Friday, May 17, 2024

Random Ship Encounters on the Sea of Fish

So over 10 years ago I said I would write a follow-up to this blog post and I never did.  So this post is dedicated to DM_Lazenby who brazenly called me out on it last week.  

You're correct, Lazenby.  It's time to make good.

Since this is a follow-up to a 10-year-old post, I'm just going to speed-write it the way I used to.  No editing/rewriting!  Just stream of consciousness.

The Sea of Fish is probably the most well-traveled ocean in Centerra--part of the reason why it can get away with such a boring name.  Here are some things you can run into:

Roll d12:

1-5    Merchants

6        Other

7-12   Pirates

Here's how I'm currently doing reaction rolls.  Roll 2d6 and look at the table.

For Villainous foes (like pirates) roll 3d6 and keep the lowest 2d6.



Worst 2 of 4d6


Worst 2 of 3d6




Best 2 of 3d6































Merchants (d12)

On a Poor reaction, they'll gently attempt to scam you and rob you.  On a Horrible reaction roll, they'll be determined to rob you and/or kill you.

1. The Jingtown Flotilla. A bunch of floating weirdos who float around the ocean buying and selling stuff. Everyone is amazed that they haven’t fallen off the edge of the world yet. They sell a lot of fish-based clothing and food, including “ocean apples” which taste like nuts. No one is sure what they are. They never have any magic items. 50% chance of having someone who is interested in being hired. Accept payment in gold, spices, and impregnation (if they like the cut of your jib). 2. Balakurn, also called The King of the Sea. Some sort of ancient, colossal corpse that floats around in the ocean. Crewed by a motley population of parasites and giant insect-things. They’re disgusting to look upon, but friendly and honest. Their traditional greeting (and way to honor new friends) is by eating a piece of the other person. It’s fine if you don’t want to! They’ve heard that human fingers don’t grow back after being severed (and some of them even believe it). They sell goods made from Balakurn’s corpse, including some really good bone armor and bloodwine. They need wood, in order to refresh their forest of masts and tangle of rudders. Led by Turrak, a 8’ flea. A devout member of the Church. If you would like to attend church, or need to perform confession, they have a priest available (a giant hookworm) in a beautiful new chapel. If you hang out with them, they’ll tell you how there used to be a horrible death cult on the body of this dead titan, but they got tired of having their children sacrificed, and the horrible paladins that came to kill them every couple of years. The revolution against the cult was led by an insect-thing named Transhak, who was actually Turrak’s father. After Transhak’s martyrdom, the inhabitant of the titan decided to honor him by eating him. Giant Insect-Thing: Lvl 3, Def chain, Claw 1d8. As merchants, they’re especially interested in a thing called “music” (which they will love) and this thing called “spicy food” (which they will hate because it hurts too much–they will suspect you of poisoning them), and a thing called “cat” (which wild delight and frighten them). Bringing them these things will earn you plenty of supplies and some creepy ex-cult stuff. Creepy ex-cult items:
  • Claw of Arbitration (+1 dagger, +3 vs known liars, twitches uncontrollably when the player discusses violence)
  • Lance of Goxlagog (+1 spear, +3 vs liches, if you spear it into the ground, everyone in 20' must save or become anchored to the ground--you always fail your save)
  • Penitent's Journal (sentient, you can talk to it by writing in it, it can eavesdrop for you, create fake entries)
  • Lazarus Oil (pour it on a corpse, set the corpse on fire, and it will stand up and talk to you as if it were alive and you were its friends, it will believe that it is save at home, if they realize that they're dead they will attack you, good for interrogation but you have to be subtle, lasts 3 mins or until the fire goes out)
3. Tilly Scoresby of the Popinjay. A ship full of halflings. Sells magical food. Tiller herself is also a fortune teller for hire, but what she really dispenses is advice. Pay her 10s, tell her your problems, and she’ll tell you what she thinks you should do–after consulting the cards of course. It’s a great deal–her advice is often invaluable. Rudeness is unforgivable, though, so watch your language. Tilly wears a fun blue dress over a breastplate, and her fur floral hat hides a metal helmet. 4. Captain Mormont of the Blistering Poltroon. Pirates who narrowly escaped a horrifying battle. They need men–their ship is woefully understaffed, with only 8 pirates on it besides the newly-minted captain. They also need a new mast–theirs is broken (and your ship probably has a spare mast, right?) Will trade good money and weapons for it. (You could probably also kill them and capture their ship. They’re aware of this, but their ship is too fucked up to flee, so they have little choice.) Unsavory, nervous men trying desperately to appear friendly. Captain Mormont has a new limp and just lost his hand yesterday. 5. Captain Bildred of the Hearthstone. Bildred tyrannizes her husband (Orag) and crew, all of whom are related to her. (She’s the mother of half a dozen crewmembers already.) They sell high-quality weapons and food at high prices. Among her and the crew, arguments erupt every few minutes–the family settles everything by shouting. Captain Bildred distrusts people until they are demonstrably “decent family folk” like her. Has a treasure map to sell you–she can’t risk her family on stuff like this, but you’re free to chase it down once you pay her for it. 6. Macklemee and the Bird’s Blessing. Captain Macklemee is a short, fast-talking woman who has 1d6 parakeets on her at any time and another 1d4 in her pockets. Her ship is infested with birds of all sorts, as she is sworn to the Simurgh. Trades in healing. Has 1d3 random potions for sale. But in all transactions, you must accept a bird as part of the trade. Whenever anyone steps up to talk to Macklemee, roll a d6. On a 1-2, the birds don’t like you, and Macklemee will ask to talk to someone else. Captain Macklemee has a missing tooth and does fingerguns. 7. Isaac Bogglewood and the Brightest Jewel. A broadshouldered man with chiseled good looks. Wants to sell ship supplies (including his spare wood, masts, rope), some costumes (good for disguises) and his spare weapons. Will offer to trade ships. He has a good ship, probably better than yours, but he will come up with a reason why. (His ship is too big and slow–he wants a faster one, his ship is too small and he wants more cargo space for trading, etc.) In truth, he stole this ship, and your next encounter will be with the First Labragos of the Whitestone Labyrinth, pursuing the Brightest Jewel in a stone ship that has no sails. The Brightest Jewel is stolen, of course, and belongs to the Labyrinth. 8. Saint Pombo and the Reliquary. 35 priests and nuns who guard the corpse of Saint Pombo. The corpse is kept in a glass case and is incorruptible–it does not rot, except for one hand which is now completely skeletal. The crew interprets the will of Saint Pombo by rolling his knucklebones. The Reliquary sells healing, curse removal, divination, and a variety of blessings: good weather for 1d6 days, lose all of your gambling bets for 1d6 days, make a new friend at the next port. First Mate is Brother Ambrith, who wears yellow-tinted spectacles, looks everyone up-and-down whenever he meets them, and eats paper to calm down.

Other (d4)

1. Castaway. Iqbarra, a Marinel castaway in a rowboat with a handmade sail. (Marinels have monkey tails and are afraid to walk on land.) Escaped from the Whitestone Labyrinth with her memories stored in a sapphire-eyed doll head. (The Whitestone Labyrinth claims that it can answer any question, but at the cost of 1 year of service. During this year, the Labyrinth holds on to your memories to guarantee the deal.) Iqbarra is looking for someone who can restore her mind to her. During her time working for the Labyrinth, even demons seemed to show her deference, so she became convinced that she is actually someone special--a princess or perhaps a demon herself. Once her memory is restored, she will be heartbroken to discover that she was just a stupid village girl who wanted to know where she would meet her perfect husband (and was told to be at a time and place that has already passed). There’s nothing special about her, and all of her confidence will vanish. She’ll want to have her memories removed again, and if left alone, will eventually drift into alcoholism and despair. 2. Abandoned ship, the Yellow Flag. In the hold is a black pudding. Nothing of value. 3. Giant turtle island, half a mile long. Has some palm trees and sand on it, but is otherwise abandoned. The giant turtle is curious and could be tamed with enough effort, but if you coax it from its regular feeding grounds it may starve. 4. Lykoran Hydrofoil. Stationary, looks like a silver, disc-like UFO. At speed, it lifts out of the water on hydrofoils, leaving two huge arcs of water behind it like pheasant tails. On board is an incredibly old man (Uzzik) and his granddaughter (Ayla) are searching for the Lykorans*. A dying Lykoran gave them this boat and charged them with returning it to his people. Since Lost Lykorum was raised into the sky centuries ago, Ayla believes that this is an impossible quest, and that the dying Lykoran merely gave them this mission so that Uzzik would go see the world. Uzzik, who still mourns the death of his shaggy friend, believes that the Lykoran would never send them on a wild goose chase. They need food and water, and have little to trade. In exchange, they can carry messages and cargo with extreme alacrity. They are both aware that the ship is a prize that is worth far more than their lives, but they believe that they can simply speed away from any danger.

Pirates (d12)

1. Iceberg Ship of the Frost Giants. Frost Giants bring their own weather when they travel, so they’re always preceded by snow. Led by Lorgran Skybrow, who hurls frozen lightning bolts. (In the coldest parts of the world, lightning freezes when it hits the earth. The frost giants know how to collect them safely.) Accompanied by 6 other giants and a female bard name Surlixia (who is Tambru’s consort/employee/hostage). 2. 1d4+1 Charcorran Serpent-Riders. Riders are lvl 3 fighters. Sea serpents are Lvl 5, chain, Bite 1d6+3. Capable of speed only in short bursts. Want gold, women, and cute pets–these are all intended to be gifts for their wives. 3. Merfolk Semi-Sub. From a great distance, it resembles a regular ship. It may even pursue you like a regular ship. But their usual strategy is to get in front of you, and then do a barrel roll. With most of the ship underwater, it becomes difficult to see and difficult to attack. 4. Merfolk Spire. Wooden structures that mostly sit underwater. When a target approaches, the ballast is loosed and the spire emerges from the water, creating an artillery platform for their fire-throwers, poison-breathers, and flying mantas. 5. Ghost Pirates. Captain Abrigo of The Stained Angel. Only ever appears at night. Sails alongside your ship, singing a song. Every hour, someone is possessed by Abrigo and jumps ashore (or attacks people, if restrained). Only way to escape is to outrun them (difficult without supernatural aid) or climb on board and kill the singer. Ghost pirates look like balls of St. Elmo’s fire, but you can see their outlines when the moonlight hits them square. Difficulties include possession, doors that slam shut on your party, animated ropes that keelhaul you, animated swords. There are skeleton pirates too but they just sit on the floor and watch you. The singing is coming from a woman with coins for eyes and coins sewn into her skin. If you kill her the song ends. If you take any treasure you can’t leave the ghost ship (your old ship and friends now feel incorporeal to you).

Leviathan by Jason Stieva
6. Captain Icellus of the Heart of Gold. 22 pirates and 2 ogres. Harpooners and whalers, all. If you fight them, there is a 50% chance that halfway through the fight, the Heart of Gold is attacked by Bartleby (a huge whale and Icellus’ nemesis). Captain Icellus has a glass eye and a beer gut. 7. Captain Rygar of the Merchant’s Purpose. 34 pirates and 1 dire hawk upon which a trained monkey rides (trained to fuck up your sails). Lures you in by lowering his sails, adjusting his ship’s angle of list (making it lean to the side), and acting like his ship is slowly sinking. 50% of the pirates are infected with mock pox. Captain Rygar is covered in scars and piercings. 8. Captain Mischa of the Fox’s Fang. 40 pirates, 6 wardogs, and 1 grave-bear spirit. Because of a convoluted prophecy, Mischa needs to marry pirate-king Sunjack, which is impossible without a large dowry (which is nearly the only thing that Sunjack cares about). She is assisted in this by a grave-bear spirit named Moktar, who mostly just sits behind her, influencing her actions. She wishes she could be rid of Moktar, but she isn’t sure how to kill the damn thing. Also she’s pretty sure that it’s her grandfather or something. She’s tall and wears a tasseled cap, and is magically good at firing her bow. 9. Captain Oolabel of the Falling Sky. 27 pirates, 2 dragoons, and 1 sky-cleric. The dragoons can jump a quarter-mile in a single hop, but they usually don’t use this ability to attack (too risky to attack a whole ship with just the two of you, plus they can’t swim in their armor). The sky cleric is Abradam, who is in love with Oolabel but hates the two dragoons. Captain Oolabel has cartoonish boobs and a belt made of bells. They claim to be gathering money to build a paradise akin to the Sunjack Vista (a floating, mobile pirate haven). 10. Boggerpaw and the Imperial Prison Hulk. A former prison ship. Anyone who lives there long enough is poisoned so that they can never leave the ship without falling ill and dying. After killing their jailors, the prisoners turned it into a three-story-tall trireme. They sail around, kidnapping people to refill their ranks, and making their boat bigger by adding more boats. Because they can’t leave the ship, the lieutenants enjoy a few luxuries: a bowling alley, a brothel, and brewery. 127 pirates, 4 dire rats (semi-tame, Boggerpaw’s pets). They’re all fucking mad. 11. Ollerganzu the Zoravel (a.k.a. zaddhu, a living ship made from a living tree–it has leaves instead of sails). Has 34 loyal sailors and 1 (half) elf treesinger. The wood elf is Naftiesh; she speaks for Ollerganzu. Without her there, Ollerganzu can only communicate by shedding a leaf when he is sad, or creaking ominously when he is angry. Despite being a tree, Ollerganzu is entirely motivated by greed and drugs. 12. Captain Laribo of the Lucky Smell. Captain Laribo is a marinel, a monkey-tailed subhuman from Worthless Zyro. Claims to need ransom money in order to save his king from the merfolk (who are asking for 1000 head of cattle in order to feed Dagon’s wives). The captain himself is friendly and playful and will try to rob you in the gentlest way possible, even insisting that he is not “robbing” you as much as he is “selling” you some things. After a bloody fight where they take everything valuable you own, they’ll leave behind the things you “bought”, some delicious homecooked food, a fancy lute, and a puppy. You can see some of these places on the map.

*Lost Lykorum

A hyper-advanced island nation that once reigned over the Sea of Fish. For their hubris, a prophecy was made that they would all die from want of air, and their island would be removed from beyond men's grasp. After a series of earthquakes, the Lykorans prepared for their island to sink into ocean, and developed many new technologies. The all died when their island was lifted many miles into the air atop a new mountain chain.

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Deconstructing Random Encounters (+ Spirits of the Underworld)

If you're not interested in theorycrafting you can skip to the Spirits of the Underworld section, which is hopefully immediately useful to your game.

This time I'm not looking at how we determine when random encounters happen (Underclock), I'm looking at what sort of things we can encounter.

I call it deconstruction but really I'm just going to look at the assumptions/tradition for random encounters, then talk about the gap between what we want them to do and what they actually do.

Types of Random Encounters

Traditionally, random encounters are limited to 2.5 types.  (1) Monsters that attack you, (2) NPCs that you talk to, and (3) Environmental effects like gusts or rattling chains.  (If you use reaction rolls, (1) and (2) can blend together.)

The Purpose of Random Encounters

#1 - To create time pressure.  Random encounters need to be threatening so that players feel some urgency in the dungeon.  Without time pressure, they'll just use pickaxes to mine through all the walls.

#2 - To make the dungeon feel alive.  When a room is exactly the same each time the players visit it, it makes the dungeon feel dead or static, like a video game.

#3 - To provide some randomization.  It can push the game in a new, unexpected direction.  Randomly generated encounters can sometimes be better than published content because generating content live forces the DM to integrate the encounter in the pre-existing world.

There are downsides to random encounters, too.  Improperly deployed, the can feel disconnected from the site and the setting.  They can feel like wastes of time, or they can strain belief.  

Time Pressure

A lot of Neo Trad games seem to do away with time pressure altogether (no tracking torches, food, ammunition, random encounters) except for spell depletion.  But this is expected--the focus is on the encounter and the story, not the dungeon.  But we're going to focus on OSR dungeoncrawling, where time pressure is very prominent.

We can actually do all sorts of things to create time pressure.

A lot of the overloaded encounter dice I've seen have some version where they mix different pressures together: torch depletion, spell depletion, food depletion, etc.  Other systems have torches, etc deplete at a fixed rate, but the overloaded encounter die shows that you can have other time-based depletion moved to a die roll.  (You can have a meaningful dungeon crawl if strict time records are not kept.)

The Underclock is also designed around putting visible time pressure on the players.

You can also leverage the real-world time to create time pressure.  Some games have the requirement that the party must finish the session outside of the dungeon.  Shadowdark torches only last 1 real-world hour.

If you think about it, the average dungeon crawl usually has at least 3 types of time pressure going on simultaneously.  I guess the lesson here is that it takes lots of small time pressures to motivate the players sufficiently, but I wonder if you couldn't achieve the same effect by having a single, major form of pressure.

Other ideas for time pressure:

1. This dungeon only has a single monster that hunts you (e.g. Alien: Isolation).  Instead of random encounters, the monster shows up.  The party will have to hide.  Hiding spots cannot be re-used.

2. One enemy that increases it's attacks.  The kobolds periodically launch attacks at you.  Each time, 1d6+X kobolds show up, where X is the number of hours that you've been in the dungeon.  After 2 hours, their ranks include kobold shamans.  After 4 hours, they bring cockatrices.  After 6 hours, they bring a (nearly uncontrollable) umber hulk.

3. Sanity or stress.  Anything that grinds down on players.  It doesn't even need to do much--just seeing a number drop on your character sheet can be discouraging.  Maybe you enter the dungeon with 100 Sanity and lose 1d6 Sanity after every random encounter, with bad things happening at 60, 30, and 0 Sanity.

4. Equipment degradation.  Every time a random encounter is rolled, each metal item the PCs carry has as 1-in-6 chance of rusting away to nothing. 

5. Goal depletion.  The cultists sacrifice the villagers.  The dragon eats more hostages.  The rival adventuring party steals some of the loot.

6. Rising Water.  When the party opens the door to the dungeon, water starts flowing in.  Every encounter check, the water gets 1 foot higher.  The ceilings are only 8 feet high, and encounters get more difficult the higher the water is.

7. Spirits of the Underworld (see below).

Stat depletion, lose spellcasting, mutations.  I could go on.  Remember: attack every part of the character sheet.

Reinforcing Versimilitude/Realism

We want the dungeon to feel like a living, breathing place.  We don't want rooms that are just "5 orcs standing around waiting for the players to show up".

Random encounters traditionally help with this, especially when you eschew generic wandering encounters "2d6 kobolds" for bespoke ones "2d6 kobolds from room 15 hunting the quark from room 29".  However, we can probably come up with some alternate ideas.

1. Temporal Cycles.  You've seen these before.  

The guards patrol this gallery every day at 4pm.  

The mushroom people forage by the river at night.  

But you could branch out a bit more.  

Every day from 11am to 1pm, the sun hits the solarstone in the center of the dungeon, illuminating all of the crystal-walled rooms.  No shadow-worm encounters will occur during that span.

2. Time-linked Events.  Once the players do a thing, something else starts to happen on a schedule.  Best to make this visible to the players.  

Once the players enter this room, they are spotted by the kobold lookout, who runs back into his tiny escape tunnel.  A kobold war party arrives in this room 10 minutes later.  Add kobold war parties to the random encounter list.

Immediately after the Door of the Sea is opened, 1" crabs start to flood into this room.  The next time the players come to this room, it has been populated by 2d6 giant abyssal crabs and a Panoptic Tentacle.

3. Scripted Events.  (Honestly, these shouldn't be a sin, even in an OSR-setting.  Random rolls are one of the best ways to make a dungeon feel alive, and I'm not proposing that we drop them, I'm just saying that random rolls don't need to be the only tool we use to make a dungeon feel vibrant.)

The second time the party enters this room, they will interrupt 2d6 painted men from Level 2.  The painted men are busy transporting the Obelisk of Forgotten Memory back to their tribal encampment. 

The first time the party enters this room, it is empty except for water trickling down the walls.  The second time the party enters the room, one of the walls has fallen down, spilling a huge amount of dirt and stone into the room.  The third time the party enters the room, it has collapsed and become impassible.

4. Room-Specific Random Encounters.  We already have random encounters specific to each floor (usually tied to a specific enemy level) but that's partially by convention more than anything.  There's nothing stopping you from having a random encounter table be specific to a room, instead of a floor.

In the Library, modify the random encounter table as follows: 1 - 2d6 goblins have been ordered to "get smart" and are here eating books unhappily, 2 - 2d6 skeleton servitors of the complex, returning some blood stained tomes recovered from a rival adventuring party, 3 - 1 mechanical librarian (stats as iron golem) who makes a reaction roll based heavily on how loud the adventuring party is being.  It will also scan them for stolen books.  The other 3 random encounters are unchanged.

Introducing Elements of Randomization

Unsurprisingly, random encounters do a really good job of randomizing the dungeoncrawling experience.  I love being surprised when I DM, and random encounters are part of that.

I don't really have any good alternatives to random encounters here.  Random encounters are great.  Instead I'll just offer some pointers to using them effectively.

1. Make sure you're using reaction rolls.  It's always interesting when you roll a very positive reaction for a monstrous enemy, or a very negative reaction for a normally friendly NPC.

2. Make sure that your list of random encounters is universally applicable to the area that you've linked to it.  DMs will ignore a random result if it makes no sense (as they should).  For example, if the DM rolls "hill giant" while the players are in a small hallway, the DM will ignore that result and probably hand-pick a different one.  This is a loss, because now we're losing one of the primary benefits of the random encounter list.

Try to populate your random encounter lists with things that are appropriate to the area.  Break up your dungeon level into sublevels if needed.

3. Link your random encounters to the dungeon.  I've said this a few times already, but "2d6 goblins" is not as good as "2d6 goblins from room 19" or "owlbear fleeing from 2d6 goblins" or "1d4+1 knights here to steal from the goblins in room 19".

4. Make your encounters impactful.  You want a random encounter to affect more than just that one encounter.  You want it to affect the whole dungeoncrawl.  Include something that makes the dungeon easier or harder.  Introduce a complexity.

"2d6 goblins + the goblin king" is great because now the players can capture the goblin king and ransom him back.  Or just kill him.

"The mummy pope from room 31.  If the mummy pope dies, the dungeon starts to collapse.  (This was told to the players before they entered the dungeon.)" Good--this has repercussions beyond the current encounter.

"5d6 nervous goblins demand that you guide them back to the Goblin Hole on Level 1".  This is great because now there's a very clear direction the encounter can take.  I sometimes write random encounters like this--where it's already a little pre-scripted--and then don't bother making a reaction roll.  Yes, you lose out on the random element that might surprise you, but you get something that may be more interesting that what you can come up with on the spot.

Relinquished card art from Yu-Gi-Oh

Spirits of the Underworld

If you've played roguelikes at all, you're aware that sometimes the game just dumps a new condition on top of you.  Sometimes these are helpful, more often they're painful.  

Spirits of the Underworld are powerful creatures that don't attack the party directly.  They just hang out, following you around and inflicting some effect.  Add them to your random encounter table.

The party can (1) ignore them until the spirit gets bored and leaves, (2) run away (using the typical fleeing rules), or (3) attempt to kill the spirit (although most of them are pretty powerful).  

Dead spirits will return to life after 19 days unless somehow prevented.

Generic Stats: HD 8, chain, attack 1d6/1d6/1d6, can turn ethereal

Ape of Progress

A tutelary spirit of the Underworld.  Just a giant gorilla head (8' tall) with muscular arms and legs sticking out.  Red skin, shaggy grey fur.  Wants you to succeed and be brave, but would rather see you die a hero than retreat as a coward.

Shows up behind you and prevents you from going backwards.  Will eventually get bored after 1d4+4 hours and fall asleep.  Alternatively, if you feed it a delicious meal (rations don't count), it will give you one of its fingers (can be used once as a scroll of passwall) and leave.

Combat Ability: if it hits you with two attacks on the same round, it grabs you with both arms and throws you into a random room in the dungeon.

The Deathbird

A tutelary spirit of the Underworld.  Lurches into the room like a gleeful mortician.  Tall, skeletal bird thing with three wings and a bird skull head.  Wants you to understand loss and death in order that you can appreciate life more.  All damage (dealt and received) is doubled in its presence.  

It will leave after an ally (PC or hireling) dies.  Once that happens, it will help you conduct a respectful funeral (although it will expect you to shed tears and talk about what you've learned from this death).  Alternatively, it'll get bored after 1d4+4 hours and wander away.  

Alternatively, you can appease it by offering it grave goods worth at least (1d6+3)*100 sp.  If you offer it an especially great sacrifice (10x higher than required) it will grant you the ability to speak with dead 1/day.

Combat Ability: On the first round of combat, it summons the death wind.  All living creatures in 50' must save or drop to 1 HP.

The Ineffable Quong

An albino giraffe with a head on both ends, except it has not heads--the necks just taper into singular horns.  On eye side of the body is a glassy black eye.  The Ineffable Quong blocks all magic in its presence.  Spellcasting, scrolls, potions, etc.

It demands a sacrifice of magic items and eyeballs.  You'll know when you've sacrificed enough--a tongue will slide down and pluck all of the objects into a ventral mouth.  If you give it an especially good offering (e.g. a magic artifact and 100 eyeballs) it will give you one of its heads to use as a staff (lets you use any scroll twice).

Combat Ability: On a hit, you must save or a random magic item in your possession explodes, dealing Xd6 damage to you, where X is the approximate level of the spell effect that it contained.

The Great Spirit of Darkness

A malevolent spirit of the Underworld.  It wants to see you all dead or corrupted.  Light shuns the touch of this spirit; it's true shape is impossible to discern.  However, it is tall humanoid with a large head, covered in shaggy fur, with enormous wings that wrap its body.

While the Great Spirit of Darkness stalks you, your torches shed half as much light and last half as long.  Additionally, all random encounters have a 1-in-6 chance of surprising you.

The Great Spirit of Darkness will get bored of you after 1d4+4 hours.  It cannot be appeased, but it can be tricked.  If the party splits up, it will not know who to follow.  It's very intelligent, but it is hampered by the fact that it doesn't understand exactly what humans are.  For example, if you put your clothes on logs and then throw the logs in the river, it may think that the logs are you, and follow them.  Other things that might work: faking your own death, burying yourself in mud, etc.

If you do something really fucked up to win its approval (e.g. sacrifice one of your friends) you will win it's blessing, but you'll really wish you didn't.  You'll gain darkvision, cannot leave the Underworld, and after the adventure is complete, you'll wander off into the darkness and become and NPC.

Combat Ability: At the start of combat, casts blindness on all creatures within 50'

Monday, May 6, 2024

Deconstructing Healing, Potions, and Shrines

Potions kinda suck and I can prove it.

Potions Suck #1

Healing potions kinda suck the fun out of the game for me.  I know most OSR games don't allow them to be purchased, which is good, but a lot of games allow you to stockpile them.  And when you find them, you almost have to bring them along--they're too useful to leave behind since HP is such a critical resource.  They may replace more interesting items in your inventory.

Potions can also feel a little antithetical to dungeoncrawling, too.  Since dungeoncrawling is all about resource management, and potions are a (potentially) uncontrolled resource, players may walk into the dungeon with 0 potion or with 10.  This isn't necessarily a problem--the group with more potions will just delve deeper, and you could argue that they've earned it.

Dark Souls had the right idea.  Estus flasks limit your healing to a fixed amount.  And they're easy to refill, ensuring that a failed first attempt doesn't sink your second attempt.

Potions Suck #2

They're also kinda contrary to the fiction.  Conan never sucked down a healing potion in the middle of combat, much less as a bonus action.  Healing potions don't come from fantasy fiction, they come from video games.  

(UPDATE: I'm probably wrong about this, since potions were in '74 OD&D.  But I don't feel wrong.)

Potions Suck #3

Adventures are designed around their systems, so systems with lots of access to healing potions tend to require more healing.  That's why you see so many unavoidable-unless-you-roll-high traps in 3rd edition dungeons.  This feedback loop creates traps and combats that function as a HP tax, and the whole party must figure out how they're going to pay it.

If you play 5th edition right now, you need a healer in your party.  Maybe not a singular cleric--maybe you have several characters that all heal their share.  You might say "yeah, that's part of the strategy of making an effective party, and it's fun to make an effective party".  Sure, but it's still a constraint that can prevent people from running the characters they want.  I might want to be a wizard, but if the party needs more healing, you might be able to bully me into a rolling a cleric.

Potions Suck #4

Lots of intra-fight healing also changes the style of combat.  If the party could never heal mid-combat: 

  • Combats would go faster.
  • If you game was about combat balance, enemies would deal less damage (to compensate).
  • Damage would be impactful, because it can't be undone.  (Like every move matters in chess--there's no way to return a captured piece to the board.)
Think about the implications of that.  In a lot of systems, as the party levels up, they get access to significantly more magic healing.  As a result (1) combats take longer, (2) enemies deal more damage per round, and (3) damage is less impactful, since it's possible to "undo" a round by healing back the damage that was dealt.  Laid out like that, it seems like a good argument for less healing in games, not more.

A big part of the reason that we even have healing in games in the first place is just because healers are common in the fiction that we're trying to emulate.  Matching the fiction (and your player's expectations) is important, but it's also important to protect the gameplay.

So why not remove potions entirely?  Well, there are a few reasons.

Healing is Cool #1

Potions smooth out damage for the character who needs it.

We don't always want combat to be maximally impactful.  There's a lot of randomness in D&D, and sometimes you get just unlucky and gets smacked by three goblins in the same round.  Potions are a resource that can be spent to undo some of that bad luck.

Healing is Cool #2

Potions smooth out damage for the whole party.

Think about 4 people going into the dungeon with 10 HP each.  One way of thinking about it: the party has 40 HP.  When it gets low, they need to decide to press on or return to camp.

Except it's not that simple, is it?  One guy gets hit.  Then he gets hit again in the next combat.  Then he's dead.  The other 3 guys weren't hit at all.  A streak of bad luck sank the delve.

But potions hedge that bet.  

If you have 4 people, each with 10 HP, and the party is carrying 3 potions that each heal for 5 HP, then the "party" has 55 HP, and the potions can be consumed by whoever needs them the most.

Through this lens, potions are a form of insurance carried by the whole party.  They're a resource that the party shares, that limits how long they can delve into dungeons. (Although obviously the parties that play better will take less damage, delve deeper, and get more treasure.)

Healing is Cool #3

Potions help balance gameplay between different numbers of players.

One character with 10 HP, carrying 3 potions (5 HP each) = 25 HP for the party.  That's your risk budget.  That's how many rounds of combat you can slog through.  That's how many doors you can open.  That's how much fun you get to have before you need to return to camp.

Two characters with 10 HP each, sharing 3 potions (5 HP each) = 35 HP.  Still higher, but the difference is smaller.  

We can't reasonably re-balance the whole dungeon if the number of players change.  If the group size drops from 4 to 2, you probably can't delve as deep as you used to, but your delves aren't half as short.

If you wanted to remove magical healing from the game entirely, you could.  But with everything else being the same, you'd have to increase everyone's HP to keep the new game comparable to (and roughly compatible with) the old.

Healing is Cool #4

Comebacks are dramatic and satisfying.  It also feels more desperate, when you watch your HP dwindle, then bouy back up after you quaff some red juice.  You can watch your potions dwindle, too.

So how do we keep the good stuff while dropping the bad stuff?  I have a few ideas.

Estus Flasks

In Dark Souls, you lose all of your HP and die.  This can happen because either (a) you were fighting an enemy and got killed before you could drink your estus flasks (health potions), or (b) you were exploring and ran out of estus flasks overall, because estus flasks are limited.  Whenever you get a long rest, you recover all of your estus flasks, and that number is limited.  You don't recover your estus flasks until you take another long rest.

And the more I think about it, the more I like it.  Healing should be a very finite resource that is easily replenished by a long rest.  It's probably the factor that limits the player the most on their delves.  

Estus flasks fit this description, but in the traditional tabletop milieu, some sort of magical healing is probably closer to most people's expectations.

Shrines, Altars, and Temples

Another "problem" in need of fixing is how the game is we handle we handle shrines and altars.  D&D is bursting with ancient shrines and altars.  Oftentimes, they don't do anything.  There's no way to interact with the divinity that is supposed to reside there.  (Sometimes I put treasure on the altar, with a chance for receiving a divine curse if it is stolen, or a small chance for a blessing if a contribution is made, but these are token gestures.)

Anyway, I think I have a better idea.

The Solution

Anyway, here's what I've come up with.  In a nutshell:

Healing potions are rare (or nonexistent).  Instead, the party shares a pool of magical healing that replenishes every day.

Since the party already has a source of healing, clerics don't necessarily bring a lot of healing, but they give other benefits.  More diverse abilities, perks when healing is used, small improvements to healing, or perhaps they're more similar to holy wizards.

If you're dropped to 0 HP and then recover, you are left with a point of Trauma.  Each point of trauma reduces your maximum HP by an equivalent amount.  The only way to remove Trauma is by putting that character in time-out, and playing a different character for a session.

Damnation by Seb McKinnon


There's no healing potions.  (Or at a minimum, they are very rare.)

In the past, I've had players able to recover HP outside of fights by eating lunch.  This can be supplemented (or replaced) by prayer.  

People tend to use my mechanics as building blocks for their own mechanics and systems, so I'm not going to present a single mechanic for you below.

Instead, I'm just going to give you a bunch of possible rules and variants, and then tell you why you may want to pick one over the other.

Unlimited Lunch 

The party can Eat Lunch and regain all of their hit points.  This requires 30 uninterrupted minutes.  A single ration is consumed, shared by the whole party.

Discussion: Generally speaking, I don't want healing to be a limiting factor when going from fight to fight.  I usually enjoy the game more when players are usually able to enter the next fight at full HP.  It allows everyone more freedom to contribute (if you have 1 HP, you kinda have to stay in the back) and allows parties to recover from mistakes better.

However, maybe this is undesirable?  See below.

Lunch + Fatigue

As above, except that whenever you benefit from Eating Lunch, you also gain X points of Fatigue, where X is your level.  Each point of Fatigue reduces your maximum HP by an equal amount.

Fatigue only goes away when you get a good night's sleep.

Discussion: The purpose of fatigue is to place soft limits on how long you can dungeoncrawl for.  If your system already has other types of depletion (torches, spells, etc), you probably don't need this mechanic, unless you want to turn the screws tighter.

Faith Points

The party has 3 FP.  They can spend 1 FP to pray for someone to recover HP.  To pray, you have to touch the person you are praying over.  (You can pray for yourself.)  The person you are praying over recovers 1d6+X HP, where X is equal to the highest level character in the party.

Discussion: Faith Points are the simplest implementation of this idea.  Basically just estus flasks shared by the whole party, with minimal scaling.  You can easily elaborate on this idea, and I will.

Faith Dice

Each party has a fixed number of Faith Dice (FD) that they spend for prayer.  

The party starts with 0 FD, but the maximum amount of FD increases by 1 each time you make a significant sacrifice at a church, temple, or shrine.  For something to count as a meaningful sacrifice, it needs to be something that is painful to lose, e.g. a real sacrifice.  

A "significant" sacrifice is relative to the party's situation.  A rich party in a city would have to donate a lot of money to the church.  A starving party trapped in a dungeon could achieve the same benefit by sacrificing their last ration.  High level parties will also require larger sacrifices than lower-level parties.  (When in doubt, the DM should default to open rulings, e.g. "I'm not sure that your donkey counts as a significant sacrifice.  I'd say it has a 2-in-6 chance of being accepted.  Do you still want to sacrifice your donkey?")  A gem worth 1000s always counts as a significant sacrifice, as does a sword +1.

FD are spent exactly like MD, but they can only be spent on cure light wounds.  You can invest multiple FP in a single spell, e.g. investing 2 FD gives you spell that heals for 2d6+2 HP.

Once you've made four significant sacrifices, your maximum FD is 4.  You cannot increase your FD any further.  The party may have obtained all 4 FD from the Holy Church of Goodness, or (more likely) a mixture of different types of deities and religions.

No Free Replenishment of Faith Dice

As above, except that FD do not replenish for free at the start of each day.  Instead, you must make a small sacrifice at a shrine (of any type) to recover your FD (of all types).

Discussion: This rule moves the game further away from dungeon-as-sport and forces the players to plan more around the location of shrines.  Depending on what type of game you want to run, this can be a good thing (random shrines in dungeons become more relevant) or a bad thing (one more chore to do before you're ready for dungeon delving).

Why are the players able to pray at an evil shrine and recover FD to cast good spells?  In my mind, it's because the gods/religions are all part of the same pantheon, and the gods prefer piety in mortals.  But you may want to limit this in your own campaigns.

Faith Dice + Limitations

As above, except that you can only regain FD by praying at a shrine, temple, or church of a deity that you worship.  You don't have to make sacrifices, just participate in an 1 hour ritual.  

If you pray at one shrine belonging to a god that you worship, you recover all of your FD.

If you ever disobey the tenets of one of your gods, you lose all of the FD that you gained from that religion.

Discussion: There's an interesting choice to be made here.  If you worship more gods, you have more options on where you can pray for healing.  But if you get all of your FD from a single location, you'll have fewer restrictions on your behavior.

Faith Dice + Clerics

As above, plus clerics essentially function as a mobile shrine.  If you don't have a shrine available, you can perform a 1 hour ritual with a cleric once per day to recover your FD.

Each cleric in your party increases the maximum number of FD by 1, as long as at least one of those FD are from the appropriate religion.

Clerics no longer have access to cure light wounds or its analogues.  (However, the party gets more healing overall since the maximum FD is increased.)

Discussion: The idea is to move clerics away from just being healbots.  Since everyone can heal, clerics are freed up to do more interesting things.  Remove cure light wounds from the cleric spell list and put something more interesting in there.

I realize that this may be the rule that gets the most opposition, but I think it's also the most interesting one.

Faith Dice + Unique Spells

As above, plus if you make a significant sacrifice at a shrine or temple, write down the shrine's spell list.  (There are typically ~3 spells on it.)

FD can be spent on healing or on one of these spells.

Example: Church of the First Emperor: cure poison, turn undead, protection from evil

However, each of these spells can only be cast once.  Once you cast it, draw a line through it.  You cannot cast it again unless you make a significant sacrifice at the appropriate shrine.  Whenever you gain new spells at a shrine, you lose access to any prior spells you may still have.

Discussion: There's a small-but-interesting decision here.  To be most efficient, players will not want to sacrifice at the same temple twice until they've had a chance to use all of the spells gifted by that shrine.  Additionally, this can serve as a money sink for high level parties.  If you have extra 1000s gems to sacrifice, eventually you'll be making major sacrifices each time you're in town in order to refresh your spell list.

No Lunch

In this formulation, you no longer gain HP when you Eat Lunch.  Instead, Praying is used for healing both inside and outside combat.

When you use Prayer to regain HP outside of combat, you recover an additional +1 HP per die.

Discussion: This creates a small-but-interesting decision.  It's more effective to heal outside of combat since you'll recover more HP on average, but it may be more urgent to heal in combat for less HP.