fourth, his foot passes through the floor as if it wasn't there.  There is the sound of snapping bone and then the thief is prone.  His leg missing beneath the knee.

There is a moment of cross-section, where the entire meat of the calf is visible, before it is obscured by the profusion of blood.

A second snap, and then his arm is vanished.  Another snap, and another.

Soon there is nothing left of the man except crimson pools.  There is a small sound, like many cats drinking milk at once, and then the blood is gone as well.

The stain has fattened itself, and now the spots are thicker, darker, and more complex.  There is no longer any clear stone between the individual stains, which cover the floor like the roiling of slow smoke.

The second thief watches the murky roses of the stain creep closer.  There is some larger pattern to it.  Here he can see where a certain thickening hints at a low-slung jaw.  On the far wall, there are implications of an enormous eye.

The thief backs into the final corner, an island of grey that is slowly sinking into a yellow sea.  Unless he thinks of something quickly, he will die.

Xantherium (Stain Form)

A xantherium is more like an infection that materials can catch.  Just like rhinovirus colonizes the wet epithelial lining of our throat, so does a xantherium move along the interface of two different materials of vastly different densities (most commonly air and stone).  This is an oversimplification, but it's a start.

It's large.  Maybe 500 square feet (~50 square meters), if it was all gathered in one place.  But it isn't all gathered in one place.  it's scattered around a denser core, like a flock of birds.

You can deal trivial damage to it by damaging the material that it moves through (e.g. chipping away at the stone floor) but it is likely to encircle you before you can deal more than a point of damage to it.

It moves at the pace of a tortoise.  It is attracted to the smell of meat, and a trail of blood can be used to lure it.

Attacks -- It gets 3 bites per turn, no two of which can be made within 5' of each other.  Each attack bites off about a foot of material and swallows it, dealing 3d6 damage.  Imagine a crocodile sticking its snout out of the floor and taking a very fast, very sharp bite.

Weakness -- It has a weakness.  You can pick your own, but I like sound.  Vibrations in the stone.  These drive it back, but they do not damage it.  Any sound lound enough to drive the Xantherium back is also loud enough to incur a roll on the wandering monster table.

Sound doesn't cause it pain.  It's closer to disgust, or religious revulsion.  (Simpler creatures are motivated by things such as pain and pleasure, but the Xantherium is a philosopher, and its prime motivators are philsophical in essence.  However, the mind of a Xantherium is so alien to us that this information is almost meaningless to a prospective interviewer.)

If it is ever cornered by the disgusting chimes, it will manifest itself (nearly) fully in our own dimension.  See below.

Xantherium (Beast Form)

Eight arms sprouting from a shared nexus, shaggy and bilious yellow.  Each terminates in a trio of spade-like claws, which it normally uses to pull itself sideways through space.  (It is a mole, deep down.  If you have a mole in your party it may be able to communicate.  No other creature has a chance.)

Four arms point up, and four staggered arms point down, but they are all the same arm.  (This is literal--any injury to one arm is mirrored on the others.)  It is about 10' tall.

You will only see this form if it is desperate.  Expect it to fight as a desperate animal would.

HDAC none  Claw 2d6
Move dog  Int 6

The Staff of Quiet Bells

A metal quarterstaff, hollow and with an octagonal footprint.  When held against the floor and rung, it creates a muffled chiming that drives the Xantherium away without provoking any wandering monster checks.

If held in the middle and rung overhead, it makes such an ungodly clangor that you can basically pick how many wandering monster checks you want to invoke.  It can be heard up to 3 miles overland, on a dry day.


Honestly, you could leave out the Beast Form and it would probably work better as a Lovecraftian horror.  (If you can kill it with a sword, it's not very Lovecraftian.)

I only included the beast form because that was how I originally conceived of it, and now it persists as a vestige.  I also like being able to make everything in the dungeon theoretically killable, because I'm a completionist at heart.

Is the weakness to sound a good idea?  Maybe.  It's better than fighting the stain with a sponge and soapy water.

You could do light.  Daylight is a little too scarce for a dungeon, though, and the party's only option would be to flee.  Torchlight has the opposite problem, and is a little too easy to provide.  (Sound at least, incurs the cost of a random encounter roll.)

If you were going for something truly Lovecraftian, the worst you could do is something like an emotion.  I mean, it might be fun to have the PCs make out and confess their feelings to each other in order to drive back the stain, but a cornerstone of Lovecraftian horror is that there is absolutely nothing of any value in a human's mind, body, or soul.

Water might be a good one.  (Holy water, perhaps.)  But then you run the risk of the party buying gallons of water in order to trivialize the Xantherium.  (This may be acceptable or possibly desirable, depending on the dungeon.)

This absolutely isn't something that you can just drop into a game.  It requires careful consideration of two factors.

1. What can drive the Xantherium back?

2. How will the players learn of this weakness?

HD 1 Cosmic Monsters

When most people think about cosmic monsters, they probably go to Cthulhu and other Lovecraftian horrors.  Big, incomprehensible things that cause insanity when you look at them.

This is a pretty limiting definition, which is too bad.  It makes it tougher to use those themes at low levels.

not cosmic in any way, I just like this pic
Anyway, here's my attempt at some otherworldly monsters, who clearly aren't from around here.  My design guidelines:

1. Weird Biology

Not just "it has tentacles and a bunch of gibbering mouths".  Those things are weird because they differ sharply from normal terrestrial biology.  They are highly unnatural (perhaps even impossible) without being hard to conceptualize.  Impossible biology is the goal.

2. Weird Mechanics

Let the mechanics fit the theme.  I don't want them to attack and defend the same way that regular monsters do.  Their mechanics should reflect how unnatural they are.  Ideally, the players would have a moment where they say "oh fuck, I just realized how this thing fights".

3. Threatening

I'll admit that this one is debatable.  I mean, you could write a good story about a warlock summoning some fucked-up abomination that merely drags itself around for a few pages before dying messily, poisoned by our atmosphere or something.  But I want monster.

A really good follow-up post to this one would be Non-threatening Cosmic Monsters.  Or at least, monsters that don't kill you.  Can you write a monster that would horrify the players without threatening them?  (Of course you can.  That's why this is such a good prompt.)


On the wall of the dungeon, what appears to be a tiny tree grows sideways.  It has no leaves, and its limbs are translucent as the thinnest skin.  If it were standing on the ground, it would be about 3' tall.

All at once, the tree flies apart, and the separate branches come twisting through the air like stiffened bubbles.  They hunt like a flock of fallen leaves, close to the floor.  Some are wobbling forks, while others are linear, and coil through the air like arthritic worms.

HD 1 (HP 1)  AC leather  Bite 1d6
Move as butterfly  Int 6  Mor -

Breed - On a hit, a dendricule creates a new dendricule with HP equal to the damage dealt.  This ability works on any creature with a fleshy body. 

If no other prey is available, dendricules will eat each other, eventually producing a mass of 1 HP dendricules.  Then they will reform the "tree", and wait.  They can wait a very long time.


It looks like a flat piece of ash, the size of your hand.  Or perhaps a shred of black paper, something a magician could easily fold up and conceal between his fingers.

It flies through the trees like a hawk, and all at once it pivots along some invisible seam and heads towards the knights. 

It corkscrews as it flies, spinning like a pennant in the wind.

HDAC chain  Attach -
Move as hummingbird  IntMor -

Eyeball Attacker -- Regular armor is useless against a noctule.  Instead, it attempts to burrow through the eye sockets.  Fitted goggles give +2 Defense.  Eyes clenched shut = +4 Defense.  Eyes clenched shut with both hands covering sockets = +6 Defense.

Papery -- Any fire damage instantly kills it.  If it would take any piercing/slashing damage, it instead splits into two smaller noctules, each one with half of the HP (round down).  If this would result in a noctule with 0 HP, it instead dies.

Burrow -- After attaching to its target's face, it burrows in through the eye socket and consumes the brain through the optic nerve.  This occurs automatically on the next turn, and in invariably fatal.  The person's life can be saved if a torch is applied directly to the noctule (and the eye) during that turn.

Once a noctule has killed a target, they remain in the back of the eye socket for several hours, digesting the cognitive properties of their prey.  During this time, they are iridescent, and fragmented memories can be seen on their skin.  A careful hand can carefully remove a dormant noctule from the back of an eye socket and store them in a jar.

They reproduce asexually, by making nests in porous materials, often in a corner.  These nests resemble inky stains.

When killed, all that is left of a noctule is a small amount of foul liquid.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Earth Elementals and Gargoyles

On Centerra, everything is alive, to a greater or lesser extent.

Every mote of dust has something of a soul.  It would be a stretch to call it sentient, and yet even even that speck has something of experience, of a felt history.  (These micro-minds are what goblin filthomancers rely on.)

Humans have an easy time personifying fire, wind, and water.  Even a simpleton can often divine the intentions of these things.  The wind can be playful.  The sea can be angry.

The lives of stones are rarely given a thought, and yet they exist, just outside of the light of our cultural campfire.

Two things prevent humans from appreciating the stories of stones.

First, the life of a stone is very slow.  So slow that it is almost impossible for us to appreciate it.  A grain of sand will be born, incorporated into a sedimentary rock, and eroded an average of six times before it is truly dead.  This takes hundreds of millions of years.

Larger stones have even slower lives, and slower minds.  The Fighting Mountains have been locked in a deadly melee for almost a million years.  For them, this is a frantic struggle.  To us, it is scenery.  (This hasn't stopped the local monks from studying the mountains' actions, however, and learning kung fu from them.)

Far beneath Clavenhorn, at a place called the Second Omphalos, the Church operates a system of tubular "bells" that penetrate deep into the planet's crust, along with a separate system of parabolic caverns that grow a certain type of crystals, their growth visibly affected by telluric currents and the subsonic groans of the tectonics plates.  They are talking to the planet, at a rate of a single word every century.  Her name is Phosma.

Second, the life of a stone is inverted.

They are born huge, powerful, and wise.  Cut from the magma and shaped by the subtle designs of the planet herself, the mountains rule over their brethren.  (Every snow-capped peak is a crown, and that is why Centerrans never tread on the mountaintops.)

As they age, they dwindle, crumbling into feebler boulders and grains, each only a fragment of that molten wisdom which once fattened and instructed them.  Of all the secrets of the deep earth, the youngest stones know the most.

Compared to us, their senses are dulled.  They operate on a slower timescale, and their only sense that truly overlaps with our own is touch.  (Sound is approximated through long periods of resonance.)  Truly, you could dance atop a boulder for a month before it noticed you.

by Yefig Kligerman, for God of War

Earth Elementals

I bet you're only interested in how to fight one.  You brute.

I've already written about how you would fight wind.  You must trap it, smother it, chain it.  Immobilization and death are synonyms.

And fire elementals are destroyed as directly as you might think--you must deprive them of their fuel, or of their oxygen.  Little else can damage the inferno.  And yet this is complicated by the tremendous energy of a fire--it's capacity to throw embers, suck wind, break windows, and escape into the forest where it can become unstoppable.

Earth elementals are an aberration among their brothers.  Usually born from some great insult or fear, many are created specifically to fight mankind, which is now slowly becoming recognized as an existential threat.

Compared to other earthen creatures, they are blindingly fast, and absolutely suicidal in much damage they do to their own bodies in the process.  They are similar to a human who could run 100 miles an hour, even as their tendons snap and their skin peels off from the cruel velocities, which their substance was never meant to take.

Earth elementals are most often made form quartz.  It has the extreme durability that their berserk metabolisms require.  Other elementals are made from similarly durable rocks: moissanite, chrysoberyl.  They throw themselves into their tasks with suicidal intensity, grinding themselves into dust in the space of only a few hundred years--a heartbeat among the mineral spirits.

Compared to humans, an earth elemental moves at a crawl.  A man with two broken legs could pull himself faster than an earth elemental's sprint.

A small earth elemental (the kind that you will encounter in a dungeon) is going to be 3 m tall and weigh 10 tons.  They will have the "lower body" of a tank, or perhaps something like a many-legged tortoise.  It's "upper body" will be something of the body plan of a crab, with broad arms ending in crushing claws.

The arms move a good bit faster than the legs, but still extremely slow by our standards.  An earth elemental trying to crush a human is comparable to a human trying to catch a flying mosquito with their bare hands.

You are safe from them as long as you stay out of melee range.  You will not be able to chisel them to death unless you get inside melee range.  A fight with an earth elemental will likely be a running battle, crossing many rooms of the dungeon as you find ways to wear down the implacable stone.

Earth elementals are intelligent and capable of speech, but you must talk to them very slowly.  About one word ever 10 minutes.

LvlACGrab x2
Mov snail  Str 24  Int 10  Mor 10

Any attack against an earth elemental is going to hit it.

Explosives deal full damage.  Pickaxes deal 1d6 damage.  Bludgeoning weapons deal half damage.  Pretty much everything else (including lightning and acid) deals 0 damage.

Each turn, it tries to grab two adjacent enemies and crush them to death.  The earth elemental attacks with a -10 penalty to its attack.  On a hit, a target is grabbed.  If the target is still grabbed at the beginning of the earth elemental's next turn, the earth elemental automatically deals 4d6 damage to them.  It can then drop them as a free action or throw them for another 4d6 damage.

They can move through one dungeon room every 10 minutes.

some Notre Dame gargoyles by Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc


Like humans, stones are also susceptible to demonic possession.

Gargoyles do not appear to be made from stone.  They are cold-eyed beasts that spend a millennia carving a body for themselves, and another millennia digging themselves free from whatever vein spawned them.  No two appear exactly the same, and yet they tend to favor the same features, sculpted accord to terrify the primeval mammal at the heart of man.

Powerful shoulders, low-slung jaws, talons as thick as a shovel, and spiked tails are common.  Many of them wear wings to honor their Satan, although none of them can fly.

After the Church successfully invaded Hell in 788 TFM and overthrew Satan, many demons were forced to take the Oaths, becoming devils.  Gargoyles were included in that number, and to this day a great many of them have been installed on cathedrals, in order to serve as guardians in the cathedral should ever be attacked.  (They are usually awoken by ringing a certain bell, within the church.)

Many gargoyles chose their bodies before they had a chose their purpose.  Many are insecure about their lumpy, plodding bodies that would built to terrify uncivilized, brute humanity.  Many are ashamed to sit beside the carved angels of a cathedral's walls, and can only be glimpsed lurking in the recesses.

HDAC plate  Atk 1d12
Move human  Climb ape  IntMor 12

Autopetrification -- In place of a move action, a gargoyle can turn from flesh to stone, or vice versa.  Their senses are dulled while in stone form.  If killed, a gargoyle instantly turns into stone, trapping any piercing weapon that was used to deliver the killing blow.

Friday, November 2, 2018

d100 Mutations

After a great deal of research, discussion, and computer-aided simulations, I have discovered that the best mutation is a lobster-claw arm.

I then turned my attention to writing the best possible mutation table, which I've posted

and now I'm going to talk about the design process because that's what you do with a blog.

So, Mutations. . .

Mutations are very OSR, because they're (1) random, (2) impactful, and (3) modular.

(1) Yes, you could make a mutation table that was small and/or linear.  Like a mutation track for turning into a fish man.  But they're usually random, with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of entries.  Mutations are essentially chaotic, a fact supported by both biology and Warhammer.  The less predictable mutations are, the more genuine it feels.

(2) And while mutations are often cosmetic (new skin color), others are very impactful, conferring new abilities or slaying characters directly.

Most games "play to find out"--we roll dice during combat to for the sake of emergence--but games vary in how impactful they are.  Some games limit you to the boundaries of the arena, while others are happy to let you kill your characters, turn important NPCs into bee swarms, and/or sink a continent.

Those two traits (random, impactful) are also shared by the the Deck of Many Things.  People who hate the Deck of Many Things also tend to hate random mutations, because both can derail an expected adventure so quickly.

(3) And mutation tables tend to be modular.  They aren't bolted onto any other subsystems, and don't usually depend on a particular setting.

People have written some good ones: slack ratchetScrap PrincessSkerples

How Big Should a Mutation Table Be?

A small mutation table (< 100 entries) will tend to have more good entries, and less chaff.

A large mutation table (> 100 entries) will tend to feel more random, and have enough variety to please Nurgle.

That's basically my justification for writing a d100 table.  I'd love to write a d1000 table, just for the bragging rights, but around 150 entries I started found myself writing down some mediocre entries.  There's a sweet spot, I think.

How Lethal (and Beneficial) Should a Mutation Table Be?

That's a great question.  I originally had it right in the middle: 30% good, 40% neutral/cosmetic, and 30% bad.

I went on to split the bad into 20% bad, 10% lethal, because I really like the idea of someone losing their ability to breath air in the middle of combat, or burning a hole through the floor as they die painfully.

Mutations should be rewarding enough for players to be tempted, and dangerous enough for them to be reluctant.

So if the worst possible result is basically just death, how good should be best result be?  Originally I had a couple entries that were basically just superpowers.  Those have been toned down or removed.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

More Government in Centerra

This is a continuation of an earlier post.

Dungeonocracy: The Revanwall Kings

The tribes of the Revanwall coast are pagans who worship the Revaydra, a living mountain.  During times of peace, the mountain dwindles.  The sides become smoother and the stones fade to blue, and mosses grow over the summit as the altitude drops.  Dreams stop appearing to the tribe's shamans.

During times of war, the mountains swells and darkens.  New peaks grip the sky like claws, and dark clouds die in its grip.

Every king of the Revanwall tribes is given back to the mountain, buried in a cave near the peak which is believed to swallow him.

After the king is swallowed, all the caves on the mountainside slide lower, and the dungeon inside grows.  The dungeon grows a new level, that corresponds to the newly buried king.  His body becomes the dungeon, and will tend to follow the shape of the king's body.  For example, the level that appeared after the death of Ivak the Legless was said to be smaller than average.

Each floor is stocked with the trappings of the king's life.  Scenes are recreated, and people from their memories are imitated (sometimes well, sometimes poorly).  Enemies, both real and imagined, are recreated as well.

Somewhere in the dungeon is the crown.  It is never on the floor corresponding to the dead king, but always somewhere deeper.  Whoever returns with it will crown the next king.

It is customary for each tribe to allow their neighbors time to explore the dungeon in order to find their crown.  But there have been times when multiple tribes have plumbed the dungeon simultaneously, during honorless wars, or when two kings have died at the same time.

It is less chaotic than it seems.  

Generally, all the tribes work together to keep outsiders away from the Revaydra, and only allow one or two parties in at a time.  The mountain is sacred.

Furthermore, it is very difficult to find the crown without a good knowledge of the dead king's personality, his life history, and where he would think to hide a crown.  Because this sort of knowledge tends to cluster closely to a particular tribe, outsiders have an even more difficult time making progress within the great mountain.

Large armies, and those who show disrespect to the mountain, are swallowed by the steep jaws of the mountain.

by Timofey Stepanov

Pure Plutocracy: Bar Chakka

The Beastfolk have a simple form of democracy.  One gold coin, one vote.

Voting is held at the Cloud's Fountain, a natural spring inside the royal compound.  Once the exact terms of the vote have been decided on, and the vote has been pared down into a single yes/no question, the vote is held.

Voters walk down the dock to the middle of the Fountain, display their gold to the authenticators, announce their vote to the tally-beasts, and then throw their coin into the Fountain with as much pomp as they can muster.

There is applause.  There are jeers.

If a great amount of gold is deposited at once, it may take a very long time for all of it to be authenticated and counted.  This has happened for votes in the past, when there is a high amount of public interest.

Voting days are also festival days.  Many have traveled across the island in order to cast their coins into the Fountain.  What else will they do?

The Cloud's Fountain also functions as the vault.  It is deep, and even a talented diver can only bring up a small amount of gold with every dive.  The theft of any appreciable sum would require many divers working for many hours, which is as intended.

The money is not carefully inventoried; no one knows exactly how much lies at the bottom of the Fountain.  Embezzling smaller amounts is very easy, which is also as intended.

The king is an elk-man, Mad King Ketch.  Like his predecessors, his job is only to carry out what was decided democratically.  This is a auxiliary duty, as his job is primarily a religious one.

The beastfolk consider their system to be the best and most honest in the world.  All governments are ruled by money.  If you pretend otherwise, you make the process even murkier and dishonest.

Judiciocracy: Brynth

Long ago, Brynth's last king was strangled with the intestines of its last priest.

In fact, kings are despised in Brynth.  Their citizens are known to be powerfully patriotic, and take a large amount of interest in their own governance.

Priests are likewise scorned in Brynth.  If the gods are a concern for every citizen, then religion is certainly something that is worth administering personally.  Religion is just another civic duty, and an honorable one.

The government is built entirely from the judiciary.

There are different types of judges.  Some are elected, while some are appointed by other judges.  

Judges make rulings on cases.  These precedents become new laws, and so each old law spawns new ones.

Brynth is also famous for its legal system--it is strictly gladitorial.

Cases are argued by barristers, a specialized caste of warrior-lawyers.  The judge hears both sides and then makes a ruling, informed by precedent.  The stronger case is given advantageous terms in the ensuing gladitorial combat, while the party found to be at fault begins at a disadvantage.

In the most severe scenario, a murderer will be blinded and emasculated before fighting the victim's family in the arena.  In a case where the case is less unambiguous, one party might begin armed with a dagger, while the other begins with a spear, a sword, and a shield.  The judge decides the terms of the combat.

When possible, the combat is made to suit the crime.  Liars are strangled, conspirators are forced to fight with hoods over their heads, and traitors are forced to fight against their own loved ones.

Its practitioners describe the system as fair.  No one describes it as kind.

Barristers often stand in for their clients, during these fights.  Aside from the accused, they are the only ones allowed to do so.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Social Challenges

Why Do We Need Rules For Social Challenges?

We don't.

Social encounters in D&D work nicely--you can model them at the table by talking to each other.  You don't need a rule system to know how to talk, negotiate, or make threats.

This is a very different from combat, which can't be emulated at the table (unless you are prepared to crawl over your minis and wrestle your DM), which is why combat requires a robust system of resolution.

However . . .

I still think there is a place for social challenges, specifically for cases that involve (a) an extended persuasion attempt against (b) who must be convinced on multiple points.  These types of social challenges sometimes feel too complex to be resolved with a single conversation--there are too many small considerations, and a single DM ruling can feel arbitrary.  A formal system for resolution can allow for a numeric description of progress and can add legitimacy to what might otherwise feel like DM fiat.
This is a rather narrow scope, and that's okay.  I can expand it later.

Why Combat is Great

Across different systems, combat is usually broken up into a pattern that is repeated every round.

1. We consider the state of the system.  How much health do we have?  How tough is this vampire?  How many potions do I have left?  Can I trick the vampire into the sunlight?

2. We make decisions based on that information and roll some dice to determine the outcome.

3. The DM describes the results of the dice rolls, then the series repeats.  A player loses 8 hit points.  A goblin dies.  A spell is expended.

This cycle of information gathering followed by decision making is the beating heart of an RPG--any RPG.

You formulate a plan, act on that plan and then (and this is important) change your plan if it does not seem to be working.  The status of your combatant (and thereby your chance of success) is calculated through discrete factors like hit points, which are important for players to know, in order to make decisions and schemes.  (This is true even if enemy HP is given ambiguously, e.g. "the goblin appears to be almost dead".)

Good rules for a social challenge should be designed according to similar considerations.

painting of Vercingetorix by Lionel Royer
Social Challenges

You are trying to persuade an NPC.

The NPC has Patience.  Every round that you stay in the social challenge, you risk depleting it further.  Once Patience reaches zero, the NPC has run out of patience and you have lost.  Patience is comparable to player HP.

The NPC has Opposition.  Every round that you stay in the social challenge, you have the chance to make arguments, which will deplete your opponent's Opposition.  Once Opposition reaches zero, the NPC acquiesces and you have won.  Opposition is comparable to monster HP.

After each round of the social challenge, the players have the opportunity to assess how things are going and choose what argument they want to use going forward.  You can decide whether you want to communicate the two scores to your players directly ("The dwarven king has 3 Patience remaining.") or obliquely ("The dwarven king is tapping his foot, looking annoyed.")

I'm lean towards a full disclosure of the two numbers, since more information helps players make better decisions.  (It's about as realistic as a player knowing their own HP total, and besides, humans are already decent at determining if they are persuading someone or merely annoying them.)

The Social Interval

An exploration turn is 10 minutes, a combat round is 10 seconds, and a social interval takes as long as it has to.

Every interval follows the same basic cycle as combat.

1. The characters are free to attempt to gain more information.  If you walk away from a negotiation and then return later, expect to pick up right where you left off, albeit with 1d4 less Patience ("Didn't we already settle this?").

2. The characters are free to make their argument/offer/threat.  The DM decides how likely the argument is to succeed, then tells the players to make their roll.  Automatic successes and failures are common.  If the players have helped the dwarven king in the past, reminding him of their previous loyalty will soften his position--the only question is how much.  Similarly, everyone likes gifts, and everyone hates to be insulted.  Use your common sense.

3.  The players make the roll.  The DM informs the players of their odds before the roll, as well as her reasoning.  ("I figure goblins are easy to intimidate, so you succeed with a 14 or less.)

4.  If the persuasion succeeds, Opposition is reduced by 1d6 points.  If the persuasion fails, Patience is reduced by 1d6 points.  The die size can be adjusted up or down as you please, but something must be reduced every turn.

Roleplay every step.

An important part of this is the actual persuasion roll, in step 3.  The chance of success is based on the argument put forward, not on external factors, such as how much the NPC personally likes you, or your high Charisma.

Those types of external factors will affect how much Patience the NPC starts with, but once negotiation begins, they no longer play a part.  The queen will listen to her lover's propositions all night, but if none of them have any merit, she will agree to nothing.

Setting the Persuasion Roll

At it's heart, this is the NPC asking the players "Why should I do as you say?"

If something is certain to have an impact, it's automatic success.  If it is something that the NPC absolutely doesn't care about, it automatically fails.  If its something that you can imagine going either way, then you need to set a Persuasion that the players need to roll under.

Follow your heart on this.  A decent argument should have a decent shot: a 10-in-20 chance.

There is potentially an asymmetry to the information here.  You know your NPC, and the players don't.  They can potentially investigate their target before negotiating with them, but even if this step is neglected (an ambush), they can still learn about the NPC through conversation, or by observing how the NPC reacts to their earlier Persuasion attempts.

Setting Up the NPC

You should already know some facts about your NPC.  You should know (and have written down somewhere)

  • their desires and goals
  • their fears and shames
  • their values and agenda
  • their personal friends and enemies
  • their supporters and opponents (if political)
If you don't have anything decided for your dwarven king, you can always fall back on the generic.  

Setting Up the Patience Score

This is where personal appeal (rather than rational appeal) comes in.

Patience begins at 6 points, and is adjusted up and down according to circumstances.  There are three factors, which are usually worth not more than +/- 2 points each.


Friendship is worth a couple of points.  Proven loyalty is worth is a few more.  If they frown as soon as they see you, reduce Patience by a few points.


The approach is important.  This is where players can make personal appeals, and where they can use their abilities to gain an ear.  A Charisma roll is the traditional way to open a negotiation, but other stats can be used, and even cultural elements (such as invoking an ancient right of parley).

When and Where

There is a bad time for everything.  An appropriate venue helps, while walking up to the king before he's had breakfast is worth a penalty.

Setting Up the Opposition Score

This is how much the NPC would rather say "no".

Opposition begins at 10 points, and is adjusted up and down according to circumstances.  This is a guideline, and when deciding how to adjust it, be sure to consider the following things.

Cultural Taboos. The fun thing about taboos is that they often have exceptions.  If no one is allowed in the Royal Crypts except priests, one of the PCs might want to become a priest before they ask the king for access to the Royal Crypts.

Pride/Shame.  There's a lot to be gained if you can phrase your request in a way that saves face for whoever you are asking.  No one likes to be humbled.

Direct Cost.  A resource that is immediately lost.  Money, items, troops, etc.  These are usually pretty obvious.

Indirect Cost. A linked resource that is spent.  Popularity, allies, patronage, risks, etc.  Allowing you into the Royal Crypts might anger the Imperial Cult, and that will have knock-on effects for the king down the line.

Opportunity Cost.  It might not cost the king anything to let you marry his daughter, but if he does, then he loses the opportunity to wed her to some other prince.  He loses the opportunity for a political marriage down the line.


It's not hard to make variations of this.  Anything that is a multistep process where each step holds an ambiguous amount of progress.  If you don't want a "ticking clock" that indicates failure, use only one progress score.  Candidates:

Building a castle.  Progress vs Money (which depletes in a mostly-fixed rate each interval).

Researching a new spell.  Progress vs Danger.  A crude proto-spell is available at 50% Progress, representing a partial success in your spell breeding program.

Navigating a trackless waste.  Progress vs Supplies (which depletes in a mostly-fixed rate each interval).

Killing a Zondervoze.  A zondervoze is roughly described a city-spirit, composed of a large chunk of a city's population, which function as the zondervoze's "cells" without being aware of their role.  A single progress track might be appropriate here--every mass killing or deculturation event will bring a Zondervoze closer to death.  You'll attract its full attention from the first event, so there is no competing progress track for failure, since it will be trying to kill you at every turn.

The Heart of the Matter

Essentially any complex task can be broken down into 1 or 2 progress scores.

First archetype: a single progress score that you attempt to increase.  Each attempt (or time interval) brings a cost.

Second archetype: a pair of dueling progress scores.  Fulfilling the first one generates success, while the fulfilling the second generates failure.

You can layer a thousand complications on these simple constructs (and a thousand RPGs have done exactly that).  But I honestly believe that this is the beating heart of most tabletop RPGs.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Government in Centerra


Societies have power structures.  There is usually a top and a bottom to this power structure, but all of this power and legitimacy ultimately flows from the people below them.  (At least until we start talking about robot armies.)

A prince is never going to be crowned without the support of the mob/aristocracy/army/pope, and those people are never going to support that prince unless they think that the prince can help them in some way.

Essentially, political power is never free.  It exists only within the boundaries set by the people who put you into power.  If you start to go against their interests, those same people will remove you.  Even a king has constituents, of a sort.

Writing Interesting Fantasy Social Structures

1. It should be interesting.  If it's boring, don't spend time writing it, much less running it.

However, even a generic kingship can be interesting (knights! political marriages! inheritance!) and those are the parts you should focus on.

2. It should be semi-plausible.  This depends on how gonzo/historical you game is, but spare a thought for "realism" when you're describing how the kingdom is ruled by an ordinary chicken.

3. The players should be able to affect it.  Tabletops are simply more fun when the players can interact with what is presented.

There should be methods for the players to incorporate themselves into the power structure, or at least to break a few teapots. 

Ideally, the disruption should be a natural conclusion of the governmental structure itself.  Good example: becoming a baron by finding the sacred chicken among a flock of thousands.  Less unique example: becoming a baron by assassinating the old baron.

from the Wonder Woman movie
Concubocracry: The Nothic Empire

Originally, the Empire was ruled by an emperor who possessed ultimate authority in wartime, but was limited in all other areas by his senate, who held veto power over many of his actions.

During the war against the frost giants and their client cities, the entire senate was killed.  (Many say that the Emperor allowed it to happen, or possibly even did it himself.)

Because the emperor requires a senate to have any authority, the emperor appointed an emergency senate: his entire harem.

Precedent holds strong sway in Noth, and that action codified itself.  Now, the harem is the senate, and the senate is the harem.  The two are interchangable.

Senators are elected by different subsections of the population.  Appointment is for 10 years, or until death.  The only people who are eligible to run as senators are those born of noble families (or at least adopted).

In actuality, senators are usually just representatives of their families, and act in their family's own interests (but not always).

A senatrix can also be appointed by the emperor at his discretion, up to a certain limit.  Many defenders of this system argue that this is a superior method--if the emperor wants to fuck someone, then he also has to listen to them. 

Additionally, since the emperor is required to make regular visits to the harem (in order to ensure a good supply of imperial offspring), the emperor and the senate have regular opportunities to interact.  And the emperor has an additional motivator not to antagonize his harem--they bear his children, and are entirely responsible for the health and education of those resultant children for the first four years of their life.  In a semi-medieval world where childhood mortality is common and smothering is easy, infanticide serves as another check and balance.

The senate is officiated by the infanta, who is elected from among the daughters of the previous emperor. 

The empress has no governmental power, unless her husband dies.  She is an understudy.

Necrocracy: Mondaloa

The peaceful, crumbling city of Mondaloa is ruled by the dead.  Not the undead, who are abominations in the eyes of Mondaloa (the deity that shares his name with the city), but the actual dead.

Seven ancient families rule the city, and each family has a Speaker for the Dead, who speaks on behalf of their honored ancestors.  Each speaker has a rank.  Their ranks are decided like this.

Each speaker must be buried alive and then resuscitated.  The people who bury the priest must be different than the people who dig him up.  Rank is decided by how high up the mountain you were buried.

In practice, the priest will walk up the mountain with his diggers, along with a specialized coffin and numerous mechanisms to survive the ordeal, both magical and mundane.  Once they have climbed as high as they dare, they dig a hole, bury the priest, and run back to Mondaloa. 

The team of exhumers waits for their arrival, and then sets out as soon as the last digger returns, like a baton pass.  The go to the point specified, and exhume their brother.  If they are swift, the city has a new speaker for the dead.  If they are too slow, the honored dead gain another member, and a small cairn is built.

In cases of real deadlock, the actual dead are summoned to settle things.  This is generally unpleasant for everyone involved, and the speakers will try to avoid this.

It turns out that when actual ancestors are consulted, they tend to be weirdly conservative about certain things, weirdly uncaring about certain modern concerns, and racist along lines that aren't generally recognized anymore.  They are also fairly pissed off at being brought back.

The city sends out sanctified necromancers, who seek to coax the restless dead back into their graves.  After all, that skeleton is someone's beloved grandmother, and deserves to be treated as such.

Agonocracy: Fangol

The horse lords of the Fangolian plains decide their leadership through a race.  Since the race crosses the territories of all of the clans, and since there are essentially no rules, clans can "vote" against enemy clans by trying to kill them.

These races don't happen often, since the horse clans are fiercely independent, and rarely see the need to unify against anything less than an existential threat.  And when they do seek to unify, they usually already have one or two candidates that they support, and so most clans don't even enter the race out of politeness.

One caveat is that it is the horse that is racing, not the rider.  As long as the horse crosses the finish line, alive or dead, that clan is the winner.  The riders usually wear masks to emphasize their own unimportance relative to their clan's horse.

Gamocracy: Tatzulon

All positions in government, from tax collector up to king, must be held by a married couple.  The reasoning behind this is that anyone who is unable to navigate a marriage is certainly unable to navigate a political office.

If one of the two people die, or if they divorce, they become ineligible for the position and immediately retire.

Infidelity also causes a divorce, even if both members of the married couple wish to remain married.  However, infidelity has a very specific definition in Basharna, and there is always the matter of proof.

Kleptocracy: Shangrilore

Shangrilore has one king, three dukes, and eleven barons.  The crowns can be inherited, but the noblest way to obtain a crown is to steal it.

Only a duke can steal the crown from the king, and so become the new king.  Likewise, only a baron can steal the crown from a duke.  Anyone can steal from a baron, as long as they first undergo a ritual purification at a local church, first.

Violence is not permitted.  Spilt blood stains the transfer, and a murder invalidates it.  A thief who kills someone on a botched attempt is a common criminal, nothing more.

The wearers of the crowns must engage in certain pilgrimages across Abasinia, and to Casmir, where they perform certain duties, such as blessing the fishing fleet and receiving blessings from the vestal virgins.  All of this travel requires them to wear the crown, and allows for many opportunities for thievery to occur.

Ranking among the dukes and the barons in determined by the method in which the crown was stolen.  Much more acclaim is given to those who obtained their crowns through bravery and brilliance.

When a crown is stolen, you must leave your own crown behind as proof.

Prestige is also gained by stealing things from your rivals.  The more outrageous the theft, the better.  Stealing things from people who can't afford it is considered a sin, as is the theft of money, gold, or jewels (unless you compensate the victim the dollar value of the item immediately).  In fact, things that are stolen are often immediately returned, usually in a respectful and/or cheerful manner.

An example of a prestigious theft would be to steal your rival's distinctive clothing, alter their calendar, and then show up to their appointments while prancing around and mocking them, while your rival shows up an hour late for all of their appointments.  Classic.

Geriatrocy: Elvish Cities

Elvish cities are often pure democracies, decided by a straightforward vote.  Each person's vote is proportionate to their age, so an 80-year-old man casts twice as many votes as a 40-year-old.

Elves pride themselves on their wisdom and fairness, and justify this rule by saying that age is wiser than youth, and so the extra voting power is deserved.  In practice, this usually just means that younger elves get little representation, to say nothing of the few humans who sometimes live in elven enclaves ("half-elves").

Elections follow a rolling total, with votes coming in until a clear victor is determined.  This process takes as long as it must, and sometimes it takes years for wandering elves to return home and cast the deciding vote.  Sometimes children and babies are dragged to the ballot boxes when a vote is especially close.  And of course, sometimes the vote changes as people's age's change or certain voting members die.  (Consider an 80-year-old opposed by two 40-year-olds--the younger cohort will have a distinct advantage next year.)

Dead (and undead) are not allowed to vote.  Resurrected elves are allowed to vote, and vote at their full (calendar-calculated) age.  And in fact, sometimes especially ancient elves will commit suicide in order to leave some mileage on their bodies, so they can be resurrected at a later point in order to influence future politics.  (You cannot be resurrected if you die from old age.)

Elves from the temporal elven kingdoms at the end of time are from a different class of elf, and do not mix with the "low elves" of Centerra, which simplifies matters for the elves who are not stuck with the task of calculating the age of elves who have looped through the timeline so many times that they are several times older than the universe.

Lottery: Great Zyro, Worthless Zyro, Ziga, and Manamar

Exactly like what it sounds like.  Everyone's name is put into a hat, and then a name is drawn for every single position available.

This is includes the expected governmental positions such as master of ships and high priest, but it also includes unexpected roles such as village idiot and bandit.

Bear in mind that this madness only encapsulates the Zyroleans who live on land, who are already considered to be mad.  All proper Zyroleans live aboard their ships, and follow proper naval laws.

Magocracy: Meltheria

Whenever one of the high mages dies, his surviving family picks his successor, who must be from outside of the family.

Of course this leads to some biased judging, since the departing family seeks to install a high mage who is sympathetic to their goals, but everyone likes to pretend that the judging is unbaised.  Because of this, flagrant partisanship leads to angry mobs and a legitimacy struggle.

The successorship competitions are always public, and they are always spectacular affairs, usually a blend of scholarship, showmanship, and raw magical power.

They also tend to be crowd-pleasers.  A popular display might be a parade of animals made of cake, who march through the city until they are eaten by the populace.

Each of the high mage's rules over one of the city's towers, and each tower has a different focus, from warfare to history.  The performance is expected to conform to the theme.

Some towers are more stable than others, with the position of high mage being traded back and forth between two or three families for centuries, while other towers are more chaotic.

Government in Exile: the Anti-Pope

A generation ago, a long-festering schism within the Church finally spilled over.

The Church was split between the conservative Orthodox faction that wished for the Church structure to remain as it was, and the Reform faction that believed that the Church had become too corrupt and worldly, and would be better if it fragmented into smaller, decentralized churches.  It's opponents simply said that the Reformers were seeking to seize power for themselves, and had no moral motivation.

Both sides accused the other of being illegitimate, and both appointed their own Pope.

With strong support from allies in Noth, the Orthodox faction eventually triumphed over the Reformers.  Most recanted.  A few were tried as heretics and killed.  And some fled the city of Kaladon and the Church that they saw as corrupt.

The who became labeled as the False Pope, or Anti-Pope, was a cardinal named Odrial.  He was immensely popular in the north, which is where he fled.

He is believed to be hiding out somewhere in Guilder or Gafferdy, still preaching his doctrine in secret masses.  He is the most dangerous heretic in the world, and is known to have a small circle of anti-priests and anti-paladins.

Map of Centerra

Here's an updated one, in case anyone is interested where these places are located relative to each other.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Plant Kingdoms

Common Knowledge

The Shendru are a species of omnivirous tree.  Their branches are subtly articulated, and they have a toothed maw atop their barrel-like body.  They have the ability to enslave other types of plants, and are sometimes served by brackles or treants.  Although they don't have nooses, they're sometimes known as hangman trees by very old pedants.

Brackles are a species of humanoid plants that are capable of spitting thorns.  They are narrow and sharp, all elbows and fluted snouts.  They travel the world looking to exchange pollen before dying in winter, as each brackle only lives a single year.

(I'm retconning my Brackles.)

Marilanths are another species of humanoid plant.  They are large masses of flower-covered vines with four clumsy arms.  Like Brackles, they are itinerant, travelling the world while looking for places to set down their roots.  They sometimes sell drugs.

from the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual

Uncommon Knowledge

We now know that they are both members of the same species: the Shendru.

This is not common knowledge because brackles and marilanths don't speak of their sexual habits, a cultural taboo that is even stronger among Shendru than among humans.  (Shendru are not a monoculture, but this is true among the cultures of Mothmoria and Greenmarch, which are two populous "cities" of the Shendru.)

Shendru Biology

Brackles tend to wander.  Perhaps they just want to experience as much as they can in the brief year before they die.  Perhaps they're driven by a desire to pass their pollen on to as many marilanths as they can.  Perhaps they are driven to protect the groves and farmlands of their families by searching out threats.  Or most likely, all of the above.

They have faces like seahorses and don't eat very much.  They lose weight steadily over their year of life, and are usually quite gaunt by December, when most of them die.

Brackles write very good poetry.  In winter, many brackles choose to inscribe their death poems along the lengths of their limbs.

Marilanths can grow much larger than a human if food is plentiful.  In this case, they usually also grow a second pair of arms.  Marilanths also tend to wander, although perhaps not as far afield as brackles.  They tend to be more interested in gustatory experiences.

All Shendru can talk to plants, but marilanths are exceptionally persuasive.  This gives them a good deal of control over their farms.

Brackles who form strong bonds with marilanths will usually "marry" them.  This involves collecting ingredients for a feast, a night of dancing, and then a meal that includes the brackle.  There few cases where a brackle and a human have fallen in love have followed the same pattern.

When a marilanth is ready to settle down, or when she begins to starve, she sends down roots and becomes a tree.  Her children are the product of her own eggs as well as the pollen that she collected over her lifetime.  (She can continue receiving pollen as a tree, but in some cultures this is considered unseemly, as shendru exist in a dreamlike state most of the time, and not fully aware of everything that happens around them.)

Shendru trees can grow brackles and marilanths whenever they wish, but they can also grow fruits that imitate the substances that they have eaten over their whole lives.  A shendru who has tasted coffee can grow a caffeinated fruit that tastes similar.

Marilanths also possess this ability, albeit in a much smaller capacity.  This is why they often sell drugs, which is why they are often chased away from civilized lands.

Shendru Lore

The scholars will tell you that Shendru were created by the old spirits of the forest, in order that they might fight back against the incursions of mankind.  Treants were too slow to grow, too slow to anger.  Why else would brackles have such deadly thorns?

The Church will tell you that the Shendru were created to serve humanity, but when we accepted sins into our hearts, the forests turned against us.  Why else would they bear such pleasing fruit?

The Elves will tell you that the Shendru were bred to be farmers.  What better to tend to a farm than the farm itself?  It fits their model.

Shendru Cities

The two major homelands of the Shendru are Mothmoria and the Greenmarch.

<sidebar>When people invent their own races, there are two things that annoy me.  First, presenting any intelligent species as a monoculture.  Second, not giving them any settlements of their own, or only giving them a single place of origin.</sidebar>

The Mazes of Mothmoria

The Shendru of Mothmoria are waiting for their masters, the giants.  They have been entrusted with the gardens, and they have kept them immaculate for centuries.  They have done more than maintain, actually--they have expanded.  Every generation of caretakers have measured their success in the increase of Mothmoria.

It is a garden maze the size of a forest, filled with hedges, contemplation pools, mossy statues, iron gates, and softly bubbling fountains.  With all of the local plants charmed by the Shendru, weeds don't even poke up between the stones.

Mothmoria is beautiful, tranquil, and useless for anything except for quiet contemplation.  Somewhere in the middle of it, behind the endless terraces of waterfalls and lilies, are the stone houses of the giants.  They are quiet now, even the Shendru have only the vaguest idea of what is contained within.  They aren't allowed in the houses.

To the west is the Great Forest Yava, the eternal stronghold of the elves and the most beautiful place in the world.  They fight a slow war against the Shendru of Mothmoria.  Both sides are loathe to disrupt the peace of their forests, and so the war is fought at the pace at which trees grow.  Outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that this war is gentler or less bloody.

The Dukes of the Greenmarch

The Shendru of the Greenmarch are organized into plantations, each one a zone of land controlled by a Duke or Duchess.  Each one has a longhouse built around their progenitor.  The brackles and marilanths of that place are organized along familial lines, with the male brackles traded among houses as workers, soldiers, transporters, or arranged husbands.

Visitors are often struck by how human the society seems.  They even have their own currency: black brass coins.

And humans are welcome there.  The Greenmarch conducts a fair amount of trade, in crops, spices, cotton, and wool.  (Their power over plants simplifies many of these enterprises.)  They even maintain a silver mine.  Most of them are Hesayan, although doctrine dictates that they lack the seventh soul.

There are a few oddities: the bounty on bees (to prevent accidental pregnancies), the ritualistic skirmishes between brackles trying to earn fame, the drug tolerance contests, and/or the mutually cannibalistic friendship ceremonies (of which humans are expected to participate.

Humans are given new names when they arrive in the Greenmarch.  Human names are considered vulgar within their borders.  Human reproduction is also a mild taboo (since many of the younger brackles don't know about it), and it is polite to pass on the mythology that humans reproduce the same way that Shendru do.

source unknown?
Kasrosassus and the White Woods

Pale trees lean over streams lined with dolomite.  Their leaves are red.  White roots grip chalky hillsides, and the straw-yellow grasses are as thin as a newborn's hair.

The ecology of the White Woods is essentially vampiric.  From the smallest mouse to the thickest bear.  Even the deer suck their meals.  Mostly hairless, entirely albino, and with a universal aversion to sunlight, which pierces the thick fog only rarely.  On especially bright days, most of the animals retreat into the extensive karst caves that dot the forest, like antelope huddling near a watering hole during the dry season.

At the center of it all is Kasrosassus, a botanic titan whose red eyes can see the dead, and whose crocodile mouth vomits forth huge clouds of fog.  Inside his vast vegetable bulk nest families of bats.  Kasrosassus claims to be the progenitor of all vampires.

Kasrosassus is perhaps the most powerful necromancer in the world.  It is said that Shadoom plucked his seed from the darkness behind the sun and planted it in Centerra.  Even Queen Yama studied at the knee of the leviathan.

All creatures that die within the White Woods immediately rise as undead under the control of Kasrosassus.  They walk to the middle of the woods, where Kasrosassus plucks them up and sucks them dry.  The dessicated undead is then stored in the cool, dry caverns beneath his roots, where he stores the rest of his armies.

In bygone days, Kasrosassus marched on the cities of Brynth and Belgast.  His "sons" were white trees, conveyed in hundred-wheeled chariot-urns, pulled by an ever-growing army of undead.  Their powers extended for miles around each one.

The Church broke the Sons of Kasrosassus into splinters, and drove the hordes back into the pale arms of the White Woods.  They never uprooted the great necromancer from his stronghold, but he has not ventured from his stronghold in any of the days since.

Travelers who would pass the White Woods would be wise to seek safe passage.  Those who would do so are advised to bring a human corpse with them as they travel (or make their own).  As soon as they cross the threshold of the forest, the corpse will sit up and speak, and they may communicate with the great necromancer directly.

The usual fee is a single cow for every traveler.  Simply slit their throats and they will walk off themselves.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Triple X Depletion: A Unified Depletion System

Everyone else is writing good posts about depletion so here's my take on it.

Here are the expendable/depletable resources that adventurers rely on:

1. Food, water

2. Torches, lanterns

3. Arrows, sling stones, weapons?, armor?

Triple X

Whenever something gets depleted, put an X next to it.  After three Xs, it's gone.  This is pretty close to "each slot can hold a bundle of three rations" but is more unified and probably more elegant.

Food - Depletes when you eat lunch or sleep.  Replenishes when you buy more: 1 silver to remove 1 X.

Water - Depletes when you eat lunch or sleep.  Replenishes automatically when you are out of the dungeon, unless your DM tells you otherwise.  (It's assumed that water sources will be available, or at least, it isn't usually interesting to track down where the nearest creek is.)

Note: When you eat lunch, you can choose to mark off either food or water.  When you rest for the night, you need to mark off both.

Torches - Depletes according to the depletion die (rolled every 30 minutes in a dungeon).  Replenishes when you buy more: 1 silver to remove 1 X.

Lamps - Depletes according to the depletion die (rolled every 30 minutes in a dungeon).  Replenishes when you buy more: 50 silver to remove 1 X.

Note: For simplicity's sake, I'm just going to assume that all of the lamps are basically slow-burning molotovs, where the fuel container and the lamp are the same thing.  A lit lamp can be thrown just like a molotov.

Bow - After every combat in which you used arrows, flip a coin. On tails, your arrows deplete.  Replenishes when you buy more: 1 silver to remove 1 X.

Sling - Whenever you fire a sling stone, you gain a single depletion.  Replenishes whenever you have a moment to pick up some stones or stony debris.  (Basically as soon as combat ends, in your average dungeon.)

Melee Weapons - Whenever you roll a 1 or a 20 on an attack roll, a melee weapon gains an X (in addition to the other effects of the fumble).  It breaks when it gains the third X.  Replenishes whenever you stop by a blacksmith: 1 silver to remove 1 X.

Armor - Whenever you roll a critical fumble on a Defense roll, your armor gains an X (in addition to the other effects of the fumble).  When you gain 3 depletions, you lose two points of AC, erase all of the Xs, and your armor takes up one slot less.  (Basically, your plate just turned into chain.)

Simplified Armor

This is what I'm running with these days.

Leather - 1 slot, AC 12, swim automatically
Chain - 2 slots, AC 14, Str check to swim
Plate - 3 slots, AC 16, sink automatically, must be custom-made

Each character has a number of slots equal to Str.

You can also build your armor as a hodgepodge, from armor pieces.  Each regular armor piece gives you +1 AC, while well-fitted armor pieces can give you +2 (usually requires time and proper tools), up to a maximum of AC 15.  Only custom-made plate can give you AC 16.

Depletion Rolls

Every thirty minutes of dungeoneering, the DM rolls a d20.  On a 1-5, all light sources deplete.

Note: I've played around with more complicated versions of this.  6-10 used to be spell expiration, 11-15 used to be a morale challenge (e.g. hirelings get scared).  I might bring those back, but this seems sufficient for now.  Light is what I care about most.  (Although the morale challenges were interesting.)

(Brian Harbron write one that I liked, based on some Chris McDowall stuff.)

Encounter Rolls

While the DM rolls for depletion, the players roll for wandering monsters.  Basically, roll a d20:

1-3 - encounter
4-6 - tracks

Encumbered characters increase the chances of a wandering monster.  Rangers increase the chance of finding tracks.  A full explanation is detailed here.

More Rules

Whenever you use an item for a special use, it automatically depletes.  Using a sword to chop through a door, using water to put out a fire, dropping food to distract monsters, etc.

If you loot the arrows off a dead archer, your bow regains one depletion.

Magic arrows take up inventory spaces.  You can bundle them, though, as long as they're the same type.

Magic weapons and armor last twice as long, so one depletion gives an '\', while the second depletion turns it into an 'X'.  Magic weapons and armor can only be repaired by insane blacksmiths.  The price for repair is never money.

Shitty weapons and armor break instantly as soon as they gain their first X.  Scavenged weapons have 0-2 depletions when they are looted.

If you need to convert depletions into exact amounts for some reason, then assume that each X equals
  • A meal's worth of rations.
  • A pint of water.
  • 5 arrows.
  • 1 sling stone.
  • A torch (2 hr).
  • A pint of lamp oil (2 hr).
Attack Roll Fumbles

It is possible to deplete your weapons and armor by rolling fumbles on your Attack and Defense rolls, respectively.  That sword might break sooner than you think!

Here's what I'm running these days.

Critical fumbles represent a tactical misstep that gives an opening to an enemy.  When you roll a critical fumble, the most threatening adjacent foe takes advantage of it.  Yes, this means that is possible to fumble against a goblin and get whacked by the ogre adjacent (perhaps you turned your back on him, or stumbled).

Enemies have three basic options, and intelligent enemies will choose whichever one makes the most sense at the time.  Stupid enemies will behave more randomly.
  • Free Attack (by the most threatening adjacent opponent).
  • Free Combat Maneuver (such as tripping, disarming, etc).
  • Free Sunder Attempt (a type of combat maneuver).
If a weapon would gain a fourth depletion, it instead shatters into pieces.  

If you show up with a dragon-killing spear, expect the dragon to spend a turn biting that shit in half (assuming they don't just knock it out of your hand and then stand on it).

The number of depletions depends on the size and strength of your opponent.

Human (HD 1) = 1 depletion
Ogre (HD 4) = 2 depletions
Giant (HD 7) = 3 depletions (instantly breaking a brand-new weapon)

Regular weapons accumulate these depletions automatically, but magic weapons have a 3-in-6 chance of ignoring them.  Roll each separately.  (So if a dragon attempts to sunder your magic spear, roll four times, with each roll having a 3-in-6 chance of resulting in a depletion.)

Golems specialize in destroying weapons, and will always choose to sunder your weapon if you roll a fumble against them.  They are terrifyingly good at it.

Golem (HD 5) = 5 depletions

Special Weapons

This also opens the door to modulating weapons according to durability.

Chargale blades are made from a special type of clay that is baked for years (or decades).  They deal damage as a regular sword, but they will never break.

Crysmere blades deal damage as if they were a magic sword, but they have the durability of a regular sword.  They cannot be repaired.  You can cast spells (of any range) through crysmere weapons.  (Crysmere arrows are especially coveted for this reason.)

Both of these types of blade are immensely valuable.  You may just want to sell them.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Drume and the Egg

Drume is a city on the Sea of Fish.  For the last few generations, it has avoided any major wars, plagues, famines, and excommunications.  They have a merchant fleet supported by airships.  They have the highest literacy rate in the world, and have the largest secular school: the Pillar of Academy.  Their politics are mild and very accepting of other cultures.

This is all very unusual.

The architecture is late Neropic, with many buildings resembling bulbs and squashed domes, while others are mudbrick with exposed wooden supports.  The cuisine features a lot of rice and seafood (especially squid), with a healthy influx of cuisine from their three biggest trading partners: Abasinia, Kaladar, and Charcorra.

Drume is also the only city where you'll find a superhero.  Her name is Lulu, and she fights crime.  She flies across the city on magic wings, and she wears a squid mask. Everyone loves Lulu.  Children wear imitation masks; sailors get tattoos.

Hexaplex cichorium
The Quadrumvirate

The city is ruled by the Quadrumvirate: four wealthy families.  Every five years, one of the seats is up for election.  Each family is then responsible for providing someone to sit at the Quadrumvirate.

Craftau Warlov - The Warlovs were founding members of the Pillar of Academy.  Mages, heretics, rebels, and priests.  A family of dissidents.  They have awkward family dinners, but they do their best to present a unified face.  Craftau is a mage, and is usually accompanied by her husband, an exiled knight from Noth.

Guster Lethok - The Lethok family deals in airships, and holds the second membership.  The matriarch of this family, finally grow too old to attend, appointed her youngest son to fill the role.  Guster has spent most of his life abroad, studying.  While the Lethok family is popular, Guster is unknown, and therefore untrusted.

Kashtan Larksmith - A family that deals in banking and land ownership.  Kashtan is fiercely loyal to the city, and wary of outside influence.  She's killed at least two people in duels.

"Eb" Alazed - An ancient and enormous old man, who operates a dozen merchant ships.  His sons manage most of Drume's modest navy.

Hatred of Orcs

Drume was conquered by orcs and did not win its freedom until a century ago.  Noth helped.

The city's famous tolerance does not extend to orcs, which are despised and hunted at every turn.  There are a few remnants of orcish rule in the city.  Shumish art tends to mirror the brutality of orcish art.  A number of orcish words persist in the Shumish vocabulary.  And the rapid assembly of human thrones persists as a popular sport.

The Hum

On very quiet quiet nights, you can can hear it.  Not in your ears, but in your bones.  A subsonic thrum that permeates everything.

Visitors hate it.  It keeps them up at night.  Locals speak fondly of it, for the most part.

Most people are convinced that it is caused by something deep in the Pillar of Academy.  They are correct.

an Ionic columm

The Pillar of Academy

Looks almost exactly like a Ionic pillar, magnified a hundred times.  A stone skyscraper of antediluvian construction, every floor marked by a row of pin-prick windows lancing their light out into the night sky. 

The top of the Pillar emits steam.  Illuminated by light, the cloud is bright enough to illuminate the city at night.

The basement of the Pillar is filled with light.  Most assume that it is some sort of mechanism that the mages invented.

The deeper down you go, the brighter it gets.  Blindness becomes a risk.  The marble walls become reflective.  The light becomes painful even through closed eyelids.  Eventually the heat becomes an issue as well.  The lower levels of the basement are where the Pillar keeps its secrets.

The Egg of Drume

According to anyone's best guess, the Egg is an extraterrestrial mollusk.

It was found in the lake of Zaotan a long time ago, and stolen from the dragon Tar Lath Lien.  (This was back when the Egg was still small enough to be hidden under a cloak.)

It sits in the middle of a secret dungeon beneath the known dungeon beneath the Castle of the Pearl.  It has grown so much in the last 50 years that the vast crenellations and creases of its shell form a small labyrinth around the animal inside.

The central chamber resembles the inside of a conch shell, with the far wall filled with a folded, protruding shell.  This wall is full of symmetrical apertures, from which the Egg can extrude its nearly-translucent tentacles.  Somewhere in the pulpy mass of its cryptic head is a five-toothed mouth, surrounded by what can loosely be described as a face.

The Egg eats a steady diet of eggshells and fish heads (so many fish heads).  It communicates through local telepathy and is the most intelligent creature in Centerra.

Here is the reason for its genius: it is capable of absorbing the intellect of any fresh brain that it consumes, which is then integrated and aligned with the Egg's own goals.  It is also utterly evil.

When asked about what it would do if it were given a choice, the Egg described a scenario that involved the annihilation of all other life on the planet except for its own, the consumption of all resources, and the launch of its offspring into the ether.  The ultimate justification for this was to minimize ignorance and suffering (two cornerstones of the human condition) and also to prepare for the end of the universe.  (The Egg intends to survive.)

The Egg is honest.  If it were capable of lying, it hasn't revealed it yet.

Credit for the city's success lays squarely with the Egg.  The Quadrumvirate ask the Egg questions, and it answers.  "What would the outcome of this taxation policy be?" "How much should we trust Noth?"  "Where should we deploy our Navy?"

It doesn't make decisions.  It simply provides answers.

The Quadrumvirate has had to make very few concessions in order to secure the cooperation of their prisoner.  As the Egg will point out, this is unjust.

Assassins have attempted to kill the Egg on past occasions.  They have all failed.  Even without any psychic powers, the Egg is fully capable of defending itself. 

And of course, it's usually trivial to figure out who hired the assassins once the Egg starts eating heads.


A huge array of containment systems have been arrayed around it, both physical and magical.  Dozens of barriers prevent the escape of Drume's most important citizen.  The creature's brain is also tattooed with dozens of explosive runes, set to explode if the right command word is uttered.

The Egg actually cooperated in designing its own prison.  It gave good advice, and the mages who designed it were impressed by its thoroughness and innovation.

Quest idea: thieves hire you to break into (what they assume to be) the secret vault beneath the Castle of the Pearl.

There are also many rules in place to prevent the Egg's abilities from being abused.  No one may speak to the Egg unless the entire Quadrumvirate is present.  Questions are best formulated by telling the Egg what your objective is, and then asking the best way to achieve it.  And lastly, no one should be fed to the Egg who might know the details of the Egg's prison.  (This last rule has only been slightly broken a couple of times.  Sometimes its important to know what a mage was lying about.)

The Hum, Part 2

Craftau Warlov manages the Benevolence Engine beneath the Pillar.  It is responsible for five things.

1. The everpresent, luminous clouds above the city and the light-filled tunnels beneath it.

2. A great deal of heat.

3. A great deal of thermal pollution downstream, in the underground river.

4. A calming effect on the city's population, making them less prone to anger and despair.  It does not suppress happiness or creativity.

5. The suppression of the Egg's latent psychic powers.

The Retrievers

Kashtan Larksmith manages the retreivers, who are an artificially created race of human-Egg. They resemble winged women with eyeless squids for heads.  (They can see, despite appearances.)  They are empaths and psychics.  There are six of them.

They are used to hunt down threats to Drume, typically criminals.  Once captured, the retriever will immobilize her prey, stretch her mouth over the victim's entire head, and neatly bite their head off.  This is made possible by a boneless jaw and a radula similar to a wire saw.

Swallowed heads are diverted to a second stomach, where they are kept alive and fully conscious until they can be delivered to the Egg.

To prevent injury to themselves, retrievers are instructed to break the jaws of their victims before decapitating them.

Each retriever is different.  Duvadembra refuses to kill anyone.  Yoctalys is defiant, and considers the Egg to be her true father.  When Ovia catches a criminal, she punishes them with their own crime before killing them.  Zenziss despises her body, and wishes to be human.  Ulmara and Japherine play musical instruments and are probably in love with each other.

The common populace believes that there is only one of them, who they call Lulu.  The Quadrumvirate encourages this farce.