Sunday, November 26, 2023

The Wives of Barago

Another post about Lon Barago, but also a continuation of Forms of Government.


King Barago was the first king of Lon Barago.  After his death, his son ruled, and his son after that.

But with each generation, the wisdom of Barago faded, and his bloodline thinned.  Anabriss, the second wife of Barago, was wise in the ancient arts of the earth, and knew of a method by which the bloodline may be restored. She was the first Wife of Barago. The old widow orchestrated all that followed.

The current king of Lon Barago (the grandson) was led out into the woods. His tongue was cut out and he was fed leshy grapes, so that he would live out the rest of his days as a beast. From then on, he was given to the royal swineherd for keeping. (Although he would recover some of his faculties at the Isle of Pigs, much later.)

A princess of Asria was selected to become the next Wife of Barago. Her name was Immidia. The royal tombs were opened, and Immidia lay with the corpse of Barago. When she was discovered to be pregnant, it was declared that she would be the steward of the throne until her son was old enough to rule.

Other women were married to Barago in the same way. Some were of noble birth. Others were of common birth, elevated quickly and secretly by Anabriss. The new wives lay with the great patriarch in the same way, and concieve in the same way. There are many Wives now, and many Sons.

Thus was the bloodline restored.

Present Day

In the highest tower of the Aurubel, you will find the Wives of Barago. They meet in a green-carpeted room. There are nine of them. A new Wife is selected at intervals known only to the Wives. Sometimes a decade may elapse without any new Wife. Other times a two are selected in a single year. New Wives may be selected from the political elite. Or they may be selected from among the common folk.

The King of Lon Barago is always a Prince of Barago, selected by the Wives from among their children. (On a several occasions, a Princess of Barago was elevated in a similar way. In the most famous example, Princess Heliota was crowned King Heliota, and later took a wife from among the dukes of Hawkwind.)

The Kings of Lon Barago do not need to worry about producing worthy heirs, or educating them. That is all taken care of by the Wives. And at any given time, there are several Children of Barago in the green-carpeted tower, being educated and appraised by the Wives. Only the most exceptional are even given this honor.

So great is the power of the Wives, that they have even commanded the current king to step down, in order that a favored son may be installed.

The authority of the Wives is the authority of Barago. The women are all necromancers of no small talent. They have conjured Barago on at least three occasions in order to reinforce their decisions.

The offspring of Barago are pale, which befits their unnatural conception. During full moons they fall into deep slumbers, and cannot be awakened. They suffer from seizures and are predisposed to suck their thumbs when they are thinking. Those who are not selected to become king are often given positions in the king's cabinet. Several are sent to the White Temple or the (now destroyed) Red Temple. Most are infertile, but some have gone on to have children of their own.

The Wives are intensely private, and their inner workings are closely guarded. It is known that seniority and necromantic ability play a role in a woman's authority within the Green Tower. The Wives are not commonly seen except at holidays and festivals, where several of them occupy ceremonial roles.

One Princess of Barago is Barileah, who is an accomplished bard. She has published a small book of poetry called The Silver River Songs.

Fia, from Elden Ring


The commonly accepted opinion is that Wives are a cabal of necromancers who have established a way to perform post-organic conception, and that everything is as it seems. Their children certainly seem to share many features, which supports the possibility.

The alternate theory is that the Wives are deceiving the whole city. Women are indoctrinated into the Green Tower as needed. The wives spend an uneventful night sleeping in the tomb. Pregnant women are fed certain herbs to ensure that the child is born with pale skin. The necromantic events are falsified or exaggerated--certainly no great necromantic demonstrations have occurred in the last living generation. In this respect, they would be no different from any other oligarchy, being the center of power in a system that includes the Church, the nobility, and the even the king.

[sidebar] Necromancy is not considered immoral by the Church. What is immoral is the raising of the dead, since it requires unclean spirits to be invited into a corpse.[/sidebar]

If it is all true, however, there is one last agent who has not been well-considered thus far: the first king himself.  Is he well-represented by the Wives?  They were created to address a current political need.  Or is the old king frustrated by the Wives, his true wishes twisted by their machinations?

And of course, the Church already takes a dim view of necromancy under the best circumstances.  Their acceptance of royoal necrogeniture in Lon Barago was a necessary concession made to secure peace at the end of a war.  If the Church grows strong enough in Lon Barago, they may succeed in breaking the Green Tower entirely.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Cult of Flesh (and the Three Great Gifts)

The Third Age 

In the Beginning was the Authority, and his house was the Throne. In the First Age he created the stars, but their songs disappointed him. In the Second Age he created the Holy Mounds, but they also were found to be lacking.
In the Third Age, he created Man.  And Man was given eyes, so that he could see the Authority, whose light pierced through all things.  All other things were not visible. 
And Man was given a voice, so that he could praise the Authority, his sole purpose.  No other words were possible, or even conceivable.
And the Authority was pleased.

The Fourth Age

In the Fourth Age, the Three Great Gifts were given to the race of men.
The first gift was the Gift of Light, so that they could see all lesser things.  The Authority was always visible and bright, but now he created Light, which illuminated the lesser things–the mountains and valleys and the other First Men. 
He took from them their eyes--the eyes of the Third Age. In their place, they were given the Eyes of the Fourth Age.  And the First Men looked around and saw that the world was beautiful, and they gave new praise to the Authority.
The second gift was the Gift of the Word.  The Authority had always spoken to them, but now the words were given to them.  Their minds were open, and they could speak of lesser things, not just of the Authority’s grace and majesty. 
They spoke of new things, food and animals, and gave these things names.  And from these Words came new poetry and praise for the Authority, and He was pleased.
And the third gift was the Gift of New Life.  The First Men were unchanging and undying.  The world had become stagnant, and their praise unchanging.  They had been allowed to create sons, but there was no place for them in the world.  The sons would always be servants, never allowed to grow or to inherit.  And so the third gift was mortality.  The First Men would live long lives, but they would grow old and die eventually. They would pass from this world and into the next, where they would sit beside the Authority, and dwell in his House.
And as the First Men realized that they would someday die, they began to love the world more the world more. Sunsets became more beautiful because they were temporary. Loves became deeper because they were fleeting. Gone was the cynicism of a timeless world. And the First Men found that Life was more beautiful to their new mortal eyes, and they gave praise to the Authority for His wisdom.
Their sons would inherit, and eventually go on to rule.  They would have their chance to become their own masters.  They were no longer condemned to be eternally subordinate.  And women were created, to ease the process of creation.  And as the sons grew and inherited, they gave new praise to the Authority, as was deserved.
Thus with wisdom was justice met.

The Cult of Flesh

Eons passed.

In the city of Sennerva, there arose a great blasphemy.

The third “gift” was no gift of all.  The “Gift of New Life”?  It was Death, and to call it by any other name demonstrated nothing but slavish blindness.

It was Death, and it was Sickness and Decay and Old Age.  All of the things that had been “gifted” to the race of man in the fourth age.

And so the city of Sennerva went about the process of curing all of these things.  Sickness was cured.  Old age was seiged.  And in the end, even death was conquered.

Marmoth later spoke of the process.

The only surprising thing about Immortality, he said, was easily it was achieved.

It was as if some vast conspiracy worked tirelessly to keep it from us.

The natural state of man, he said, was not mortal and sickly and failing.  We were meant to be strong, tireless, and immortal.  

These were shackles that had been placed on us by an Authority that feared us.  (The vaults of Heaven had already been breached once.  The Authority was wise to fear what He had created.)

Marmoth had achieved his goals.  He was strong, tireless, and immortal.  And then the city of Sennirva began to sell these things, or to gift them to their allies.

And it was that the Fourth Emperor of Man led his armies to Sennirva.  The towers were toppled, and the city was cast into the earth.  Its cursed corpse now lies beneath the Ratskin Gap.  The people that could die were put to the sword.  The people that could not die were neutralized in other ways.

And in the passing of long years, the Fourth Emperor of Mankind did pass from life, believing the whole time that he had extinguished the cult beyond memory.  He was wrong of course.

There are many other parts to this story, but I do not have time to tell them.

I do not have time to tell you of the Mountain of Blood, nor the Mountain of Flesh.

I do not have time to tell you of the creation of the dopplegangers.

I do not have time to tell of how the god Elcor was killed and was reborn, or where the 16 women simultaneously gave birth to Elcoroth.

But the Cult of Flesh exists still, and the heart of it is Elcoroth, the Infinite Pillar of Flesh.


Those who are unfamiliar will often assume that the Cult worships Elcoroth, but this is not the case.  The cult gave flesh to a slain god–they were able to craft him as they wished.  And so it is that Elcoroth worships them.  Its ten thousand eyes gaze at the cultists with love, and its three thousand mouths gratefully licks up their spilled blood.

Elcoroth is stronger than you, a twisted spiral of blended flesh that arcs across the sky like a rainbow.  And Elcoroth is more intelligent.  It has many brains–perhaps all of the brains of those that it has ever devoured.  And Elcoroth is more loving than you, because it was born pure, from the blood of those who had mastered their craft long ago.

The love of Elcoroth extends to all of those who accept his teachings and who drink his blood.  They are bound to each other, then.  

It is not clear if the Cult has centralized leadership, or if Elcoroth is merely the common link between several separate cells.

It has also been said that one of the First Men was involved in the creation of Elcoroth, pining for his lost immortality, but it is hard to believe that.  Still, if true, such an individual would possess all the powers of mankind in the third age, and would be central in the innermost circles of the Cult.


Zala Vacha is a (very loose) collection of all of the evil organizations antithetical to the Church.

Within Zala Vacha, the Fleshcult is the most well-known, most respected, and (debatably) the most powerful.  This is all because they are the richest.

The cult sells healing and youth, and there are no better healers in the world.  

The Church may be better at healing diseases (as each disease is, in fact, a type of demon) since it lays closer to their specialty, but when it comes to healing injuries, disabilities, and missing limbs, the Fleshcult cannot be beat.

They also do cosmetic improvements.  They can cure old age.  According to them, immortality is only of a middling difficulty, among the various services they offer.

And for these services, they charge a fortune.

They cannot cure death, although they can shape newly dead flesh into something new.  (And in fact, they do this thing often.)  They can create beauty, as well as monstrosity.  Their power is in their blood.


For a long time, the Cult of Flesh and its Biomancers struggled mightily against the Church.  Like all of Zala Vacha, they searched for a way to overthrow the Church, and free mankind from its shackles.

But now, such a thought is widely considered impossible.  If a century of effort couldn’t do it, why would future attempts be any different.  Even Shadoom couldn’t achieve it, a man who was more powerful than most of the things we call gods.

And so most of the machinations of the Fleshcult are now bent towards diplomacy.  They need allies.  They need good public relations.  They need patrons and sponsors among the aristocracy.  They need a respected member of the Church to become their advocate.

This last desire is one that will probably never happen.

The Cult of Flesh is heretic.  Immortality is a sin–it mocks the Authority’s rightful judgment of the soul.  Seeking immortality is sinful.  So is tolerating immortality.

This new approach has already created tension within the Cult.  If the followers of Elcoroth achieve the legitimacy that they desire, what exactly will happen to Kormok, the God Butcher, and the Eater of Elephants?  They made themselves into weapons against the Authority.  They are utter monsters, no matter what bit of poetic drivel the Eater likes to whisper to his elephants before he swallows them whole.

The New Cult is opposed by those monsters, and monsters like Grandfather Oshregaal, who still seek the old goals.

But Elcoroth loves them all.


Regenerate Missing Body Part, Cosmetic Transformations, Eternal Youth, Immortality

These are all services that can be cast on allies of the Cult of Flesh.  Eternal Youth and Immortality are only available to full members, whoever, who have sworn the Vows and eaten the Blood.

Elcoroth’s Trick

R: 50’  T: creature  D: [sum] rounds

Pick a body part.  You control the target’s.  The target controls yours.  Targets take 1 round to figure out what has happened (or 2 rounds if they fail an Int check).

Elcoroth’s Harmony

R: touch  T: creature  D: special

A willing creature of the same species as you fuses into your body.  Your mass increases by ~10% of theirs.  You are now a combined creature.  Use the best of both ability scores and HP.  The combined creature cannot take more physical actions per turn (although you can take two mental actions per turn, since there are two minds in the brain).  You must act in harmony.  If there is a disagreement about what to do, one mind can assert dominance with an opposed Cha check.  If someone wants to exit the fused body, they can attempt it 1/day with an opposed Cha check.  If you attempt to add more than 2 creatures into a single fusion, the one with the lowest Charisma must make an Easy Charisma check or “dissolve” into the other personalities, essentially dying but with fragments of their memory and personality assimilated into the others.  The duration of this spell varies based on MD invested.  1 MD = 30 seconds.  2 MD = 10 minutes.  3 MD = 1 day.  4 MD = permanent.


R: 50’  T: creature  D: [s] ends

Target creature becomes a monstrous version of itself.  Its level increases to at least [dice] and its maximum HP to [sum], unless those numbers are already higher.  It gains a natural attack based on how many its level are spent.  1 MD = 1d6.  2 MD = 1d8.  3 MD = 1d10.  4 MD = 1d12.  It loses its previous biologic abilities (unless the DM wants to keep them), but gains new abilities based on this chart:

At least Lvl 2: 1 ability

At least Lvl 4: 2 abilities

At least Lvl 6: 3 abilities

Potential random abilities: regeneration 1, breath attack (random: fire/acid/lightning), flight, compressible body, second head (and a second natural attack).  However, if the creature already has an iconic ability, the first ability it gains should be a reflavored version of the same ability, per the DM’s discretion.  (For example, a dragon would lose its fire breath but gain fire blood, bursting out in a cone whenever it takes physical damage.)

The monster is only able to take violent actions, although it retains an animal-level version of its memories and objectives.  After 10 minutes, the creature must make an Int save.  If they fail, they lose themselves, forgetting their prior memories and becoming a true monster.  If they succeed, they retain their memories and objectives, although they remain at animal level intelligence and become an NPC (if they were PC prior).  If they caster succeeds on a Fleshcraft check while they cast this spell, they can make the Int Save Easy or Hard (their choice).

Give Life

R: touch  T: object  D: permanent

Target object comes to life, gaining both flesh and blood.  1 MD is enough for a teapot, 4 MD is enough for a wagon.  If you fail a Fleshcrafting check, things tend to gain bodyplans similar to either snakes or starfish.  For example, you might make an extremely detailed clay horse and then bring it to life, but it will still move like a starfish, eating and excreting from its basal mouth/anus.

Note that humanoid corpses brought back in this “failed starfish” fashion are called slithermen by the Cult.  Humanoid corpses successfully brought back as humans (essentially a whole new person with no memory) are known as triumphs.  They are appreciated within the cult, but many suffer from defects.



Lvl Def leather  “Tentacle” 1d4 + Grapple

Move slow  Str ogre  Int starfish  Dis hungry

Bite - Grappled opponents are automatically bitten each subsequent turn for 1d10 damage.

Stench - The first time each day that a slitherman is injured, it releases a stink cloud.  All within 30’ must make a Con save or take 2d6 nausea (non-lethal) damage.  (Instead of killing you, this damage makes you unable to take any actions besides vomiting.  Lasts until you exit the stench cloud and make a Con check, attemptable 1/round.)

Memories - Captured slithermen can be “interrogated” by subjecting them to things that may remind them of their previous life.  Phrases, objects, locations.  At this point, they may say things related to their past life–typically things that they would normally think but now say out loud: secrets and outrageous opinions.

Elder Doppleganger

Lvl Def leather  Natural Attacks 1d12 or special

Move fast Str ogre  Int human Dis varies

Doppleganger - All the basic powers of a doppleganger.

Monstrose - At the beginning of each of its turns, it selects two creatures it can see. It can make attacks identical to their attacks, including weapons and unused weapons (so if you have a bow in your backback, it can attack you with the same bonuses and damage as if you were attacking it with the bow). At the end of each of its turns, it selects two damage types (e.g. slashing, fire, etc) to be immune to for 1 turn. At the end of its turns, it also selects one ability from the following list: +4 defense, flight (as vulture), regeneration 1.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

THE UNDERCLOCK: Fixing the Random Encounter

For a long time, I had the same random encounter table rules as everyone else:

Every 3 rooms (or 30 minutes of exploration time), roll a d6.  If a 1 comes up, a random encounter happens.

After a couple of years, I even added

If a 2 comes up, the players get an Omen--a clue about an upcoming encounter.

In practice, this . . . never quite felt the way that I wanted it to.  And it's taken me a decade, but I think I know why.

by Peter Mullen

First, look at the math.

This works out to 1 random encounter every 18 rooms, and one omen every 18 rooms.

We probably got through 4-10 rooms per session, so random encounters don't pop up very often.  (I don't use a lot of empty spaces.  Most of my rooms have something to interact with.)

Some people roll a random encounter every room (including every long hallway).  This feels a lot better, but it also means that back-to-back encounters are not infrequent, and it feels too unpredictable.

Second, look at how omens are supposed to work.  You're supposed to find the omen, which (a) builds suspense and (b) lets the players prepare themselves, prior to the encounter itself.  Omens weren't happening with enough frequency.

Third, consider the stated goals of random encounters.  (Time pressure, versimilitude.)  Random encounters are not the best way to achieve either of those.  Often, when random encounters occurred, they felt disruptive.

Anyway, I am giving up on:

  • tracking torch durations
  • random encounter checks

I think I have something better.

Design Goals

Time Pressure

The four most vital currencies in a dungeon crawler are:

  • Time
  • Information
  • Hit Points
  • Expendables (potions and spells)

It doesn't feel like a dungeoncrawler to me unless all four of those things matter.

The reason why we track torch depletion and random encounters is because we want a source of time pressure.

I like games where time a critical resource.  Players can't read every book and tap every brick.  They need to be tactical in where they spend their attention.  

This is good!  It raises the skill level for dungeoncrawling and makes players scrutinize my dungeon for clues.  Do they have reason to think there's a hidden door in this room?  If so, they'll spend some time searching.  If not, I'll keep moving.

But I don't think random encounters are very good at this task.  Random encounters don't put much time pressure on players unless they're very frequent, and at higher frequencies (1/room or greater) they feel too uncontrolled to me.

Suspense vs Surprise 

Surprise is when the alien suddenly attacks.

Suspense is when you know the aliens are getting closer.  You are running out of time, and you are running out of ammo.  I think that most DMs want their players to feel suspense, more than surprise.

A truly random roll (a flat 1-in-6 chance) doesn't offer much suspense.  Surprise, but not suspense.

To increase suspense, you want the players to feel like they're running out of time.


I'd also argue that random encounters don't do much to make a dungeon feel like a living, breathing place.  Random encounters frequently feel out-of-place (especially when they're not well-localized to the story and the rooms around them).

Time Pressure

Random encounters are meant to be a tax on character time--don't dawdle in the dungeon or you'll lose HP--but they often feel like taxes on player time--don't dawdle in the dungeon or you'll be stuck in some pointless combat for 45 minutes, when everyone would have more fun with 45 minutes of exploring new rooms.

If the only goal was to put time pressure on the players, you could replace all random encounters with a cold wind that deals 1d6 damage to everyone (save for half) then moves on.  The players are still penalized for taking too long, and then everyone can get back to dungeoneering.

(These last two points are really just complaints about how the random encounters are written, rather than the mechanic that produces the events.  I'm including them only out of a sense of completion.)

by Peter Mullen

The Underworld

The Underworld is not just a basement or a cave.  The Underworld is a place that hates you.  It is hostile architecture.  It hates you in a way that only the blind tonnage of stone and cold air can have.  It hates your lively blood.  It hates the sunshine warmth still lingering on your skin.

Live there long enough, and the Underworld can learn to tolerate you.  You will grow pale and cold and strange, like the other inhabitants of that place.  The long years will render you smooth and inoffensive, like a pearl held in the mouth.  The Underworld's irritation fades and scabs over.

But this doesn’t apply to delvers.  They dig greedily and they dig fast.  They are hated the most, and this hatred is felt as soon as the Underworld is entered.

Explorers have a myriad of names for this feeling of supernatural dread.  The Claws of the Underworld.  The Black Rat Whisper.  The Fosydra.  But only one name suits our purposes here:

The Underclock

It starts at 20 when you walk into a dungeon.  When it reaches 0, an Encounter happens.

You will periodically roll a six-sided Underworld die and subtract it from the Underclock whenever the party expends time or noise.  Examples of actions that provoke an Underclock Roll:

  • Exploring a new room (including long hallways).
  • Moving through 3 already-explored rooms.
  • Lingering or searches.
  • Making noise (e.g. kicking down a door).

NOTE: the noise of combat doesn't normally contribute to the Underclock.

Some more facts about the Underclock:

  • The Underworld Die explodes.  If you get the maximum value (e.g. a 6 on a d6), immediately roll it again and subtract the result from the Underclock.
  • If the Underclock drops below 0, an Encounter is triggered.  After the Encounter resolves, the Underclock resets to 20.
  • If the Underworld Clock equals 0 exactly, it resets to 3.  The Underworld's attention is elsewhere, momentarily.
  • If the Underworld Clock equals 3 exactly, a Shadowing Event occurs.  So the clock reaches 0, it bounces up to 3 and a Shadowing Event occurs.  (These are just omens/spoor/clues, more or less.)


You can rest at any time.  You'll get all of your HP back after you do.  There are 3 prices.

1. The first cost is time.  You’ll have to roll some Underclock Rolls.

  • If you are resting in the middle of a well-traveled location, make 3 rolls.
  • If you are in a secret room that no one else knows about, you don’t need to make any rolls.
  • Everything in between is either 1 or 2 rolls (defaulting to 2 rolls if you aren’t sure).

These rolls explode normally.  If you are interrupted by an encounter, you’ll need to start over.

2. The second cost is a ration.  Cross it off your inventory.

3. The third cost is attention.   Each time you rest in the dungeon, increase the size of your Underclock Die.  d6 -> d8 -> d10 -> d12 -> d20.  Each time you spend a night sleeping on the surface, decrease the Underworld die by one size, down to a minimum of d6.

Everyone knows that you shouldn’t eat anything in the Underworld. 


The Underworld hoards its treasures.  It hates the idea of its gold returning to the surface.  Far better that the treasure remain in the possession of one of its inhabitants.  Someone who will carry the gold until it dies in another dark corner.  

Whenever you leave the dungeon, the dungeon degenerates.  Things may change, the dungeon may restock, but most critically, the treasure depletes.

Every time the players exit to the outside, the biggest treasure pile in the dungeon loses 20% of its value, stolen away by agents of the Underworld.  (Sometimes this is an elder dungeon spirit, sometimes this is just a goblin with a boot full of loose coinage.)

Integration with Other Systems

The Underclock replaces torch depletion and other random encounters. 

The party still needs 1 lit torch for every 3 adventurers.  Everyone gets -1 Initiative for every person not sufficiently illuminated.

The maximum Underclock value is reduced by 1 for every point of Encumbrance held by any member of the party.

The Underclock replaces regular durations of spells, etc.  30 minutes = 3 exploration turns = 10 points on the Underclock.


It takes an average of 5.9 Underclock Rolls to generate an encounter.  There is a 0.3% chance of the Underworld clock generating an encounter in a single roll (really a series of exploding d6s).

This is roughly comparable to the old "1-in-6 encounter chance every 10 mins".

Encounters are Shadowed approximately 33% of the time.  The other 67% of the time, they are not preceded by any Shadowing.

I do love that it is countdown, which makes the time pressure feel much more palpable at the table.  I would say "you've been in this dungeon for 3 hours now" and no one would care.  I would roll a random encounter check and players would glance over.  But people pay more attention to the Underclock.

"But Arnold, doesn't this allow players to game the system?  If the Underclock gets down below 6, won't they just hunker down somewhere safe until it goes below 0?" - You, probably.

Yes, of course the players will be more cautious when the clock is low, and slightly bolder when the clock is fresh.  That's kind of the point.  There's a texture to time that didn't exist before.  The players are supposed to be fully aware of it because it's a tangible-and-fluctuating measure of risk.  And the characters are supposed to be fully aware of it because they all develop heart murmurs when they draw the Underworld's attention.

If the players hunker down somewhere safe to let the clock expire, consider it an organic replacement for the Exhaustion mechanic that you see on overloaded encounter die mechanics.  (I like overloaded encounter dice.  I like the Underclock more.)

The integration with rests and HP is also something I like.  You can get all of your HP back easily, but at the cost of making the dungeon more dangerous.  There's an interesting decision here.  Should the players press, their luck?  Or break for lunch?

Similarly, there's another tension when deciding when to return to the surface.  The thought of a goblin walking off with 20% of their loot is very motivating.  The decision should be interesting and impactful (like most of the core decisions in an OSR game).  (Of course, if your game sessions are bounded by leaving the dungeon, this extra motivation is not needed.)

I'm also trying to simplify torches and encumbrance to the point where they are still important, but I want to move them out of the spotlight.  Players shouldn't spend much time or thought on them.  (I don't think I've ever had an interesting, impactful gameplay moment arise from torch depletion.)

Simple Mode

The Underclock counts down from 20 to 0, losing 1d6 every exploration turn.  An encounter happens at 0.

If you want to add some version of "the dungeon gets harder when you rest" or "treasure vanishes when you leave for the day" feel free implement your own version, or not.

Math Discussion

I wrote some Python to roll dice for me.  (Feedback welcome.  I've never shared any code before.)

Here are the numeric results.  

Here are the visualizations:

These are almost exactly the results I wanted when I started looking at candidate mechanics.  

Sunday, March 26, 2023

How to Handle Parley as an OSR DM

One of the most unforgiveable things that mainstream D&D has ever done was to make Diplomacy a skill.

Weapon skills and knowledge skills, sure.  We can't model sword fights around the kitchen table unless we bust out the boffers, but talking to monsters?  All you need are words.  

Talking is just about the only thing that we can model perfectly, where the player and the player character are actually doing the same thing at the same time.  And I'm especially interested in parley, which is when you encounter something that would normally be a combat encounter, but you end up talking to it instead.

It's also a very rewarding part of gameplay.  Brokering a hostage exchange.  Proving yourself to a band of orcs.  Lying to a dragon in order to sneak around his hoard.  It would be very anticlimactic to reduce Bilbo's interaction with Smaug to a couple of deception rolls, wouldn't it?

History of Reaction Rolls

Modern D&D doesn't usually bother with reaction rolls.  They leverage the social rolls (Persuasion, Intimidation, Deception, Insight) instead.  The modules that I've read are pretty scripted.  Either an encounter is a fight or it isn't, and if there's any ambiguity, it's settled with one of those 4 rolls.  Which is honestly fine, since 5e is more comfortable being a miniatures wargame than anything else.

But reaction rolls have a long history in D&D, dating back to the very first edition of D&D back in '74 (this is Original D&D, not 1st edition).  

Here's Holmes version from Basic D&D in '77.

from Holmes
Notice that this seems to be something that is rolled as a reaction to an offer made by the players ("make another offer") rather than something that is rolled as soon as the monsters catch sight of you.  Perhaps the default assumption was that intelligent monsters would usually talk first, then only attack if they had good reason to (or no reason not to).

So yes, the players would sometimes randomly encounter huge groups of orcs, but they wouldn't always be hostile.  There would frequently be a lot of talking first.

Modern D&D is sort of rediscovering all this old stuff.  But before we use it, it's good to understand why we want in our games in the first place?

Why Parley?

Most OSR games have reaction rolls.  Not every band of orcs is immediately hostile

1. It let's the players see more of the world.

The game is a lot more interesting when you're not trying to kill everything all the time.  As a DM, you're constantly creating interesting cultures, factions, and sidestories--all of which becomes pointless if the orcs attack as soon as they see the PCs.

2. It lets you throw more dangerous enemies at the players.  

A level 1 party might be able to handle a level 4 ogre who suddenly attacks BUT the same level 1 party might also be able to handle a level 8 giant who is easily tricked.

This is how a lot of older games were able to get away putting "10-100 bandits" on the map.  The party can lie to them, get them to go into a cave, and then collapse the cave.  Or the party could avoid combat all together.

You can throw anything in the Monster Manual against level 1 parties if you remove the "attacks the party immediately" assumption from it.  A bunch of level 1s can walk into a dragon's hoard, talk to it, and then leave when it threatens to eat them.  (If they want to keep fucking with the dragon--that's on them.  My point is that making an encounter less immediately hostile gives you a lot more flexibility in the types of threats you can throw at players.

3. It opens up a lot more tactical options. 

What's more interesting?  A game with exciting combat?  Or a game with exciting combat AND tense negotiations?

When you can defeat a dragon with clever words or powerful weapons, you now have more strategies that the players can employ.  Their toolbox is bigger, and so is the game.

So What's the Downside?

Good parley is hard.  It relies a lot of DM skill.  Honestly, I'm not that great at it myself.  Others do it better.

Parley (and high-stakes negotiation in general) has slowly been phased out of D&D because (1) it is hard to reduce it to a procedure (something with points and DCs) and (2) when a DM is bad at it, it makes the game feel arbitrary and unfair.

Modern D&D has worked hard to make the game feel less arbitrary.  You'll hear players complaining about "DM fiat"--this is what they're talking about.

At it's worst, it can sound like:

"A bunch of orcs showed up, said that they would help us kill a worm, and then ganked us from behind when the purple worm showed up."


"The dragon just demanded treasure, and when we didn't have any, it breathed fire on us."


"Nothing we said to the guards worked.  We tried bribing them, threatening them.  But they DM said that they were too disciplined for that.  So we wasted half an hour talking to them, then ending up fighting them anyway."

How to Handle Parley Well

Running reaction rolls is challenging for a new DM, but it is something that you get better with at practice.  And it's a skill worth honing, for all the reasons above.

First, parley isn't any different from other OSR concepts.

1. Dangers Need to be Telegraphed

If someone is a shifty scumbag will betray you--that needs to be telegraphed.  The greater an NPCs ability to fuck you over, the clearer their nature needs to be.  

This is partially why Elden Ring can get away with being so difficult.  There's a huge honking dragon in front of you and you know it's going to wreck your shit.  But the game doesn't make you fight the dragon--you could just walk away.  So when your screen goes red, it's because you read the Terms and Conditions and then hit Accept.

Your players might not care much if Suzy the Pickpocket steals 3 silver coins without warning, but they tend to care a lot if their loyal friend Honorable Dalgar suddenly stabs them in the back.  (This is why so many DM-orchestrated betrayals fall flat.)

2. Follow Good OSR Problem Design

Reposting from here:

  • No obvious solution.  (Rolling Persuasion/Intimidation/Deception is always obvious.)
  • Many possible solutions.
  • Solvable via common sense (as opposed to system mastery, or a high stat).
3. Monsters Need to be Understandable

There's a reason why old-school dungeons sometimes spend half a page explaining exactly how a trap functions.  It's because players pried up the floor tiles and jammed metal rods in the mechanism, and the DM needs to be able to adjudicate if that works or not.

Same thing applies to the monsters and NPCs that the players encounter.

If the goblins are greedy, the players need to know that.  If the Queen of Flowers always keeps her word, same thing.

These things help the players come up with strategies.  Their brains are the mechanisms, but if they don't understand them, the players don't know where to jam the metal bar.  I urge you to give your players a high-information game.  There's nothing stopping you from saying "you've heard many tales of how honorable the Queen of Flowers is" if you can't think of a better way to impart the info.  

I know it might seem tempting to have honorable characters suddenly betray the party, or to have characters with mysterious motivations.  Those things work fine in books and in scripted adventure paths--they don't work well in negotiations where players expect to have some agency.

And let me be clear: monsters don't have to have human psychology.  (In fact, I think it's more fun when they don't.)  They might want things that a human never would, and ignore things that a human never would.  They should be alien, but not incomprehensible.  

Do I Have to do Funny Voices?

No, you don't have to do funny voices.  Neither do your players.

Everyone needs to be clear about what they're communicating though.  

If your player says "I'm going to threaten the orc chieftain" then you need to prompt them with "what is your threat, exactly?"  These details are how the negotiation proceeds.

Similarly, you don't need to be good at Persuasion in real life to roleplay a character who is good at persuading.  You just need to be able to approach negotiations like any other puzzle.

from Dai Dark by Q Hayashida

The Basics

Everyone you run into in a dungeon is going to want something.  As as DM, you should have an idea of what this is when you start the roleplay.

Even with a neutral or positive reaction roll, the NPCs are still going to ask who you are and what you're doing there.  Likewise, the NPCs/monsters need to have an answer to those questions, too.

Beyond that, you should have an idea of what the NPC/monster wants.  This is what drives the conversation.  For a lot of normally-hostile NPCs, there's also a third question: why shouldn't we kill you?

Unless the enemies are fighting in defense of their families or homes, there's little motivation to fight to the death.  Even a random gang of orcs in a dungeon is more likely interested in looting than they are in risking their lives trying to kill the players, unless the players look weak, or if they have something the orcs want.

But also remember that monstrous denizens have monstrous desires.  They may only accept a promise rom the party if the party accepts a disease from them, or if the two groups exchange a slave.  (Nevermind that the PCs don't have a slave.)  These desires unreasonable, but they are still actionable.  Perhaps they would accept the donkey as a slave?  

The demands of the monsters should be challenging to meet.  This negotiation is a replacement for combat (sort of).  A challenging combat should be replaced with a challenging demand.  One shouldn't be easier than the other, because we don't want any easy decisions in an OSR-style challenge.  The drow are impressed by your wizard's magic and will let you pass, provided you seal the deal by exchanging slaves--or would the players rather kill these weirdos?

What Do Monsters/NPCs Want?

I recommend picking the thing from this list that makes the most sense, and then roll for another one randomly.

  1. Information (usually about the dungeon itself, such as maps)
  2. Treasure (gold!  but alternatively: magic items, weapons, or slaves)
  3. Food (we're hungry)
  4. You to leave (now)
  5. You to come (meet our leader)
  6. Violence (we can't kill this thing alone)
  7. Entertainment (a duel or a game of skill--we're bored and want to wager something)
  8. Help (with something in a dungeon: e.g. open this weird door for us)
  9. Honor (defeat me in a duel)
  10. Shame (lick our boots)

A surprising amount of players would rather fight to the death than have their imaginary elf lick a imaginary goblin's imaginary boots.

And of course, remember that people ask for more when they think they're negotiating from a position of strength.  If the orcs outnumber you 10 to 1, they're a lot more likely to demand your total surrender than when it's 2 to 1.

And remember to keep the pressure on the players.  If they take too long to speak up, the NPCs should become impatient.  Are you wasting our time?  Are you stalling while your reinforcements creep up on us?  (Also remember to roll for random encounters if the negotiation drags on too long.  A wandering monster is always a fun complication.)

Lastly, remember that the players can demand all of those things from the NPCs as well.  Draw us a map, orcs!  There's gold in it for you if you can.

Handling a Stalemate

What to do if neither side seems willing to budge?  Does it then turn immediately to combat?

  • Yes, "the orcs become impatient and attack" is always an option.  It shouldn't be your first resort, though, since this ends the negotiation.
  • You can give the players a small victory now and up the stakes later.  The orcs can retreat, after vowing that they'll come back and kill everyone.  (And indeed they might come back with reinforcements if the players linger here.)
  • The two parties can agree to leave each other alone.  Feel free to propose a hostage exchange at this point.  "If we ambush you, you can kill Grok.  If you ambush us, we'll kill your linkboy.  Meet us at the tree outside at sundown and we'll exchange back."
  • Alternatively, switch demands, with either higher or lower stakes.  "Naw, we were just kidding!  You should have seen the look on your face!  You can keep your torch boy.  But come on--don't just waste our time.  Let's play a game.  A friendly wager."

Information and Faction Mastery

Dungeon Mastery is when players spend a few sessions in a dungeon and learn how to use the traps to their advantages, how to use shortcuts to ambush enemies, where to hide safely so there's no random encounters, etc.  If you learn how to operate the portcullis, you can lure the giant snake over and pin it to the floor.  A well-designed dungeon allows players to "tame" it, at least partially.

Similarly, exposure and experience should allow a 
  • If you know their objectives, you can lie to them better.
  • If you know some of their names, you can leverage that for intimidation or deception.  ("We killed Gundarr.  He was a lot bigger than you.")
  • If you know who their boss is, that information can also be turned into intimidation or deception.  ("Big Chokka sent us.  We're supposed to guard the hidden door.  Can you show us where it is?")
  • If you took prisoners, they are now hostages that can be ransomed back.
  • If you know their costumes and disguises, you can impersonate them.
  • If you learn what they are afraid of, you can threaten them with it.
  • If you learn more about the dungeon, you can also craft better lies (or truths, if needed).  For example: "You saw the dead worm downstairs?  We were the ones who killed it."
Experience is my preferred way for the players to "get good" at negotiation.  It's a satisfying way to win an encounter without drawing your sword, and it rewards clever, attentive players.

When in Doubt

Roll dice.

There's no hard mechanics for this.  (And you shouldn't attempt to make one.  Negotiation is too complicated for dice and too easily modeled with real conversation.)

Your best friend is a d6.  I recommend stating the odds out loud to your players, then rolling the die in plain sight.

"The chieftain looks you up and down.  He's having a hard time imagining you beating Gundarr in a fair fight.  I'm going to roll a d6.  If it's a 1 or a 2, he believes you.  Before I do, is there anything you want to do to seem more convincing?"

This part is important.  You want player buy-in.  If the orcs attack you on the next round, it shouldn't feel like DM fiat.  It should feel like the results of a decision that the players made.

Perfectly Competent Foes are Boring

Consider sneaking onto the Travis Air Force Base in California.  If the guards catch you, they're going to arrest you--no need for a reaction roll.  There isn't much variation if the guards are trained, loyal, intelligent, equipped, confident, and at full strength.

So, when you run into the cultists guarding the lower levels, consider making them (d6):

1. Untrained and uncertain.  Maybe this is their first time encountering someone else down there.  Maybe they didn't think that anyone else would ever come down here.

2. Unmotivated or disloyal. Maybe they resent this situation.  They don't really want to be guards.  They might disagree with their leader, or they might not care about the larger objective.  They may offer safe passage in exchange for gold ("It's like I never saw you.")  They may be more interested in personal goals: an honorable duel instead of a fight to the death.

3. Stupid, or least making an error.  When they catch sight of the PCs, they look confused and ask "Are you Uxamog the Defiler?  You're one day early."  Deceiving the monsters is always a possibility, but some enemies make it extra-easy.  (You'll still need a plan for when they escort you to their leader, though.)

4. Unequipped.  Maybe this guy stepped away from the rest of the patrol on a bathroom break, or they left their swords somewhere else, not expected anyone here.

5. Unconfident.  Noticeably reluctant to fight.  Perhaps they're cowards, perhaps something has just happened that has shaken their faith.

6. Wounded or Weakened.  They could be dealing with another incident, perhaps even carrying a wounded person back to their barracks.  They could be drunk, or sick with something.  

This d6 table also functions as a list of excuses for "why these guys aren't attacking us right now".  

Adapting to 5e

You sorta can't.  

5e is more focused on character-building synergies and tactical combats.  That's where the fun is in 5th edition.  (5e is not a bad game.  It accomplishes most of what it sets out to do.)

But having said that, 5e has mostly stripped away the mechanics that make parley possible, and it's not well-supported by the published modules.

Having said that, here's my best ideas.

System Support
  • Add wandering monster checks
  • Add reaction rolls
  • Remove Persuasion, Intimidation, and Deception
The third option is pretty unpalatable to most players.  What if I want to be a high-charisma Bard who is good at lying to people?  You could conceivably take a hybrid approach, where you raise the DCs by a good amount (maybe 8 points) and give players a hefty bonus to the social rolls (+4 to +10) based on the strength of your argument.

The bard is still the one doing all the talking, but at least it's less about the numbers on your sheet and more about what is being said.

Also note that you don't need wandering monsters or reaction rolls to introduce parley gameplay.  Honestly, the easiest way to ease yourself (and your players) into this playstyle is to just create scripted encounters that support parley.  Example:
Grog the ogre guards the front gate.  He is bored and doesn't take his job seriously.  He doesn't think anyone is stupid enough to challenge his boss.  However, he will defend the place in earnest (including yelling for reinforcements) if he thinks there is an actual danger to the cult.
And then see how your party does at talking to the ogre.  Replace the ogre with something bigger if needed--you want the monster to be big enough that your players will hesitate jumping into a straight fight, and start thinking about more creative solutions.

Group Support
  • Player buy-in
If you're going to be changing your game away from the base 5e, you may be changing it away from the expectations of your group.  Talk to them about this potential change, get their input.

Caution them that parley gameplay isn't always more satisfying, and requires more effort from both the DM and the players.

Adventure Design
  • Get used to players "skipping" combats
  • Use factions
5e is built around keystone combat encounters.  Are you comfortable with your players bypassing them?

And parley gameplay is closely linked to faction play.  If most of the enemies in your dungeon aren't linked together, consider replacing the encounters with monsters that are linked (speak the same language, have the same goals, know each other).

Tasha's Cauldron of Everything

Don't use the parley rules in Tasha's.  They're terrible.  

The list was constructed without any thought for how it fits into the game.  Most of the items are trivially simple "the tale of a heroic figure" or an entire side adventure "the crown of a defeated tyrant".

Monsters should desire things that are (a) difficult/painful to grant, but at least immediately possible, and (b) linked to the current situation at hand.

As a list of potentially interesting encounters, though, it's not bad. Treants that want you to break your axes, sun-proofing a mausoleum for an undead, etc.