Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Isles of the Dead: Twine Edition

Remember when I entered the One-Page Dungeon Contest with a dungeon that was meant to be run after a TPK?

A fellow named David Sky has made it into a Twine game.  You can play it 

It's pretty great except you don't get to tease Hans and as far as I can tell, there's no way to get stuck in hell as a crow.  The tower is fun.

Also this reminds me of a thing that Dunkey made once that was also doubleplusgood.  I meant to link to it at some point, but forgot.  Sorry, Dunkey(s).

(This is not a Patreon post, as I did 0% of the work.)

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Dustwind and the Zaris Malgunnun

I started writing Centerra setting info back in 2010.  One of the first things I wrote were these places: the Dustwind and the Zaris Malgannum.  You can tell its from an early source because 'Dustwind' is sort of a stupid name (see also: Underdark).  August 20th, 2010 to be precise.

'Zaris Malgannum' is pretty awesome though.  I love that name.

every name on this map has a writeup somewhere in my computer

The Dustwind

The Dustwind was formed when Eladras fell to Earth.

Eladras was the ancient elven homeland: an enormous tree.  It's roots were in the moon, and the furthest tips of its branches brushed the mountaintops of Centerra.

It survived the Time of Fire and Madness only to later succumb to its own, private apocalypse.

Many of its fragments persisted as free-falling orbital biomes.  The druids somehow salvaged a seed and used it to grow Aglabendis, the Tree of Beasts, destined to destroy all civilization.  Its dead roots form the halls of Rah Shem Bool, the greatest of the lunar cities.

When the pieces fell into the Dustwind, they shattered.  Long limbs crossed valleys, each chambered with elven homes and entomo-gardens.

Even with a disaster of that magnitude, many elves survived.  Their homes were shattered, filled with the unreachable corpses of their families.  Many were killed as more flaming debris fell from the sky over the next night.

But the elves had hope, and they had magic.  They coaxed life back into the dying branches.  They sent down fresh roots and grew new branches.  Lights gleamed from the windows of new-sprung gall-houses for a while.  Taproots uncovered water, deep under the Dustwind.

They would have survived if Zevernus hadn't found them.


Zevernus is the eponymous Dustwind.  He is a Wind, like many other spirits of the air.

Unlike them, he is not of this world.  He is a refugee from the Milk Star, one of nine stars the Church has identified as moral hazards.

Those who observe the Milk Star for too long become determined to travel there.  This desire becomes obsessive and self-destructive, and many of its victims die in the pursuit of this foolish mania.

Sometimes, however, the victims leap skyward on moonless nights, and fly away cackling.  They are never heard from again.

Star-fools who are restrained from flying to their star eventually go howling mad.  After several weeks of this, they eventually die, leaving behind an empty husk and a pool of poisonous 'milk', hence the name of the star.

But I digress.

Zevernus hails from that evil star.  He has never been persuaded, befriended, nor coerced into telling what he knows of that place.  He spends his days and nights arranging the sand into vast geometric patterns.  Whether art or alphabet, no one knows.

He has been described as a "sucking" wind, rather than the regular "blowing" winds that we are all familiar with.  He has strange powers of desiccation and fossilization.  When he discovered the new-sprung elven homes, he destroyed them utterly.

He usually doesn't deign to interact with small groups of travelers, unless they interfere with his work.

The Petrified Forests

These are the last remnants of the elven refugees.  Half-buried ridges of petrified trees.

Beneath most of them are the hollow sections of elven construction.  Some are chambers from the original Eladras, with all of their strange wonder and artifice.  Other rooms are newly constructed, filled with the hopeful collections of desperate elves, and their fossilized bones.

These places are haunted by enormous, translucent ants.  Some say that they are elves who transformed themselves to survive the Dustwind.  Whatever the case, the ants seem to be uncannily familiar with elven technology, and are not accosted by protective enchantments or the surviving elven ashakkas (wood golems).

The Highway

Before the Great Tree fell, and perhaps before the arrival of Zevernus, there existed a system of aquaducts.

Now they exist only as sort of highway across the desert.  In some places, you can walk atop them for miles.  In other places, only the posts remain to guide you across the trackless hills of that place.

Many of the pillars have names and constructed shelters, as the desert does have its share of pilgrims.  Some of the pillars hold shrines.

At least one stylite calls the desert home, and meditates atop one section.  Her name is Vangoda, and she is an excellent source of information about the Dustwind.

And lastly, those who camp on the elevated highway are safe from the Dustwind's most famous danger, the Grinding People.

The Grinding People

They are basically zombies.  They run across the desert in large groups.  Most of them don't have arms.  They are called the Grinding People because they constantly grind their teeth.  It is the only sound that they make.

If you are bitten by one, you will be compelled to seek them out and join them.  Your mind will rot away, your soul will leak away from your flesh, and eventually your arms will fall off.  (The transition to undeath is very gradual, like a ghoul's.)

Their constant presence makes drives most travelers to the Highway.

The anatomy of the grinding people is unusual.  They grow teeth in their stomachs.  If you cut them open, their stomachs will be full of polished teeth, gleaming like pearls.  And their shoulders never seal over into stumps, but instead remains as holes.

When the arms fall off, they all crawl towards the Zaris Malgannum.

Digression Time: Endosymbiosis Theory

Wikipedia does a better job explaining it, but this is basically the idea that the mitochondria in our cells were once their own species.  Here's the quick version.

A long time ago, there was a single-celled organism that ate another, smaller single-celled organism, which persisted inside the first one.  The smaller organism persisted inside the larger one, breeding true.  And what's more, it proved to be really good at oxidative respiration, which was great for the larger cell, because it could get more energy out of its food.

The smaller cell went on to become mitochondria, which are present in all animal cells as an organelle with a fucked-up origin story.  The larger cells went on to become us (among other things).

This is perhaps similar to human gut bacteria, which can perform digestive feats that we cannot.  After we eat food, they eat the same food, making digestion more efficient.  Everyone wins.

With eons, the mitochondria lost a lot of their functionality.  They were no longer complete cells, and could no longer reproduce on their own.  They were just an appendage of the larger cell, entirely dependent on it.  Parts of the mitochondria genome fell away and were incorporated in the human genome.  We took their DNA and made it our own, in order to keep our pets alive.

Current mitochondria are vastly reduced things, a shadow of what they once were.  Mitochondria are so devoted to cellular respiration, that they are incapable of anything else.

Anyway, this is true for human mitochondria as well as for human hands.

Human Hands

Once there was a species of animal.  It was a mammal.  It didn't have hands or anything resembling hands.  It had hooves to help it run, or perhaps hooks to help it climb in the trees.

And there was another animal.  What it looked like wasn't important.  All that's important is that it had hands, and that it was most certainly not a mammal.

At some point, the first animal ate the second animal.  And against all odds, the second animal persisted within the first.  Not bodily, but functionally, it persisted in the germline.

<digression> Skeletons have a similar-but-different arrangement based on the Covenant of Flesh, made between the Flesh God and the Skeleton God long ago. </digression>

In fact, if you were to bring a microscope to Centerra and dissect some early human embryos, you would see that the hands develop independently from the body.  Only in the ninth week do they fully attach and become integrated into its body.

The second animal, the one that first invented hands, did not extinct.  The descendants from that ancient race persist, and can be found in the Zaris Malgannum.

The Zaris Malgannum

It's built like a strip mine.  An inverted ziggurat, ovoid and imperfect.  You can see the white walls from across the Dustwind, where they sheared through the shale strata of fossilized seabed.

The bottom floor of the inverted ziggurat is a vast mirror.  No dust collects there.  Zevernus is careful not to litter its surface, and the smaller winds of the Dustwind follow his example.

There are many entrances into the Zaris Malgannum, which weaves itself around the inverted ziggurat like a negative space bird's nest.

This is where hands breed true, with no human parasitizing their biology.

The ambrago are the final surviving finger on this evolutionary limb.  They are the masters of the Zaris Malgannum.

If you were to look upon one, you would see a tall, broad man in a heavy cloak.  The head is a giant hand, or something very much like a hand.

The rest of the ambrago's biology is concealed beneath the cloak.  They walk like old men, because they are old.  They suffer from a particular type of ossifying carpiculosis that inflames their synovia, and they have a great deal of joints.

Underneath the cloak is something like a man with bifurcated limbs, giving it a total of four limbs and eight hands.  All the limbs end in hands.  Though they walk like men, they run like horses.

At the center of their body is something akin to a face.  A beak-like mouth, ringed with palps and tactile hairs.  Radiating canals of auditory sulci.  Two more manipulating organs, similar to hands, attend to the face.

Ambragos communicate through a series of whistles, created by blowing through their hands.  They copulate through clapping, and spawn through budding.  Their crawling babies are nearly identical to human hands.

There's more to them than just the hand-theme.  They entomb their dead inside colonies of carnivorous plants that resemble coral.  They obtained the obedience of Zevernus by getting him addicted to ambragian music, which they practice religiously.  They sleep underneath furniture that resembles a padded turtle shell.  They eat spiced vegetables, threaded on long strings.

They employ a sort of weaponized feng shui.  Certain rooms become poisonous if the furniture is removed.  Taking certain paths through their labyrinthine dungeon causes brain lesions.  The players will have to learn some of these as they go: e.g. going under two arches of the same color in a row causes paralysis.

and you can use puzzles like this

The players won't care about most of this.  They'll just see the magic staves topped with big hands and the hand-faces and start with the puns.  You've been warned.

The ambrago are more than a little bit disgusted by the hands that humans have growing at the ends of their wrists.  They'll sever any hands that they can, and awaken them back into their rightful sentience.  Awoken human hands don't "grow" into adult ambrago, but they are usually loyal to the ambrago. 

Are there giant hands that serve the ambrago?  Of course.

Is there a severed hand of a titan in there as well?  Only one: Ashrendar's right hand.  (The titan's were primordial fire gods.  Each one was linked to a volcano that shared their name, like a dryad with her tree.)

All hands are their domain. 

They are very reasonable, and they are not evil.  But still, they will not want you to leave with your stolen appendages.  Humans are abominations, chimeras of two species.

Some Hand Themed Spells

  • Bigby's Hand.
  • Applause.  Opponent repeats the last action for 1d6 turns.
  • Finger Wag.  Opponent is banned from repeating its last action for 1d12 turns.
  • Magic Slaps.  Very high damage to unarmored opponents, very minimal damage to armored opponents.
  • Handiwork.  Does 10 hours of unskilled labor instantly.
  • Control Limb.
  • Detach Limb.  You still can't see out of it.  At a higher level, the limb can fly. 

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Party Sheets

Player characters have a state composed of many variables.  Hit points remaining, inventory, saves, etc.  All of this is reflected in the character sheet.

A player-facing character sheet: it helps with feelings of ownership, allows players to make informed decisions quickly, and potentially teaches some of the game mechanics.

The Party Sheet

Like individual players, parties also have a state composed of many variables: reputation, shared inventory, ongoing plots, etc.

Unlike a character sheet, this information isn't always player facing.  Most DMs inform their players through play, or through updates at the beginning/end of each session.  But the information isn't at the players' fingertips, and this is probably a shame.

Shared resources should be available to the whole party to examine, and liting them on a party sheet does exactly that.  But there's another, less obvious, benefit here: lots of information that was previously in front of one player (or just the DM) is now on a sheet that the players can pass around between themselves.  This helps with transparancy and awareness, which in turn helps with agency.

So let me talk about all of the things that might belong on a party sheet.

Shared Inventory

So the party bought a pony to carry their 200 lbs of calimari rations.  This pony usually exists as a loose piece of paper, attached to a character sheet via paperclip.  This player might be the ponymaster, and do all the imaginary work of feeding the pony and all the actual work of being the pony's accountant.

If the pony's inventory is on the party sheet, the party can just pass it around and shuffle calimari rations as they see fit.  Efficient!

There's another, less obvious advantage here.  If everyone is looking at the pony's inventory, everyone is more aware of what the pony is carrying.  This doesn't necessarily happen if the ponymaster is the only person who is looking at the the pony's inventory.

Honestly, players should probably look at each other's character sheets a little bit more.  It's good for versimilitude ("I didn't know your character was fourteen years old!") as well as for tactical awareness ("Micah, *you* have a mirror!  Throw it to me!")


Make this shit transparent.

Markov, Level 1 fighter, chainmail tunic, spear, 3 javelins.  Loyalty 12.  Cheerful.  Distrusts women.  Loves games of chance.

Sure, maybe fill in the personality traits after Markov has been adventuring with you for a while, or don't fill them in at all.  That's certainly optional.  The point is to give players more information at their fingertips.

I encourage you to list the Loyalty (Morale) of your hirelings.  It makes sense in-game, since you would know which hirelings seem more respectful, and which hirelings seem more bitter.  People talk, after all.

It also makes sense at the table, since players can see the consequences of how they treat their hirelings.  Each time they treat a hireling like a disposable resource, or the hireling's life is endangered, they can see the Loyalty drop.  Each time they treat a hireling like a fellow party member, or grant them some boon, they can see the Loyalty rise.

Wisdom / Passive Perception

I use this sometimes to figure out how much description I should give a player when they are alone.  Low wisdom characters get more minimal descriptions of things.  High wisdom characters get non-obvious descriptions of people's emotions.  ("You can tell that the dwarven rock-rider captain is intensely proud from the way that they stands and speaks.  His words are meant for his men as much as for you.")

When the party is all together, I just tell everyone everything.  That lets them make better-informed decisions.

If you're playing 5th edition, this is also a good place to put down everyone's passive perceptions.

Noise / Perception

I've written before about my Noise/Perception system.  Basically, random encounters are rolled on a d20.  You have a 15% chance of getting a random encounter (a roll of 1-3) and a 15% chance of finding traces of the random monster without encountering it (a roll of 4-6).  These chances correspond to Noise 3 (chance of getting a random encounter) and Perception 3 (chance of finding traces of the random monster without encountering it).

Encumbrance and pack animals increase your Noise.

Rangers increase your Perception.

A party composed of six rangers would have Noise 3 and Perception 9.  They would get a random encounter on a roll of 1-3, and encounter traces of a random encounter on a roll of 4-12.


Reputations are held with factions or with significant individuals.  They represent the party's ability to successfully request special treatment or favors.

They start at 1 (by default) and improve by 2-4 points at a spurt until 10, when they improve by 1-2 points at a time.  I also include a single word describing the nature of the reputation.  For example:

The Goblins of Mount Daggermouth 11 (awe of magic prowess)

King Oswic 9 (for service performed)

So, if the party asks the goblins of Mount Daggermouth to spy on the dragon on their behalf, the goblins have a 55% chance of accepting (11-in-20).  If the PCs back it up with a credible display of magical power (e.g. lightning bolting a tree), I'd probably give them a +4 bonus on this roll.  If they try to flatter the goblins by praising the goblins' power, I wouldn't give the +4 bonus, since it doesn't mesh with the reputation.

If the party asks King Oswic if they can read his dead daughter's diary, they have a 45% chance of success

Don't make reputation rolls if there's already a better way to settle it.  Business negotiations over the cost of a service are usually pretty cut and dry.  For example, just because you are friends with your drug dealer, don't expect cheaper rates, since prices are usually set.  Favoritism manifests in other ways: availability, information, opportunities, access.

Similarly, you don't need to make a roll if the conclusion is obvious.  If the party can credibly threaten the goblins with major destruction ("we can flood your caves with lava") then you don't need a roll to convince the goblins to spy on the dragon for you.  Just don't expect them to be incredibly loyal.

Team Spirits

Team spirits are spirits that respond when party members call on them.

  • Anyone in the party can use a team spirit.  It takes a standard action to invoke one.
  • Most team spirits can only be used a fixed amount of times (usually just once).
  • They are comparable to spells, usually just a minor spell, but sometimes a very powerful one.
  • You find them like treasure.

Team spirits are obtained by helping the local spirits/angels/daemons.  Restoring a head to a decapitated idol, saying prayers over a long-abandoned grave, freeing a luminescent spirit from where it was imprisoned inside a lantern, et cetera.

Once the party has a team spirit, any party member can invoke them.

<digression> A long time ago, I tried to fix the cleric's problem of being the heal monkey (which felt very salient in Pathfinder at the time).  People would need healing, and the cleric would spend all of their turns delivering heals.  My solution was just to give the cleric a divine spirit that followed him around.  Anyone in the party could petition the spirit for a heal, thereby saving the cleric an action.  To put it another way, clerical healing cost the healee an action, rather than the healer.  </digression>

Update: Guardian Angel

Under certain situations, anyone in the party can use a cleric's spells by calling upon the cleric's deity.  This allows the fighter to use the cleric's spells to heal to thief.  See here.

Potential Drama

The party burns down the inn and leave town, never to return.

The party traps the wizard in his time cube, but are unable to kill him.  They leave this area of the map.

The party saves the life of a fairy princeling, who promises that he will repay this favor, someday, somehow.  Then he vanishes into a tulip.

In many games, these things are forgotten.  The party moves on, escaping their punishment or their reward.  And that's a loss, I think.

One of the greatest things about a tabletop RPG (compared to a computer RPG) is that consequences can be both logical and wide-ranging.

Sometimes the consequences become visible when the party returns to the area.  Or sometimes the compaign is constrained enough that the party is always adjacent to the results of their actions.  But these conditions aren't guaranteed.  Better to have the effects revisit the party, instead of relying on the party to revisit the effects.

Here's my simple system:

On the party sheet, list all the potential drama that may come back to bite the party in the ass someday (for better or worse):  Grateful fairy prince.  Scorned wizard.  Angry, sober villagers.

Each session, roll a d6 for each of the potential aftereffects.  If you roll a 1, the party's history catches up with them:

  • a battalion of cricket lancers shows up and pledges their services until the next blue moon
  • an acid cloud shaped like the wizard's face chases the party for 48 hours
  • or the elephant-riding bounty hunters show up.

If you rolled a 1 one all three of the potential dramas, then all three of them will resurface this session.  (Probably all at the same time.)

Will an ensorcelled acid cloud chase the party through the dungeon?  Absolutely.  The elephant riders are more likely to ambush the party outside the dungeon, which might be potentially disasterous if the cricket lancers didn't already warn the party.

I've attached a chart of possible wizardly reprisals at the bottom of this post, just to get the ball rolling.  Feel free to write more.  (I already have some good ideas for goblin reprisals.)


1d6 Wizardly Reprisals

Because let's be honest, your party has probably pissed off a few wizards already.

1. Harpies show up, attack with tridents and feces (causes blindness until washed with snow, or blessed by a cleric).

2. Giant pink cloud shows up, taunts party, shrinks them all to 2 inches high.  Lasts 24 hours.  Have fun fighting velvet worms, you poor bastards.

3. Giant purple cloud shows up, taunts party, shrinks all of their possessions 100x.  Lasts 24 hours.

4. Mushrooms start sprouting up around the party, releasing plumes of hallucinatory spores.  Each mushroom resembles the wizard.  At a minimum, the spores make navigation impossible (all directions are effectively randomized, because when you see four suns, how can you navigate?)  All encounters for the rest of the day have their appearance and speech randomized, to the best of your ability.

5. Powerful demon shows up, attacks the party to the best of its ability.  While it attacks, it complains about the wizard, describes the wizard's weaknesses, including how to deprive him of the services of this demon.  When defeated, the demon vanishes with an exasperated sigh.

6. Hired mercenaries, riding a titanosaur, forced into tractability through the use of a fragile obedience helmet.

7. Just a shit-ton of rust monsters, driven onward by a trio of cackling imps.  The rust monsters bleat like scared sheep, and they will very efficiently devour the party's metal.

8. A spirit that looks like a hummingbird with the wizard's head.  It will fly around you, tell people of your misdeeds, warn monsters that you are attempting to ambush, and generally just be a pest.  Incorporeal.