Friday, 27 December 2019

Magic Resistance and Anti-Magic Fields: Can They Be Not Shit?

A common feature of mid- to high-level D&D content is "magic resistance" or "anti-magic fields" that put artificial limitations on the power of magic-users. Presumably this emerged as a patch to counter the dominance of magic-users in the late game. However, these elements are usually presented in a very dull and arbitrary fashion, with no explanation beyond "the monster is immune to spells" or "spells can't be cast in this area". We can do better.

'Cancel', Mathias Kollros

Magic resistance (e.g. immunity to offensive spells)
By "magic resistance" I mean a monster that has immunity to offensive spells cast on it. This immunity might be permanent, it might trigger a certain percentage of the time (most high-level AD&D monsters have this), or it might have a limited number of charges per day. Often it will be more interesting to make spellcasting more complicated rather than nix it altogether.

- Spell is absorbed into a necklace of seven gems. When all gems are full, spells can be cast freely.
- Spell turns into words hovering in the air; whoever reads the words out loud first gets to cast the spell
- spell shatters into magical shards. Crack the shards and huff their magic gas to recharge your spell power
- spell is absorbed by a bonsai tree and becomes tiny fruit
- spell passes through a tiny wormhole and emerges in a harmless location nearby
- spell is slowed to the pace of a glacier - if left alone it will finish casting in about 1000 years
- spell becomes a small creature that serves the spell's target
- spell is absorbed into the pages of a floating book. The book contains every spell that has ever been cast on the target (!!)
- spell is trapped in a bubble and floats to the ceiling. Pop the bubble (AC15) to release the spell

'Counterspell', Hannibal King

Anti-magic fields
Let's face it, a blanket "no spells allowed" field is pretty bullshit, so most of these examples are more about adding complications. Hopefully this will be fun and won't turn the game into "everything revolves around the wizard even more than before because we have to help him jump through hoops to cast his spells".

- white mist that turns solid in contact with spells (an effect similar to oobleck)
- all magic-users are followed by an annoying, unkillable imp who swallows all their spells. But the imps aren't that fast so if you run off then you can lose them for a bit.
- area is lit by anti-magic lanterns. Spells can still be cast in areas where the lanterns' light is occluded
- area is full of explosive harmonic crystals. Cast one spell and the entire place blows up
- an empty copy of the dungeon exists directly below it. Any spell cast in the dungeon affects the copy, and vice versa
- through the ceiling you can see huge ethereal shark-things swimming through solid rock. Casting a spell is like throwing chum in the water
- a demonic bureaucrat at the dungeon's entrance takes custody of your spells. You can free one spell at a time by offering a blood sacrifice

Thursday, 26 December 2019

Carcosa: Random Community Generator

Dogon dancers

One of the biggest gaps in Geoffrey McKinney's Carcosa setting is the lack of cultural or social details about the people of the world. There is basically nothing there except a vague sense that they are "savage" and "degraded", plus a weird assertion that their culture resembles "pre-Columbian Mesoamerica" which doesn't really make any sense (hint: in the year before Columbus arrived in the Americas, Tenochtitlan was the largest city in the world.)

Here's a set of tables to generate Carcosan communities that are a bit more interesting and textured, while maintaining the themes of desperation and brutality.

  1. Semi-nomadic dinosaur herders
  2. Fungal forest slash and burn farmers
  3. Bandits, raid other villages or extort them for tribute
  4. Make sacrifices to eldritch god in exchange for food
  5. Nomadic hunter-gatherers
  6. Semi-nomadic, raid ruins for ancient technology, tinker with it and trade it
  7. Slave hunters and traders
  8. Lake fishers; have specialised knowledge that allows them to safely prepare the mutated lakelife

Dwelling place
  1. Cave complex
  2. Walled town
  3. Abandoned snake men ruin
  4. Mud huts
  5. Wood huts on stilts
  6. Inside an ossified dinosaur carcass

Cultural quirks*
  1. Widow sacrifice - when a woman is widowed she calls on her sons to strangle her; when a man is widowed he calls on his daughters to prepare a poison meal
  2. Obsession with feasting - the leader who gives the best feast is given prominence
  3. Men and women strictly segregated except during annual courting season
  4. Corpses' brains must be eaten by their relatives or their soul cannot pass on
  5. 'Unclean' tasks are relegated to a servile underclass
  6. Polygamy: men take many wives or women take many husbands. The surplus unmarried population are disposed of through 1. long pilgrimages with low chance of survival 2. Castration 3. Ritual murder
  7. Sub-economy revolving around brass rods. Brass rods can be used to pay important social costs, such as bride-price (to 'buy' a bride from her family) or blood-price (to pay compensation for murder). They cannot be exchanged for other goods.
  8. Believe themselves to be haunted by the ghosts of everything they have ever eaten. Perform banishing rituals before each meal, with the ritual growing more elaborate as one grows older.

Religious beliefs
  1. Worship Azathoth; a nihilistic religion that embraces the pointlessness of existence
  2. Worship the snake men and await their resurrection
  3. Worship Nyarlathotep. He rewards the strong and devious, punishes the weak and honest
  4. Worship a derelict robot, interpreting its error messages as scripture
  5. Worship animist spirit
  6. Worship a minor god that dwells in a noxious pit

  1. Council of elders
  2. Powerful sorcerer, rules through constant threat of summoning an eldritch god that will devour everyone
  3. Warrior-chief and retinue
  4. Priestly caste interprets the wishes of 1. a holy child 2. a sacred book 3. the sun and moon
  5. Caste of bigender shamans
  6. Society is egalitarian, decisions reached by consensus

  1. Naked except for string belts
  2. Embroidered robes and niqabs
  3. Dinosaur leather and dino-feather headdresses
  4. Filthy rags
  5. Furs and skull helmets
  6. Loincloths and iridescent tattoos

*Many of these are taken from real hunter-gatherer societies. I recommend Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber and The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond as sources for inventing nuanced hunter-gatherer societies.

'Imperial Lancer', Viktor Titov

'Dopesmoker', Arik Roper

Star Wars: Rogue One

Yanomamo man

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Spells for Carcosa, or, The Fungi From Yuggoth

The Last of Us

Spells are alien lifeforms native to the jale moon Yuggoth. They exist alternately as memetic information and fungal growths. Spells are not intelligent, but they have evolved a symbiotic relationship with intelligent beings.

In its memetic form, a spell can be encoded as writing, numbers, images, musical tones or many other formats. When an intelligent creature memorises the spell, it grows as a fungus inside their brain.
At the host's command, the spell is ejected from their brain through the nasal cavity and becomes pure magical energy. The actual effects of the spell are, in biological terms, its spores. By proving itself useful to its host, the spell ensures that it will be copied again and again.

Dedicated magic-users undergo training to increase their spellcasting capacity - literally creating cavities in their brains for the fungus to take root.

A O Spare

- The first time you try to memorise a particular spell, make a Will/Wisdom save. On a success, your brain is incompatible with the spell and you will never be able to learn it.
- You cannot memorise multiple copies of the same spell. Either you have it or you don't. After you cast a spell, you can't memorise it again until the next day.
- Once you have memorised a spell, you can only get rid of it by casting it. 
- When you eat the brain of another magic-user, their memorised spells will be transferred to you. Any spells they recently cast (within the last 10 minutes or so) have a 50% chance of being transferred as well.
- Spells cannot be written in cipher or otherwise concealed by translation. A spell is always a spell no matter what form it has been transcribed into.

Spell Slots
- All PCs begin with spell slots = 0. Gain spell slots through whatever system of character advancement you are using.
- Anyone can memorise any number of spells, regardless of their spell slots.
- When you cast a spell, if the number of spells in your brain exceeds your spell slots, you must roll on the Spell Misfire Table. Roll one die for each spell that exceeds your spell slots, and take the highest die.

Spell Misfire (d10)
1. Spell is cast successfully.
2. Spell works only for a moment, or is at half strength.
3. Spell refuses to come out. Choke on spores for 1 round, but the spell stays in your brain.
4. Spell fuses with another spell in your brain, creating a new hybrid spell which is cast immediately.
5. Spell is not cast, but instead copied into the brains of everyone else in the area.
6. Spell fails and is lost.
7. You give birth through your forehead to a child, half-spell and half-human. Has the same hit dice as you and abilities based on the spell's effects. Roll reaction to see how it regards you.
8. Spell succeeds, but comes out through your face. Take 1d10 damage and permanent facial scarring.
9. Spell possesses your body permanently, while your spirit becomes a spell.
10. Your head explodes as the spell is cast with incredible potency.

Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Carcosa: Character Backgrounds Chart

artist unknown??

An Into the Odd-style backgrounds chart for Carcosa characters. Reference your starting HP (x-axis) and highest ability score (y-axis) to find your background. Or, choose your background first, thus setting your starting HP and putting a cap on your ability scores.

Note that these numbers are based on the assumption of 3 stats, as in ItO or Maze Rats. If you are using 6 stats, then the table will be weighted more heavily toward the lower half.

Ability score vs hit points
Moon Witch
lotus powder
Masked Assassin
Akashic power
bone club
Alien Android
wooden club
inhuman strength
secret identity

Tribal Shaman
fetish staff
flash powder
Dinosaur Tamer
dinosaur musk
loyal gallimimus (3hp, 1d6dmg)
Ruin Raider
Iron axe
weird tech
Medieval Adventurer
scale mail (1 armour)
10' pole
Outcast Esper
psionic power
Sorceror's Apprentice
ceremonial knife
hooded robe
Desert Nomad
filtration mask
compass that points to Lake Hali
Wasteland Hunter
flint spear
bow and arrows
19th Century Occultist derringer
psionic power
iron ladle
bad lungs
smoke bomb
Fish-Human Hybrid
bone trident
mysterious jale stone
Delta Green Operative
9mm pistol
dossier on a random elder god
Fungus Farmer
oil lamp
hallucinogenic mushroom
Carcosa City Dweller
black iron sword
yellow sign
Cave Dweller
stone club
ADV in darkness
DISADV in sunlight
Deposed Chieftain
orichalcum necklace
1d6 loyal flunkies (2hp)
blasphemous idol
heterodox beliefs (DISADV on reactions from other cultists)
Alien Test Subject
ray gun (1d6 charges) vivisection scars
wooden staff
hunted by master
Lotus Eater
silver needle
jale lotus powder
addiction to jale lotus powder
missing limb
Escaped Sacrifice
Iridium sickle
noxious herbs
flesh is desirable to eldritch horrors
reviled by all

Monday, 18 November 2019


Vespiform demons who cloak themselves in human shape. Cultured, perverse and deeply cruel. Masters of deception who manipulate minds with delicate pheromones.

In its natural form, the ichneumon has a humanoid body and a wasp's head. Few will ever see this form, which is constantly cloaked in illusion. This is not a magical glamour nor a distortion of light. It is caused by a pheromone that operates beyond the perceptual level; no matter what you really see, the pheromone says human and your mind fills in the gaps.

The ichneumen have other scents as well. They know far more about human neurochemistry than humans know themselves. They can drive a mind into abject rage or wrap it in a blanket of pure maternal love. They use these powers to enthrall victims, scapegoat enemies, or escape when cornered.

Being parasites they have no world-sense of their own, and so take on human culture with affected irony. They like to think of humans as cattle, but at the same time they are perversely obsessed with us. Their lairs are shrines to obscure human traditions, decadent art, dead religions.

They breed by laying eggs in the human psyche. The larval stage of the ichneumon is a notional being waiting to grow into physical form. It begins as a tiny sting on the back of your neck. The next day you won't even remember it. Then, growing over weeks and months, you have intrusive thoughts about wasps. You cannot stop picturing them - it is both pleasant and painful. Slowly the thoughts spread to every part of your brain - memories, self-image, visual processing. At last you die from an encephalic fever that ends with the wasp-child bursting from your forehead. It eats your corpse and wears your identity.

How can the ichneumen be detected, let alone stopped? Their worst foe is simply a human with a defective sense of smell. Such people are unaffected by the ichneumon's pheromones and sees them as they truly are. Ichneumen go to great lengths to eliminate such people from the population.

Mammals are just as susceptible to the ichneumen's powers as humans, but other orders of life see through their guise and abhor them. Birds, insects and reptiles will flee or sometimes attack the ichneumon. Demon hunters often carry small snakes in jars for this purpose.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Carcosa: Mutant Dinosaurs

Simon Dominic

Dinosaur species:
1. Tyrannosaurus rex (vicious, solitary, territorial, fearless)
2. Brontosaurus (huge, herbivorous, unconcerned)
3. Ankylosaurus (herbivorous, territorial, armour plated, attacks with club tail)
4. Velociraptor (pack hunter, vicious, cold intelligence)
5. Triceratops (herbivorous, protects nest, fearsome charge)
6. Pterodactyl (flying, predatory)
7. Pachycephalosaurus (herbivorous, aggressive, territorial, headbutt attack)
8. Compsognathus (dog-sized, predatory, pack hunter, fast, relentless)

1. Rainbow scales
2. Neon green
3. Purple
4. Jet black, glossy
5. Blue and red feathers
6. Cancerous bone growths
7. Eyes all over
8. Transparent skin revealing organs
9. Jale and ulfire scales
10. Phosphorescent

1. Symbiotic fungus grows between scales (when hit, releases toxic spore cloud)
2. Telepathic and highly intelligent
3. Extra head grafted on by Space Aliens
4. Flesh constantly regenerating, unless exposed to fire
5. Glowing stone in forehead can fold space, allowing short-range teleportation
6. Floats using inflatable helium sacs
7. Very long body, eight pairs of legs
8. Can be controlled via cockpit implanted in top of skull
9. Radioactive breath
10. Can transform into ooze at will
11. Hypnotic pattern on skin
12. Urine transforms other creatures into dinosaurs


Jaime Jones

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Carcosa: Hijacking Space Alien Spaceships


When you are stranded on the savage planet Carcosa and you fight some Space Aliens and steal their spaceship, what can you do with it?


There are four stations inside the spaceship, each of which requires one character to operate.
Navigation: Control the ship's flight. Make a test to take off, land safely, or perform evasive maneuvers.
Laser Cannon: Fire the laser cannon for d20 damage. Make a test each time you fire.
Tractor Beam: suck up anything smaller than a T-rex and trap it in the cargo bay. Make a test for each object you want to suck up.
Mutagenic Bombs: Drop bombs that cause random mutations (the Space Aliens just use these to entertain themselves). Make a test to hit a specific target.

You can operate each station manually, or you can plug in your mind using the psionic helms provided (some minor cranial penetration may be involved).

If operating manually, 'make a test' means roll under DEX to succeed. If operating psionically, you always succeed at tests, but take 1d6 WIL damage each time you do so.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks


For travel between star systems you must engage the WARP DRIVE. Using the WARP DRIVE is complex and prone to failure. If using it with plenty of time, roll 4d6, or if using it in a hurry roll 4d4. You can gain additional dice by getting more information about the WARP DRIVE, for example by interrogating Space Aliens.

Each die that shows 1-3 is a failure, 4+ is a success. For each failure, choose one:
- Other Space Aliens become aware of your hijacking and come to punish you
- The spaceship is damaged and can't warp again until it's repaired
- You don't get to choose your destination, it is rolled randomly
- You left the window open! Everyone loses 1d6 WIL permanently as they witness the indescribable horrors of warp space

Possible destinations (you can scan these before warping to get a name and a vague picture of what it looks like)

1. Betelgeuse IV (apparently the homeworld of the Space Aliens)
2. Mars (a red desert world inhabited by green four-armed humanoids)
3. Shaggai (a world of pyramids inhabited by loathsome insects)
4. Earth (a world of dead cyclopean cities)
5. Celephais (a golden city in another dimension)
6. Ghroth (living planet with a giant red eye)
7. Greyhawk (a verdant green world dotted with large stone structures)
8. Cykranosh (world of mercury lakes and crystalline forests)

Junji Ito but recoloured by someone else maybe??

Monday, 15 July 2019

Play Report: The Clay That Woke

I had been curious about Paul Czege's The Clay That Woke for a long time, and a couple of weeks ago I finally got to play a session of it, run by Mikel Matthews on Gauntlet Hangouts. You can even watch the video if you like.

The Clay That Woke is a fascinating, deeply idiosyncratic game. The most obvious feature is the unique task resolution system. It involves putting various tokens into a pot, pulling out four of them, and interpreting them according to a chart to get the outcome of your task. This is really the only 'mechanic' in the game - at least, all the other mechanics flow into this token economy in some way.

The other key component of the game is the setting: a lush, strange, decadent city surrounded by jungle, in which players control minotaurs who form a sort of racial underclass doing menial tasks for humans. A lot of the setting's details are intimately woven into the mechanics. For example, the minotaurs' code of conduct governs how they lose 'Silence' tokens. When a minotaur runs out of Silence, they run wild and go into the jungle, where they can regain Silence - thus creating a natural rhythm between city and jungle scenes.

Because of these connections, it's hard to imagine reskinning the game for a different setting, or even modifying the default setting very much. This wouldn't work if it weren't for the fact that the default setting is extremely compelling. Normally when I read RPG setting material I am filled with ideas for how I would remix it for my own games. When reading The Clay That Woke I was instead filled with a desire to enter into Czege's vision exactly as he describes it.

I won't go into detail about all the events of the session I played. Suffice to say that there were two players and we were working at odds to each other. Often we weren't in the same scene together, but at the end we had a climactic confrontation that ended in both our minotaurs 'running wild' into the jungle.

The way the token-based resolution plays out is very interesting - not just because of the tokens themselves but also the text surrounding the moment of resolution. The book specifically tells you to "play deep into the scene" before drawing, and then to "use the draw as an oracle to inform you as you play out the rest of the scene". For example, during a fight scene, the GM and I worked semi-collaboratively in describing a few exchanges of blows; then we drew tokens that showed a bad result for my character; then we kept playing the scene, both of us angling towards depicting my failure.

This style of resolution feels more collaborative than a trad game of "player vs. GM", but also more concrete than the really loose storygames I've played like Fiasco or Final Girl. I found it helped me to get immersed in my character's internal thoughts in a way I haven't experienced before.

The other unusual thing about the game was that the PCs were often separated, so each player had a lot of 'downtime' spent listening and not playing. The game book specifically tells the GM to set up scenarios in this way. This is quite contrary to trad RPG advice that sees downtime as a negative, e.g. "Never split the party" "If someone dies, bring in their new character as soon as possible".

Czege has stated that this is an intentional choice to give players time to reflect on their character. Weirdly, this reminds me of James Young's blog post about running large groups, in which he states that he will split the party into two subgroups. "the main trick is this - get one group to a decision point where they can discuss what to do next, then switch to the other." Although they're very different play styles, the common thread is that downtime can be positive if the inactive player/s have something worth thinking about, instead of just sitting around waiting.

When I'm GMing, I definitely start to sweat when the party splits up and players are spending a lot of time waiting. In future I'll try to follow this rule of 'give them something to think about'. I wonder if the game mechanics could also support this in some way... perhaps if there was some minigame the players can pursue without input from the GM?

I could say more about The Clay That Woke but I'll wait until I get a chance to play more. In particular I'm curious about the jungle scenes, which we didn't get to in the single session I played.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Towards a High-Level Dungeon Crawl with Muta-Metal & Lumina

Heather Hudson

Muta-Metal: This metallic liquid responds to human thought. Concentrate and you can permanently shape it into whatever form you desire. One vial of muta-metal could become a grappling hook, a sword, a set of lockpicks, a roll of iron spikes, or even a wire cable extending up to 50'. It can be poured inside things and then hardened to form a seal (great for locking doors) and it can be magnetised. With several vials of muta-metal, it is possible to create improvised mechanisms, traps, tripwires and so on.

Muta-metal is available in most towns. It is prized by adventurers but shunned by common folk because of its transient nature: after a few days, the hardened muta-metal rusts away to nothing.

Design-wise, I hope this item will encourage creative play and improvisation, with less focus on pre-planning the characters' inventory. This may seem like a minor variation on the theme of 'Quantum Adventuring Gear' as seen in Dungeon World and various other games. However, I've found that Dungeon World's Adventuring Gear mechanic is generally used to handwave things that the play group isn't interested in. "Yeah, of course I have some rope." Muta-metal, on the other hand, presents itself not as a shortcut but as a toy; hopefully, it will encourage improvisation rather than skimming over it.

Pyeongjun Park

Lumina: True dungeons are not just holes in the ground; they are places where a foreign plane intersects with our own. The environment in such 'Dungeon Fields' is inimical to human life. Even when there is light to see by, the air is filled with a miasma that distorts and dims everything. In the face of this miasma, humans quickly sicken and die (or worse). The only thing that counteracts its effects is Lumina -- the eternal blue flame, given to humanity by the gods themselves.

Adventurers descend into the Dungeon Field with jars of Lumina to fuel their lanterns. While the flame lasts, it not only provides light but can also be used to ward off monsters and burn away corruption. but slowly the miasma wears the Lumina down, and snuffs each flame one by one.

Replacing torches with a magical flame makes their role in the game economy more explicit, while thematically moving things up the spectrum from low fantasy to high fantasy. Letting players expend Lumina to drive off monsters will make them more aware of how many they have left. The miasma offers a solution to the problem of "What to do if the PCs actually run out of light?" Instead of blundering around in the dark, the players are faced with a nightmarish gauntlet-run back to the surface, beset by monsters and by progressively worse penalties from miasma sickness.

These two items, along with the Alchemist from my last blog post, have been kicking around in my head as part of some hypothetical high-level anime-flavoured megadungeon. In each case I'm thinking about how to retain the fun elements of a hardscrabble OSR dungeon crawl, but with a different aesthetic.

Class: The Dungeon Alchemist

Atelier Ayesha
Here's a new class for D&D-adjacent gaming: an Alchemist of the type that commonly appears in JRPGs and anime. Whereas the historical alchemist can be found in dark laboratories trying to create gold out of lead, the JRPG alchemist spends their time wandering in dungeons, collecting monster parts and herbs, and brewing them into potions on the spot. Despite the prevalence of this trope, I haven't seen such a character written up for D&D (let me know if I'm wrong, though!)

The core concept of the class is that you will be hoarding random items and monster organs, then combining them haphazardly to create potions. When playing with this class you must use strict Encumbrance rules - ideally the simple 'Slots = Strength score' or even simpler 'Slots = 10' from the wonderfully terse Moonhop.
D. M. Cornish

Key to the class's balance is that your potions expire fairly quickly, so you will be forced to carry ingredients and only cook up a potion when you need one. The potion you get is semi-random, but there are ways to gain more control over the outcome.

Because the layout of the potion tables is key to the class's function, I present it here as a PDF and here as Word document so you can modify it if you want. This class has not been playtested so let me know how it goes if you use it.

I got a lot of potion ideas from Goblin Punch's Alchemy PDF and handwaved the durations of all the effects using Necropraxis' Hazard Die system.

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Saturday, 29 June 2019

The Dungeon Delve as Repatriation Quest

I love old-school dungeon crawls. I love the simplicity of the setup and the endless variations that can come out of it. I love treasure as a universal motivator for PCs. But more and more I'm feeling a bit uncomfortable with the colonialist aesthetic that goes along with the traditional dungeon delve. The basic assumption is that the dungeon environment exists to be exploited by the player characters. Denizens of the dungeon might be attacked, robbed or allied with, but ultimately these are all just different strategies to achieve the goal of extracting wealth. The morality of extraction is neither questioned nor explicitly asserted; it is simply how things are.

A lot of old-school groups thread this moral needle by just running with the theme that the player characters are not good people. If you can enjoy the anti-heroic exploits of Jack Vance's Cugel or Umberto Eco's Baudolino, then why not play out such stories in a roleplaying game?

I don't see anything wrong with this approach, but I'm wondering if we could play legitimately righteous characters in a dungeon crawl setting, if we were to turn the whole premise on its head.

Say that some colonial empire--interdimensional unseelie elves, perhaps--has been laying waste to the PCs' homeworld for centuries. They have stolen the great treasures of the PCs' culture and locked them away in a vast and cruel fortress that sits on a crack between worlds. In recent years the empire has fallen into ruin and internecine warfare. The fortress stands half-abandoned, half-occupied by a variety of opposing factions.

The PCs come from a culture living in a state of occlusion. Large portions of their history have been erased by violence. They venture into the fortress not only to repatriate the physical artefacts of their culture, but also to rediscover their lost past.

Along the way, they may encounter stolen treasures from other cultures in other worlds. Experience points are awarded not merely for seizing treasure, but for returning it to its rightful owners. XP value is not measured by sale price, but by historical and cultural significance.

Saturday, 22 June 2019

Tetrahedra: Angels of the Tessellated Realm

They are beings of pure Order, hailing from a distant plane in which their bodies tessellate endlessly together. In our world they appear as three-side pyramids hovering in space, fringed with cold fire. Each one surrounded by four smaller pyramids, which in turn are surrounded by yet smaller pyramids, and so on. In the centre of each pyramid is a glowing eye.

 An aura around them forces everything to tessellate with them on every scale. Get too close and you will begin to cough blood as your organs, cells, molecules and particles all try to arrange themselves along a triangular grid.

When threatened they will shrink down to microscopic size. When numerous, they will fuse together into giant pyramids that dominate the sky.


Cultists worship the Tessellated Ones in secret. They infiltrate cities and slowly restructure them according to the divine pattern. First a few geometric sigils, carved at certain key points on the landscape. Palindromic code words whispered from balconies at midnight. Plot the locations of their signs on a map and you will see they are forming a vast overlay of Sierpinski triangles. Another sign is the lowering of local entropy - coin flips start to come in regular patterns of threes.

As Order descends upon the city, the streets themselves subtly realign into tessellating patterns, while the inhabitants' thoughts begin to run on tracks. At last the ground is prepared for the incursion of the Tessellated Ones into our universe.

They come and they dominate us and they make everything run on triangles. Eventually the incursion site becomes a giant hive of tessellated matter - tetrahedral bodies interlocked with octahedral voids. Human bodies are twisted like bound feet until they fit the pattern.

The incursion is just a beach head. Slowly it will spread, until our whole universe is just like their own.


Or will it?

Certain heretical splinters of the Tetrahedra-Cults tell a different story. They tell how, just as the Angels can enter into our world, we can step through into theirs. How certain cultists travelled there long ago and learned to subsist in the spaces between the triangles. How even now they dwell in the infinite plane, spreading like a rot, undermining the perfect pattern.

There are whole towns in that other world, dimensional pirates who use the triangles to raid various parallel planes in search of food and supplies. They have hollowed out vast pyramid-caverns and dressed them with the spoils of worlds.

Because of them, the pattern is slowly collapsing. Vast quakes echo through the plane. Dislocated walls of tetrahedra grind against each other. In their own realm they are powerless to respond to these colonists, as to do so would require them to leave their pattern. Thus their only hope is to seize our own world. Their incursions are not a mission of conquest, but a last desperate attempt at escape.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

The License to Kill

 What is the function of saving throws in old-school play?
What if their primary purpose was emotional rather than mechanical?
Why roll a saving throw at all? The general consensus around old-school best practices is that severe consequences should be telegraphed by the GM and therefore come as a result of the players' choices. A normal-looking door that shocks people to death is not allowed; but if the door has a sign saying "Keep Out! Wizard's Sanctum!" then it's considered reasonable. If the player tries to open the door, they made a bad choice and now they get the consequence. In terms of fictional consistency, there is no particular reason why there should be a saving throw. "Well, you've got to have some chance of survival." Yes, you already had that chance - it was called "not touching the trapped door"!
So the GM could just say: "You got shocked and now you're dead." But it's very likely this will feeling arbitrary and unfair to the player. The saving throw comes in as an emotional tool to give the GM some plausible deniability. It gives them a license to kill.
Both elements - the bad choice and the bad roll - need to exist for the death to feel fair.
(For death you can substitute any other severe and permanent consequence, of course.)
Perhaps other randomisers in old-school play also serve the same purpose. Look at encounter tables. All of the encounters on the table should offer agency to the players as a baseline. If one of your encounters is "5 red dragons, always attack from surprise" then it doesn't really matter if there's only a 1-in-100 chance of it happening, it's still bullshit. So to flip it around - if none of your encounters are bullshit, then why randomise them at all? Why not just pick whichever one seems appropriate in the moment?
The answer is: you roll so that when the players get into a fight, you have a license to kill.
The truth is it's all you (the GM). You wrote or chose the encounter. You introduced the possibility of death when you called for the saving throw. But the roll itself is a crucial point of emotional distance.
"Aw, sorry buddy. The dice killed you. Not me... the dice."

Monday, 3 June 2019

Dimensional Borer

The dimensional borer is a giant Neuropteran (net-winged insect), distant cousin of the antlion. In its juvenile (nymph) form, it has the ability to burrow through the substrate of reality, creating pocket dimensions from which it ambushes its prey.

The Nymph

The borer's hide appears from the outside as a dark, puckered hole in the surface of reality. It looks the same no matter what angle it is observed from, although the more clever specimens will disguise this by building their hides next to a solid surface.

Space is distorted around the hide, making it look as though it were in the centre of a fish-eye lens. All surfaces slope towards it; loose objects roll into it, and anyone who falls in the area will begin tumbling towards the hide. The hide is always closer than it appears to be, and even basic movements become confusing in its vicinity*.

When prey approaches, the borer nymph sticks its head out of the hole and attack by spitting globs of raw reality at its victims. A direct hit can potentially kill or maim the prey by distorting the space around them. However, the real purpose of the spit is to cause localised ripples in reality that knock the victims down and make them tumble closer to the hide. When they are in reach, the nymph will grab them and drag them inside its pocket dimension.

The pocket dimension is small and dark, a maze of pitch-black tunnels in which the nymph fights at a great advantage. Once the prey is dead, the nymph will slowly suck out the 'spatiality' from the corpse and then spit it back into the world. Such corpses are hideously stretched, nearly weightless, and react unpredictably to contact (think of glitchy ragdoll physics in a videogame).

The nymph's mandibles can be crafted into a unique weapon that distorts enemies' perceptions, although the wielder must train for months before they can avoid cutting themselves with it.

The hide itself will slowly decay if the nymph leaves or is killed. However, with the proper rituals it can be stabilised and attached permanently to a portable object such as a doorway or a bag.

The Mating Season

Dimensional borers remain as nymphs for a long time - up to one hundred years - before emerging all at once in response to some seasonal shift in the shape of reality. In their adult form they resemble giant dragonflies. Once they have left the hide they no longer hunt prey, and will die after a few days. Their mating flights cause dire disturbances in the fabric of reality: time skips, spatial distortions and even brief incursions from parallel universes. The borers mate in midair, after which the female severs the male's head and devours his corpse. She then finds a safe place and thrusts her ovipositor into the substrate of reality to lay her eggs.

While many humans fear the coming of the mating season, others see it as an opportunity. Dozens of hides lie abandoned in the weeks following the mating, and treasure hunters comb the hills looking for them. Additionally, the severed head of the male can be crafted into a shield that draws projectiles like a magnet, and the eggs are worth a fortune to wizards studying translocation.

*Readers of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun can imagine the hide behaving similarly to avern flowers.

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Social Mechanics for OSR D&D

I'm looking for feedback on this system, which I haven't playtested yet. The purpose is to give more structure to tense social encounters, such as with monsters in a dungeon. The Patience stat puts a time limit on the conversation, and the 'End of conversation' boxes make the stakes clear to the players. I hope this will make the social encounters feel more 'fair' and thus allow the DM to dole out serious consequences if the social encounter goes poorly.

 This system combines a few ideas from OSR bloggers (I don't think I'm the first to come up with a 'Patience' stat) with dice math based on Apocalypse World moves. Design notes are in italics.

The Conversation Game
This subsystem is for use when encountering unfamiliar or potentially hostile NPCs, particularly in the wilderness or dungeons. It is not necessarily applicable to simpler social encounters such as with a quest-giver or a shopkeeper. The purpose is to create tension and interesting choices for the PCs.
These rules refer to NPC (singular) but can also be applied to a whole group.

Basic Procedure
-       When the NPC is encountered, make a Reaction roll to determine their Attitude and Patience.
-       PCs converse with the NPC. Each significant action in the conversation takes one Conversation Turn.
-       After each Conversation Turn, reduce Patience by 1. When it reaches zero, the NPC ends the conversation in a manner appropriate to their current Attitude.

The Reaction Roll
When the NPC is first encountered, roll 2d6 and add the highest Charisma modifier of the PCs’ group. The total amount is the NPC’s Affinity. The number shown on the highest die is the NPC’s Patience. (This is the only place where Charisma affects the encounter. I did it this way so that a player with high CHA gets to feel rewarded, but everyone can still participate in the conversation without being suboptimal.)
 Affinity represents the NPC’s overall disposition toward the party. Patience represents how long they will converse before taking an action that ends the conversation.

Affinity Track
Affinity Mod
General demeanour
End of conversation
Attacks; flees
Leaves; pursues own goals even if in conflict with PCs
Leaves; pursues own goals if not in conflict with PCs
Offers alliance or gift

(I envision this track on a sheet of paper in the middle of the table, with a token to show where on the Affinity Track the NPC is sitting.)
Conversation Turn
A Conversation Turn is an abstract measure of how the conversation has progressed. One Conversation Turn is something that moves the conversation forward and has a measurable effect. One Conversation Turn might cover:
-       A few sentences of back-and-forth dialogue
-       A single important question asked by the PCs
-       One of the specified Conversation Actions below

Conversation Actions

Improve Affinity: Covers all attempts at flattery, boasting, charming, gift-giving, and anything else where the main purpose is to make the NPC like the PCs more.
Roll 2d6+Affinity modifier:
On a 10+, move one step up the Affinity track. 
On a 7-9, the NPC may be unmoved, or may demand a gift or promise; if the demand is met, move one step up the Affinity track. 
On a 6-, the NPC is irritated and one extra point of Patience is deducted.
Bonuses from +1 to +2 can be applied by giving a gift the NPC likes, making a concession (e.g. throwing down weapons), or using techniques relevant to the NPC (e.g. flattery gets a bonus on a prideful NPC).

Make an Offer: Covers all attempts to trade, swap information, make an alliance, etc.
Roll 2d6+Affinity modifier:
On a 10+, the offer is accepted. 
On a 7-9, the NPC makes a counter-offer. 
On a 6-, the offer is rejected. Move one step down the Affinity track.
Bonuses and penalties from -2 to +2 are applied if the offer is unusually favourable or unusually unfavourable.

Make a Threat: Covers all attempts at extortion, scaring away, forcing submission, etc.
Roll 2d6 (no Affinity mod)
On a 10+, the NPC submits to the PCs' will, but moves 1d4 steps down the Affinity track.
On a 7-9, they retreat or make a counter-offer, and move 1 step down the Affinity track.
On a 6-, they attack or flee.
Bonuses and penalties from -2 to +2 are applied based on the relative strength of the PCs versus the NPCs.

Tell a Lie: Covers all attempts at deception.
Depending on the content of the lie, it can instantly set the NPC’s Affinity track to a higher number (e.g. if you convince them you are an agent of their king, their Affinity is set to 11 or 12).
When you tell a lie, roll for its starting HP based on how plausible it is:
Implausible: 1d6-3
Plausible: 1d6
Airtight: 2d6
Add the NPC’s Affinity modifier to this roll.
(I envision a space on the sheet, below the Affinity track, where you can write down lies and put dice to show how much HP they have left. These lies could potentially continue across multiple sessions and multiple encounters with the same NPC.)

Each lie told has its own pool of HP (Hoodwink Points). If this pool goes to 0, then the NPC no longer believes the lie. A lie’s HP can never go higher than 12.
-       When the NPC sees/hears something that seems to disprove the lie, then the lie takes damage (1d4 for mildly suspicious, 1d6 for quite suspicious, 2d6 or more for blatant contradiction).
-       When the NPC sees/hears something that seems to be evidence for the lie, the lie is healed (1d4 for mild evidence, 1d6 or more for strong evidence).
-       Whenever a lie takes damage, the PCs have a chance to negate the damage if they make up another lie that explains the inconsistency. Roll HP for this lie separately.
-       When a lie reaches 0 HP, it ‘dies’ and the NPC stops believing it. When this happens, all other lies told to the NPC take 1d6 damage (possibly causing a chain reaction) and the NPC’s Affinity track moves down 1d6 steps.

Review: Bone Marshes

This is a review based on a read-through, not a playtest. Bone Marshes is a 45-page sandbox setting for Knave. It focuses on a salt-ma...