Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Tales of Abasinia

The Five People You Might Meet in Abasinia

1. A dust eater.  Smears of brightness stain his lips.  His rags whip in the wind as he slouches between the pyramids.  He will beg for money, or steal it.  If you command him to lick the dust from your feet, he will have no choice but to obey.  That is his curse.  You may beat him (and most do), but if you kill him, he will return to haunt you.  That is also his curse.

2. A wagoneer.  His wagon is painted a monochrome white, except for three brown lines in a circle, which represent the lines of ones palm.  His camels have delicate brown eyes; his guards sing to them as they walk.  The camels can drink seawater safely.  In a locked chest, the wagoneer keeps a dozen mandrogi; they set up camp each night, rustling between the wheels.

3. Nameless.  They have forgotten who they are.  You will forget them when they leave (unless they wrong you).  They are cursed by a member of the Princemaker's Guild.  They usually have a book they carry that suffices as their memory.  They might be an assassin, whose book tells them who to kill. It may even tell them why.

4. Swordmaster.  They pierce their ears with tassels for their victories. They duel each other when they meet.  A crippling defeat (struck three times without striking your opponent once) means that a swordsman must become the slave of the victor until the next full moon.  Most of them travel with a painter.

5. A prophet.  They follow the laws of the Celestial Lottery.  They read the secret messages of the sand and the leaves.  Sometimes they go to a certain city and give a great fortune to an apparently-random cabbage seller.  Sometimes they approach a seller of dogs and offer to become their slave.  Sometimes they kill.  Through all of these seemingly random actions, they are never questioned, never arrested. It is understood that they are following the secret commands of Heaven.  Sometimes they wander into other countries, where they are executed as madmen.  It is known that anyone who impersonates a prophet is stuck down by cruel miracles.

No Booze
Abasinia is a dry nation.  Intoxicants are forbidden.  Even delago (basically tobacco) is punishable by the removal of fingers.  The only exception is the dust of the lotus, which is eaten in great amounts.

It is forbidden to create an image (e.g. painting) that uses perspective.  If a creature that is "near" is larger while a creature that is "far" is smaller, is possible for a fly to be larger than Heaven; this is an abomination.

Fashion is usually simple and severe, tending towards whites, blacks, and pale colors.

Shangalore and the Burning City

Once, Abasinia had a different capitol.  An entourage from the Church in the south came, and stated that their god (the Sky God, the Truth, the Authority) was greater than the gods of Abasinia (the Celestial Serpents).  The local priests disagreed.

They went before the king to contest their gods.  The foreign priests prayed for a sign of the superiority of the Sky God, and they were given one.

The High Temple of Abasinia sank into the ground, and fire erupted from between the cobblestones.  The whole city burned.

The people fled with ashen feet, and created a new capitol near the coast.  The new capitol is called Shangalore.

The Princemaker's Guild struck the old city's name from the Celestial Books.  It's name was forgotten from the mind's of men, for the safety of all.

The old city, the Nameless City, still burns.

Religion in Abasinia

It is a syncretic mix of the Church's teachings and the local Celestialism.  In the years since founding the city of Shangalore, Abasinia has since distanced itself from the Church, and now exists as an independent religion.

Qanats and the Secret Highway

The great city exists in a shallow valley.  It's vast fields and farms are watered by qanats.

The greatest and longest of these qanats is called the Secret Highway.  It was dug over three generations, and runs over 100 miles between Shangalore to the Mountains of Consequence.

If you do not wish to walk atop the dunes, you may walk along the Highway.  The toll is too steep for many travelers, but it is safe and the water is cold.

Princemaker's Guild

In Abasinia, the power of Names is still known and practiced.

The Namesmiths of the Guild create new Names and write them in the Celestial Books (which exist only in the wind--the Namesmiths write in the air with their moving fingers, and then move on).

If you are given a Name, and speak it, everyone will recognize it.  It is impossible to fake a Celestial Name--it doesn't have the same resonance.

Nobles and other people of import are given names as rewards.  Other Names are used as currency--some merchants trade Names between themselves instead of promissory notes.  As a form of currency, they are subtle, weightless, and discreet.

The least of Names is worth about 1,000 gp, while the greatest names are worth many tens of thousands.

Names are both a form of titles as well as a form of currency.  They cannot be stolen, only given away willingly and without duress.  Upon death, they might transfer to a designated inheritor or revert to the Princemaker's Guild.

To the east is Charcorra.

To the south is the Sea of Fish.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Undead Psychology

art by reau
There's no such thing as mindless undead.  When you raise the dead, you are not puppeting them, not quite.  You are inviting an alien soul to occupy the body, one that the reanimation spell has selected for certain mental traits: usually obedience, foremost.


Most undead are created intentionally, by necromancers.

Necromancy is illegal in most civilized places.  Partly because of the danger involved when a necromancer loses control of their creations, but also because of the taboo against disturbing the dead and defacing their bodies.  (Most reanimation rituals involve carving profane runes on the skull, a practice that has echoes in golemetry.)

When a necromancer dies, flip a coin.  On a heads, their undead go berserk, attacking every living thing in the area.  On a tails, they immediately devour their necromancer's corpse (even skeletons will masticate a corpse, and paint all of their bones red in the necromancer's blood) before attacking all living things (as if a heads had been flipped).  It usually takes 6 minutes for 1 zombie to finish eating/destroying their necromancer's corpse, during which they will take no action to defend themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, most necromancers are not gaunt, ashen men who live in tombs (though there are certainly many necromancers who match that description).  Many necromancers who practice life-stealing magics are corpulent and jolly, swollen with stolen vitalities.

And of course, there is the story of Hamar Nesmith, a plantation owner who was discovered to be a necromancer only when he suddenly died (runaway wagon) and all 51 of his "field hands" rushed into his mansion in order to devour his body, before attacking the nearby town of Claymere and killing all of its inhabitants.


Skeletons are often considered mindless, because their behavior is extremely constrained.  Basically, the rules of "mindless" skeleton behavior are this: Take no initiative, and fulfill every command in the simplest possible way.

Because of this, you don't see any of the tricky behavior in skeletons that is so common in devils or genies--subversion of an improperly worded command.

But just because skeletons are incapable of subtlety in their behavior doesn't mean that they are incapable of subtle and complex thoughts.  Their behavior is bound, but their minds are not.  Anyone casting ESP on a reanimated skeleton will find that the new soul--the proxy soul--is a raving, fragmented thing that is keenly aware of its servitude and its abasement.

Most skeletons detest their necromancers with a hot, seething hatred.  But being unable to speak or even alter the way they act--they have absolutely no way of expressing it.

That is not quite true, of course.  Skeletons sometimes express their hatred by staring at the necromancer, or standing too close when the necromancer sleeps, or standing slightly farther away.


Zombies are the minds of ravenous animals.  They are not mindless, but they are stupid.

They are famous for walking into fires in pursuit of their prey, or into injurious circumstances without regard.  For this reason, they are considered mindless.

But zombies never charge headlong into circumstances that are immediately lethal.  They don't walk off cliffs or into blenders.  So there must be some discrimination in their minds, between things are injurious and things that are immediately lethal.

So there is not much self-preservation in a zombie, but still more than none.  In fact, the behavior of a zombie is what you'd expect from something that knows it is possessing a temporary body--something disposable and worth risking.


Do you suppose that a lich dies as soon as it reaches lichdom?  Why should so much power cause a creature to die?

In fact, a wizard who becomes a lich continues to live on.  At least for a little while.

As soon as a wizard becomes a lich, they gain perfect control over their body.  They dictate when their heart beats.  They command their cells to divide, and their liver to store sugar.  Arterial tension is simple, blood pH only slightly less so.

A lich's body no longer runs on autopilot.  It runs on full manual control.  This is the source of their great strength and durability.  Stab a man in the chest, and it is like a river spilling its banks.  Stab a lich in the chest, and it is like disturbing a line of ants.  It can quench the flow.

But with this power comes tedium.  A lich's mind is well-suited to managing the billions of sundry operations that occur every hour within the body, each essential to well being.  But the incessant demand of this management comes mistakes, hastiness, abandonment.  Cells forget to make proteins.  Cerebrospinal fluid fails to be cycled.  A small war in the upper respiratory canal is abandoned to its own devices, and bacteria devour the living tissue.

And when the systems start failing.  They snowball into each other, cascade, and collapse.  Sometimes the whole process takes less than 24 hours, and at the end of it all, the new lich is dead.

But of course, there are the exceptions.  Be wary of the Lich Who Yet Lives.

Lich Pychology

The prime example is the lich.  After a lifetime of ambition and eldritch success, a wizard may become a undead creature of undeniable power.  When a lich glares at the sun, it dims.  When a lich feels frustration, a whole nation trembles in their sleep.

So that is the great frustration of liches: nothing brings them any enjoyment anymore.

And there is much to be frustrated about.  Although liches reach one of their goals (immortality) and many others besides, it brings them no joy.  The part of them that allowed them to enjoy those victories died along with their body.  Apples turn to ashes in their mouths.  They look at the face of their best friend and feel nothing except recognition.

Enjoyment and displeasure atrophy.  They cannot enjoy a meal or a symphony.  They pursue their goals, their happiness with all of the devotion of an addict, except without any of the succor when they achieve it.

Some liches are able to rekindle that flame of humanity: to return to life.  Liches that actually achieve this are called Lords Revenant, but they are beyond the scope of this post.

And so liches become devotees of themselves.  Combined with a frequent contempt for the gods (who have tried to stop them so many times and always failed), liches raise a skeletal middle finger at all of the pantheons and become worshipers of themselves.

Nearly every lich has a shrine to their old life somewhere.  Their worship may be literal, with prayers, mythology, and rituals that pay homage to key moments in their former lives.  This is also why they build phylacteries out of objects that they once held most dear.  Childhood toys, favorite books, a father's cap, etc.

Liches have a difficult time caring about anything, even their own destruction.  All liches die with a shrug and a sigh.


I've previously written about how people become ghouls. Like liches, ghouls gradually segue into undeath from life.  The process is a bit like dementia.  They lose themselves bit by bit--the soul decays before the body does.

But unlike liches, ghouls still have attachments.  They can still enjoy the world--and they do, with great succor.

When you encounter a ghoul in a dungeon, there is a 5% chance that they fed recently.  If so, they behave much like living people.  They tend to be sarcastic but good-natured, and they can be reasoned with, and they can often provide information about the dungeon.

Digression: ghouls eat flesh, but they do not digest.  The meat turns to dust in their stomach, which they then regurgitate.  You can identify ghoul haunts by the ashes that collect in the corners.  They do not starve, but if they do not eat for several days, they become bestial and half-mad with hunger, unable to do anything except seek flesh.  They especially prefer old corpses, as long as they are fleshy.  In extreme cases, they engage in auto-cannibalism, and gnaw their limbs down to the bone.  They do not starve--they just feel like it.

Ghouls are known for two things: their ravenous hunger, and their great senses of humor when they are not ravenously hungry.  They are especially known for their well-developed senses of irony.

The great playwright Moachim was a ghoul.  He wrote his plays, including the famous satire The Queen's Pig on the walls of the Blachenrood Mausoleum.  Moachim actually survived to see his play performed several times before he was destroyed (he couldn't resist eating the actresses who played the Queen).

Ghouls retain their old personalities, but they stop caring about things.  They remember their best friends from when they were alive--they just stop caring.

Apathy, hunger, and humor.  The unlife of a ghoul.

art by VegasMike

Thursday, June 25, 2015

More Bug Collector Ecosystems

This is a continuation of my ecosystems for the bug collector class.  You can't be a bug collector without bugs to collect, can you?  Detailed here are the Desert, City, and Tundra ecosystems.
by Bobertbra

Ecosystem: Desert

Desert Badge: +2 to save against blindness and or light effects.

  1. Ankheg Larva: Drums the ground when pinched.  90% chance of summoning an angry ankheg (HD 3) in 1d6 minutes.
  2. Clockwork Antibeetle: When thrown on a construct or golem, paralyzes it for 1 round
  3. Garrulous Locust: Above ground, will summon a swarm of locusts that grab you and fly away.  Usually drop you off at the nearest humanoid settlement, but there is a 1-in-6 chance that they instead drop you off somewhere perilous.
  4. Goro Beetle: If ingested, as flesh to stone, except that it lasts for 24 hours.  Also works as a stone to flesh spell if fed to a statue, after 24 hours.
  5. Horsefly Devil:  Might actually be a tiny devil.  If a ranged attack roll is successful (20' max), target is blinded and takes 1 damage each turn until it spends a round swatting the horsefly devil.  Only works on targets that rely on a single pair of eyes.
  6. Mummy Bug: Cures a magical disease (such as mummy rot) in exchange for 100 gold.
  7. Nubalidia Moth: As detect magic.
  8. Rust Monster Larva: As a rust monster's rust attack, once.
  9. Sacred Scarab: If a ranged attack roll is successful (20' max), bites the target for 1d4 damage immediately, and again on the next two subsequent rounds.  Also incredibly valuable to most mummies, who will bargain in order to possess it.
  10. Sacred Sand Lion: Throwable up to 20'  All creatures within 10' must save or be sucked into the sand, dust, or loose dirt that they are standing on.  Only sucks people down 3', so humans will be stuck up to their waist, while dogs will suffocate unless swiftly rescued.

Ecosystem: City

City Badge: You get +1 to hit with quarterstaffs and butterfly nets.
  1. Assassin's Earwig: If placed in a lock, has a 90% chance to unlock it, and a 10% to crush itself to death in there, jamming the lock.
  2. Business Bug: If eaten, sobers you up immediately if you are drunk. If you are suffering from a mind-affecting poison, grants a new save against that poison.
  3. Doodle Bug: If eaten, immediately causes the appearance of leprosy without any actual disability.  Lasts until alcohol is consumed.
  4. Ghost-eater Wasp: Does 1d12 damage to the nearest incorporeal undead within 20'.
  5. Jimmy Bug: Picks the pocket of a target within 20', and then returns the item back to you.  95% success rate.  Cannot carry things that weigh more than half a pound.
  6. Otyugh Larva: Squeals when pinched.  50% chance of summoning an angry otyugh in 1d6 minutes.
  7. Powder Bug: If eaten, gets you tremendously high.  Can be sold for 10g in most cities, if fresh.  Effects are euphoria, immunity to negative emotion effects, mild hallucinations, and 1d6 Wis damage.  
  8. Spy Fly: If eaten, you see all of the things that it witnessed in the last hour.  Most bug collectors will tie a string to it, or glue it to something they can leave laying around innocuously.
  9. Termite Queen: Destroys a shack (or wooden object shack-sized or smaller) in 1 day by devouring all of the wooden components.  Destroys a cottage in 1 week (50% chance of being noticed and stopped halfway through).  Destroys a mansion in 1 month (80% chance of being noticed and stopped halfway through).  Multiple bugs do not increase chance of success.
  10. Unlucky Moth: Circles your head.  The next time you would be hit by a small projectile (arrow, slingstone) the moth intercepts it and dies, sparing you the attack.

Ecosystem: Tundra

Tundra Badge: Your max HP is increased by 3.
  1. Cruel Angel Worm: When placed on someone's face, bites them for 1 damage whenever they knowingly tell a lie.
  2. Glacier-Tongue Weevil: As grease, except the produces a thin layer of ice instead of literal grease.
  3. Ice Needle Caterpillar.  All creatures in a 15' cone take 1d6 piercing damage (save for half) as the caterpillar is squeezed until it explodes in a shower of shards.
  4. Lunar Moth: As commune.
  5. Merciful Moth: If a person died from cold damage, or from freezing to death, this moth has a 50% chance of returning them to life.  They'll be a 1 HP and require a week's rest before they're capable of any exertion (such as walking).  This works even on very old frozen corpses.  If the 50% chance fails, it just creates rotten meat.
  6. Mother's Merry Worm: If placed on snow or ice, will attempt to make an pseudo-igloo and then hibernate inside it.  This takes 1 hour, and if the hibernating worm is removed, it is big enough for 6 people.
  7. Proxy Moth: Turns an equal amount of ice into ~1000 silver coins.  Lasts for 3 days before turning back into ice (or water, if the temperature is warm enough).
  8. Remorhaz Larva: Releases pungent pheromone when pinched.  20% chance to summon an angry remorhaz in 1d6 hours.
  9. Remorhaz Pupa: Melts all ice or snow in a 10' radius.  Does 2d6 damage (save for half) to all ice- or cold-based creatures in the same area (including creatures that are weak against fire).
  10. White Widow Spider: As the mend spell.  Loves to repair domestic tools.

Coming Soon (Coming Eventually): Ocean, Mountain, Jungle, Swamp

Tuesday, June 23, 2015


Photographs on this page by Charles Fréger
The yeti had an advanced culture before it was wiped out during the Time of Fire and Madness.  Now they exist mostly as a race of disinherited mountain bastards who sometimes have a miraculous magic item from before their fall.  They look like tall, skinny wookies with their faces hidden in their wooly hair.

All yeti can communicate telepathically with any other yeti within 100'.  They do this using their fur, which creates magnetic fields.  A freshly-shaven yeti cannot generate this field, and cannot communicate telepathically.  Among non-yeti, they are only capable of communicating in grunts, trills, hoots, and whistles, and only with difficulty.  With these unsubtle tools, they can only speak a reduced language, with a tiny vocabulary.  (This is why literal translations of yeti speech appear simple.  "Go now."  "Bad metal man.")

It's somewhat comparable to a dog trying to speak.  Even with a fully intelligent brain, they are very limited in how many distinct noises they can make.

Before the fall, they built cities atop mountains, and were famous for creating micro-climates within them.  They filled the mountain tops with forests of gossamer-leaved trees, each of which was an incubator for another micro-climate, which holds another herb.  Yeti were great herbalists (and some still are), especially specializing in entheogens and other psychotropic chemicals.

Yeti love the cold, and they love their shaggy hair, which smells spicy-sweet.  You will never find them in the warm parts of the world, except perhaps underground, where the caverns may be cold enough for ice to form.

Yeti shamans (the axle around which their entire culture revolved) were able to spend a great deal of time outside of their body.  Some of them live on still, as a race of maddeningly lucid ghosts.  The shamans also know a great deal about travel to other planes, perhaps more than anyone else in Centerra.  Most of the planes they visited were only accessible through the mind--the body must remain on the mountain top.

They were said to be allies with an alien race, with whom they sometimes traded bodies when one wished to visit the plane of the other.

But that was then.  Now, the yeti are a shattered race.  Their mountaintop homes are uninhabitable, and no longer hold breathable air.  After the Time of Fire and Madness, they became unsuccessful refugees; no other nation would offer them succor; most were killed on sight for the cruelties and experimentation that they had performed on the other races who wandered too close to their mountain home.

After the great yeti diaspora, you will find yeti living on most mountain ranges in the world in small clans.  They live in crude societies, eking out a living from the unyielding rock.  Many of these small clans have a few powerful magical items, relics from before their mountaintops crumbled.

A few other yeti exist in the cities, working as servants and mercenaries.  They mostly do their level best to stay drunk as often as possible, until they ascend into bestial old age and retreat into the mountains.

Old Age

Yetis are as intelligent as humans, and possibly must more intelligent.  However, intelligence is not one of their values.

Experiencing so many different psychic states, as they do, yetis appreciate the animal simplicity of a cruder brain.  As yetis get older, they get bigger, stronger, and dumber.  This is seen as a very good thing to happen, and many yetis look forward to the day when they are big and strong and stupid.

Lost Lykorum

When their mountaintop cities fell, the yeti were able to salvage a great deal of their resources--they were not immediately destitute.  Unable to risk warring with an established nation in their weakened state, many yeti decided to build a new homeland in the middle of the Sea of Fish.

They created the great mountain called Lykorum, which they raised out of the ocean.  This exhausted a great deal of their resources.  This was many years after they had been scattered, after the fires and infectious insanities had passed.

On Mount Lykorum, they had a second homeland.  Yetis from all corners of the world came to live there.

Four hundred years ago, the star known as the Devil's Throat exploded in the sky.  It was almost as bright as the sun.  In ancient Arkah, mages built a telescope-microscope, to isolate and focus the light from the death of the star.  The light from the Devil's Throat was used to start a small fire.

The fire was Calagnagun.

In the next part of the story, Calagnagun was a sentient forest fire, burning down cities and outmaneuvering all attempts to extinguish him.

In the last part of the story, Calagnagun was lured to Lykorum.  Once there, attempts to destroy him failed.  In order to isolate him, the mountain of Lykorum was sunk to the bottom of the ocean.  Calagnagun is a creature of alien fire, of a type not found on Centerra, and it was trapped by the mile of cold seawater above him.  It lurks still in the sunken ruins of lost Lykorum.

For the yeti, that was the last straw.  Without Lykorum, they entered a second era of homelessness, which brings us to their current era of yeti, where most know them as the crouching beasts that haunt the high passes, or--in colder climes--as the flea circus that passes out alone in the corner of the bar each night.

The Shining Land

Yeti books (always bound in a yeti's own hair, and with yeti leather as a cover) speak of a place that they call the Shining Land.  Most humans believe it to be somewhere in the afterlife, within the Kingdom of Heaven, where mortals may approach immortals and visit the souls of the dead.

The Shining Land is so beautiful that a single glimpse of it can be fatal (similar to the nymph ability).  Yeti adventurers who discovered that place and explored it did so blindfolded.  The Shining Land is not without its perils, but those brave yeti that mapped out hundreds of square miles did so on their hands and knees, groping along the ground, joined together by ropes.

Since the Shining Land is within the provinces of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Church has claimed ownership of all books describing how it is reached.  If you want to find the Shining Land, the road lies through the libraries of Coramont.

Many yeti desire a return to the Shining Land.  They believe that it holds relics of their olden days.

Yeti Magic

Wizard Spell
If the target fails a save, they permanently devolve.  They permanently lose 1d6 Intelligence points and lose the ability to speak, but they gain a new atavistic ability.  For example, humans turn into hair ape-hybrids, and gain the ability to climb extremely well (automatically climb all climbable surfaces that would normally require a roll).

Wizard Spell
You fall into a deep trance and travel backwards in time to a point in time that you designate.  You do not change location.  If you prepare trance as a level 1 spell, the maximum distance is 3 days prior.  Once there, you have 1d20 rounds to investigate the world before you are pulled back to the future.  You cannot end this duration prematurely.  If you go back to dangerous times, people and creatures may notice you and attack.  Any damage you take (including death) is real, and persists after the spell ends.  You do not actually travel in time, merely into a reproduction of a past time, but even this is enough to be fatal.

Other popular spells among yeti:
  • divination spells of all types
  • magic jar
  • invisibility
  • tenser's transformation
  • animate hair
  • trap the soul

Monday, June 22, 2015

4 Legs of the Table Mimic: Where Interesting Combat Comes From

Alright, there are 3 big ways to make a monster more interesting.

1. Interesting mechanics.
2, Interesting tactics (and strategies).
3. Interesting environment.

Did I leave anything out?  Oh yes.  Just the one.

4. Interesting player abilities.

I often thing that there's too much focus on interesting mechanics, often at the expense of the other three items.  For example, you don't need to have every monster be mechanically differentiated.  Your orcs and your elves might have identical stats, and vary only in weapon choice, tactics, and lore.  That's fine.  Your players probably won't know or care.

So, I guess that's my first piece of advice.  Don't over value mechanics as a tool for interesting combat.  If you crack open a monster manual, that seems to be the base instruction.  Every monster is mechanically different from every other one.  But most monster manuals don't spend much time describing the monster's tactics or their environments (something that really should be considered simultaneously).

My second piece of advice is that mechanics don't have to be beneficial to the creature.  They can be harmful, as in the example of the King of Sloths, which has a 1/6 chance of falling asleep after each turn (which is a good thing, otherwise the players would never have a chance) or a frenzied whip-tree that does 1d6 damage to itself each round of combat.  These options make combat unfold in a dynamic way, and present interesting options.  Yay.

Interesting tactics are frequently undervalued.  Not enough words have been written about them.

Tactics are all the things that monsters can do that aren't explicitly listed in their entry.  Pushing, tripping, disarming, grabbing, throwing, hostage-taking, cowardice, bravery, intelligence.  I guess the morale score is an example of explicit tactics, and one with a long history.  It's good for differentiating monsters, and diversifying combat.

Imagine a monster that is basically a HD 2 orc, except they flee as soon as one of their number is killed.  Or, maybe the run away at the first sight of a well-armed party.

Intelligence is another one.

HD 2 orcs that attack random targets are much less threatening than HD 2 orcs that focus their attacks on the most vulnerable PC.  Do they set ambushes?  Do they taunt the PCs, or threaten them?  ("Fight me one-on-one, paladin, or I'll order my archers to focus their arrows on your squire.")

Motivations, too.

HD 2 orcs that are motivated by gold will presumably act differently than HD 2 orc-simulcra that are merely beasts looking for meat, or for a way to protect their nest.

Anyway, those are more like broad strategies.  Consider the more specific class of combat tactics.  This is one that has a long history in old-school games.  Sure, the HD 4 ogre doesn't have any special abilities explicitly listed, but they're implicitly very likely to pick up a table and try to knock all the PCs over simultaneously.  Or reach up and pull down the roof.  Or grapple* you and attempt to twist off your arm like a chicken wing.

*Grappling an ogre is such a bad idea.  It's like a kid trying to wrestle an adult.  Even if you're one of the strong kids, the ogre is stronger.

Anyway, the take home message is that monsters aren't limited to the stuff on their character sheet.  Harpies might try to fly away with everyone's spear, and then return later after licking their wounds.  Lake drakes will capsize your canoe.

Interesting environments have the same advice as interesting mechanics: make sure to give players both beneficial and harmful environments.  Elevation.  Treacherous footing.  Thorns.  Underwater.  Poor visibility.  Ambush opportunities (let your players engineer their own encounter).  Light sources.

And lastly, remember that a great deal of the fun of a combat comes from the players.  If you are throwing 30 orcs at the party, you don't need fancy mechanics or environments--30 orcs against a party of level 2 adventurers isn't unwinnable, but the players are going to need to get creative.  Retreating until they find a defensible position.  Searching their inventory for that potion that they forgot that they had.  Combining their character abilities to make beautiful music together.

I know my last point seems paradoxical.  "You don't need to make combat interesting because your players will make it interesting for you."  But this point is only really useful if your players are forced to exploit limited resources, such as the environment, their daily abilities, and their limited-use items.

That's one thing I didn't like about Fourth Edition--combat usually followed the same pattern.  You use your Encounter powers first, then your At-Will powers.  If you thought you needed them, you'd bust out your Daily Powers.  The only decision point there was whether or not to use Daily Powers; everything else is semi-scripted.  And because 4e didn't like giving out expendable items (unlike Numenera), there often weren't many decisions to make on the inventory-side of things, either.  And so combat often unfolded in similar ways and along similar combos, like chess.  (Which is fine; I like chess.)

There are good reasons to dislike daily abilities (or the Vancian spellcasting system).   But it does create a lot of challenging decisions (should I use X, or save it for later?) which I personally enjoy as a player.  There's another dependency here, though: the game must be challenging/lethal enough that players are required to use their expendable resources, instead of hoarding them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015


So my laptop is broken.  This has prevented me from posting and releasing the nice PDF that I promised my Patreon backers this month.  I'm sad, too.

How a Scholar Explains Genies

Genies don't exist.  Their lamps exist, and from this lamp issues a magical smoke.  Or more precisely, from the lamp issues a magical field effect, which roughly corresponds to the area of the smoke.  Those who enter within the field are affected--they see the genie.

While a person is in that field, near the lamp, they see everything exactly as the genie intends.  This is their lesser magic, and even the least genies possess it.  For a modest genie, the radius is only a few dozen feet, but for more powerful genies, the effect can extend for many hundreds, even enveloping a palace.  Rumors of genies powerful enough to ensorcel an entire nation are unsubstantiated.

A genie might be accompanied by 3 squalid thieves and scabrous mongrel, but if seen through the lens of the genie's effect, they will appear as 3 princes and a stately hunting hound.  And when standing beside them, the whole world appears beautiful.  Many would sacrifice all that they had to live in a genie's illusory opulence.  What does it matter that it is false, if the sensation is exactly the same?

Or at least, if that is what the genie prefers.  (Most genies prefer the illusion of luxury and beauty.)  A genie that wishes that the world should appear intimidating or horrible will create a much different inflection of reality.

This is a powerful, but local enchantment.  (No saving throw.)

Genies grant wishes, but these manifestations are either entirely or mostly illusory.  A magic sword gifted by a genie kills sentient creatures as well as a regular sword (or better) because a creature that believes itself to be dead, is in fact, dead.

When a genie grants a wish, the illusion is more permanent and self-sustaining.  These granted wishes can pass out of a genie's zone of illusion.

If you wish for money, you will most likely be satisfied, since real money has only an illusory value in the first place.

If you wish for a lover, you will most likely also be satisfied, because the sensations of pleasure and stimulating conversation are indistinguishable from an illusion of the same.

If you wish for something that requires reconfiguring the cosmos, such as "I wish I were king of the world" or "I wish I were immortal", you are likely to find yourself as a mad man wandering the wastes, happily tending to your vassals (the bushes) or burning yourself in fires while swearing that the heat doesn't harm you.  This tremendous drawback doesn't stop fools for wishing for these things anyway.

If you wish for an anchor for your ship, all you will get is lost, or worse.  (Since you will believe yourself to safely at anchor when in fact you are still adrift.)

Don't listen to the wizards.  They know nothing.

How a Wizard Explains Genies

Genies are a slave race, created by the demons, whom they escaped a millenium ago.  They still bear the marks of their enslavement, and are bound by strict codes of behavior and obedience, especially relating to wishes.

This is because they are the embodiment of wishes, and of hope--the one thing that demons could never tame nor understand.

They gain a level every 100 years, and lose a level whenever they are forced to grant a wish.  The power of a genie to grant a wish is proportionate to their level.  A genie who has HD 10 will be able to grant much more impressive wishes than one who is HD 2.

All genies are bound to whoever carries their lamp, and nearly all genies desire to be free.  Most of them grant a single wish (but not more) to anyone who doesn't abuse them, or move them farther from their goal of freedom.

Genies are not illusory.  They merely are unseen by those who are too distant, or by those who scry on them.  It is a range-dependent invisibility, protection against those who would harm them.

And of course genies can create material goods as well as illusions.  The city of Masseret (west of Keshek) was built in a single day by genies.  Are we to believe that there is no city, and that all who visit it are actually wandering the desert and sleeping on sand dunes without falling ill or being eaten by ankhegs?

Genies are old and proud and moralistic.  Those who wish for selfish trivialities such as to be "king of the world" are laid low by their own inattention to the details of the wish, as well as a genie's own resistance to such a selfish wish.

Don't listen to the scholars.  They know nothing.

How a Philosopher Explains Genies

Well, of course a genie exists.  They have minds even when they are unobserved, and they had desires before then, which are consistent in all historical eras, even when there are gaps in their ownership.

This doesn't mean that the scholars are false, however.  The existence of genies is tied to their observance, but we must of course account for the unseen eyes of the Overworld.  Zulin, the god of the air, who created all creatures, observes all things.  And because all things are perceived by god, all things exist.

The moment that Zulin blinks his third eye, we all vanish.

How a Cleric Explains Genies

They are demons of falsehood and must all be destroyed.

How a Void Monk Explains Genies

This is a trivial debate.  Everything is an illusion.

How a Fighter Explains Genies

So a genie gave me this magic sword.  It's really good at killing people.  Damn impressive.  But once I cut a rope with it and took half of the rope with me, while I let my friend carry the other half of the rope.  Next time I saw him, he had the whole length, and I checked my bag and I had none.  Motherfucking piece of shit sword!  It can kill ghosts but it can't cut fucking rope.  I threw it in a lake.

I should probably go fish that piece of shit sword back out.

Oh yeah, it's also pretty rubbish against mindless zombies, too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

New Class: Spherical Wizard

Spherical Wizards are a race of wizarding sphere-people.

A bug collector and a muscular puncher gaze upon a powerful spherical wizard.
Illustration by +Grey Wiz, who is also illustrating the incredible Break!!
They were originally created in the Darklands, as weapons of war (because they can cast fireball but can't run away, and you can stack them into neat pyramids when they are not in use).  As in all cases when people try to enslave powerful wizarding-types, the spherical wizards eventually killed many of their masters and escaped.

You see them in all sorts of positions.  Some are still slaves that travel from battleground to battleground packed inside a crate filled with straw.  Some are masters of men, using charm and domination to enslave servants who push them around and carry their spellbook for them.  A few, a precious few, of them are adventurers.

They all enjoy downhill races, during which they can get quite competitive.  Some also frequent labyrinths, where they navigate through holes sized exactly for their body.

As a whole, they tend to be pretty idiosyncratic, with lots of visible personality quirks.  Very few of them have forgettable personalities.  They also change personalities along with their size--small spherical wizards tend to be meek and humble, while large spherical wizards are booming and triumphant.

from a British TV show called The Prisoner
Spherical wizards are a sub-type of wizard.  All of this stuff is just a template that you apply on top, when creating a normal wizard.  Well, "normal" wizard.

You're a Sphere
The implications of this are obvious.  You have no arms, legs, neck.  You can't wear armor or clothing unless it is specifically made for you.  You are perfectly spherical, and your bone structure is created by the fusion of skull and rib cage.  You do not poop; your eldritch biology teleports your waste products to the Cesspool Dimension.

However the most salient feature of this ability is that you cannot move under your own power (unless you use telekinesis or fly or something).  If you fall in water, you float face-up.  However, on floors that are perfectly flat (mirrors, metal. . . something better than standard dungeon bricks), you can roll yourself at a snail's pace by violently rolling your eyes.

Free Henchman
If you begin play as a spherical wizard, you start with a level 0 henchman, using all the normal henchman rules.  Your henchman can either be an Igor (pleasantly unscrupulous but lazy) or a Sisyphus (tireless but painfully moralistic).

Mystic Bounciness
Immune to fall damage, and will bounce back the way they came with 75% of the original inertia.  This bounciness doesn't extend to things that aren't hard surfaces, such as the floor of a pit covered with 1' of acid, or anything covered with spikes.

Trample Attack
If another creature pushes you, you can trample over smaller creatures, up to a distance equal to half the pusher's movement speed on your first turn, and a distance equal to the pusher's full movement speed on subsequent rounds (as you accelerate).  Your trample attack does 1d6 damage to all creatures your size or smaller within your path.  A successful Dex check negates (most monsters have Dex 10).  Prone creatures automatically fail their check.

Spherical wizards can cast touch spells through their trample attacks, potentially hitting multiple targets.  This is in addition to the normal effects of your trample attack.

Maximum HP increases by 1 for each spell level they have memorized.  And yes, memorizing spells heals them as it increases their maximum HP.  If they gain more than 20 HP in this way, they are too large to fit through doors, and their trample damage increases to 2d6.  If they gain more than 40 HP in this way, they are too large to fit through hallways, and their trample damage increases to 3d6.  This change is magical, and your clothing and gear changes size along with you.

A spherical wizard can compress things.  You can do this as a standard action.  Paper is wadded up, wine glasses are shattered, a sliced orange is restored to (near) wholeness, and snowballs are made instantly.  This ability does 1d6 damage to non-spherical creatures (save negates).  Creatures that are killed by this spell are compressed into monsterballs (they turn spherical, like you, and then petrify, like a giant marble).  You cannot compress dead creatures.  This is a magical ability with a 50' range.

Incomplete list of spherical creatures: beholders, ascomoids, will-o-the-wisp, xag-yas, xeg-yis, gorbels, varrdigs, bowlers, derghodaemon, certain galeb duhrs, blackballs, various modrons

Monsterballs can be rolled, just as you can be rolled.  They deal damage as you do, based on the size of the original monster (1d6 at medium size, 2d6 at large size, and 3d6 at huge size).  If you collide with a monsterball, you can send it in any direction you want except back the way you came from (think pool ball physics).  Monsterballs can be attacked and damaged; they have the same AC and HP as the original creature.  Whenever they deal damage, they take damage equal to half the damage dealt.  They shatter after a fall of any length (they are psuedo-glass).  They can be repaired by anything that can repair glass.

If the original monster had an special ability, that ability is transferred to the monsterball.  A ghoulball does paralysis on a hit.  A dragon ball ignites, and deals its full breath attack damage.

Spherical Wizard Spells

Level 1 Spherical Wizard Spell
For a number of rounds equal to your caster level, you can charge around under your own power, dealing trample attacks at your leisure.  You cannot cast spells during this time, nor use your compress ability.

Absorb Monsterball
Level 1 Spherical Wizard Spell
You touch a monsterball and absorb it into you.  You heal 1d4 HP for every HD the original monster had.  You also gain any special monsterball ability that the monsterball had as a prepared spell.  You can cast this as a touch spell or through your trample attack (as normal for a spherical wizard).  You can only cast this converted spell once (as normal for a spell).  The spell is lost when you sleep (as normal for a spell).

Seek the Moon
Level 2 Spherical Wizard Spell
You teleport to the moon (which you suspect is either another spherical wizard or the progenitor of your race).  This spell doesn't allow you breathe on the moon, nor return from the moon.

Level 3 Spherical Wizard Spell
As careen, except that every creature you kill with your trample ability sticks to you, making you a larger ball.  Each item that you roll over is also picked up, and added to your bulk.  You cannot pick up things larger than you.  Each time you increase your mass in this way, increase your trample damage by +1d6.

For example, you are medium sized and roll over 3 orcs: your trample damage increases to 2d6.  You could even space this out, so that 1 orc added = +1 damage, 2 orcs = +2, and 3 orcs = the full +1d6.  Increasing from large to huge size will require either 12 orcs beyond that, or 3 ogres.

who else remembers this game?

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Hungry Coffins

Up ahead, you see a quartet of tombstones, right in the middle of the road.  For about a foot around each tombstone, the dirt looks fresh.  The headstones have a skull at the top, and a decorative pair of small stone wings.

The tombstones begin to rise, and dirt rains off three stone coffins, now hovering in the air.  The tombstones crown the coffins, which were buried vertically (with any corpse inside in a standing position).

Then the flying coffins pop open, each disgorging a zombie.  Their interiors are lined with spikes, like an iron maiden.  The zombie attack, as zombies, do.  At their crown, the tombstone goes blank.

Then the flying coffins attack as well.  One of them flies above a PC, then drops, trying to pulp them into the ground like a giant's hammer.  The other two begin snapping their lids, trying to snatch up a PC into their interior.

One of them catches a PC, who is impaled inside the closing coffin.  Then the coffin plunges into the earth, which parts to accommodate the hungry coffin.  After the PC inside is dead, writing appears on the headstone, accurately reflecting the PC's name, birth and death dates, and their last words (in quotes).

Despite their appearance, hungry coffins are actually gargoyles suffering from a specific type of curse.  If remove curse is cast on them, they turn into normal gargoyles (HD 4) and are stunned for 1 round.

from Super Ghouls and Ghosts
the coffins actually do fly, briefly,
before dropping a zombie and vanishing
Hungry Coffin

HD 6 AC 14 Slam 2d6 or 2d8 Swallow 1d6 + swallow
Fly Int 5 Morale 12
* Immune to slashing, piercing, fire, and lightning.
* Buried coffins always contain a zombie (HD 2) which they can disgorge as a standard action.
* Slams deal 2d6 damage if the coffin is empty, or 2d8 damage if they contain a person (or zombie).
* Swallowed creatures are trapped inside the coffin.  They take 1d6 damage whenever they end a turn inside a coffin as the spikes twist in their flesh.  Swallowed creatures can break free by rolling under their (Strength - 10) or if someone on the outside pries it open (with the same Str check).  Each additional creature or prying instrument gives +4 to this check.
* Coffins that have swallowed a person will try to burrow into the ground as a standard action.  Buried coffins can be excavated after 1d12+1 standard actions have been taken to unearth it.  Shovels allow for excavation at twice the speed.  When buried, a coffin cannot be forced open (as dirt holds the coffin closed).  If you unearth a buried coffin, it is stunned for 1 round before taking to the air again.

If you want to know what a hungry coffin will do in a given round, flip a d2:

  1. Slam attack.
  2. Disgorge zombie / swallow attack / bury yourself.

Think carefully before you put multiple hungry coffins in a single encounter.  The fact that they can swallow you and then bury themselves is really nasty, and the possibility that two coffins might bury two PCs simultaneously means that even high level parties will have a hard time taking the requisite number of standard actions to dig up their friends.

If you want to spice things up, consider putting different types of party favors inside this pinata:

  1. ghoul
  2. swarm of bats
  3. ochre jelly
  4. 1d4 halfling zombies
  5. poison gas (3d6 damage, Con check for half)
  6. miniature hungry coffin (halfling sized) with HD 3 (reduce all damage by 1 die size)