Thursday, 21 February 2019

Why I Like The Original Saving Throws

Whenever someone sets about updating the classic rules of D&D, one of the game elements most commonly seen on the chopping block is the original list of saving throws. In the Rules Cyclopedia the saves are listed as “Poison or Death Ray”, “Magic Wands”, “Paralysis or Turn to Stone”, “Dragon Breath” and “Rod, Staff or Spell”. This rather haphazard list has been replaced in many modern iterations of the game by the simpler and more realistic “Reflex, Fortitude, Will”.

This change seems to make sense at first glance—but I can’t help feeling that something valuable is lost when the original saves are discarded. Firstly, they have the advantage of being traditional. Some people might see this as irrelevant or even as a negative point. It’s true that there are many cases (in gaming and in society in general) where tradition has to be swept aside to get rid of things that just aren’t working anymore, or never worked in the first place. But when a tradition is still serving its purpose and isn’t causing any serious problems, it’s worth trying to preserve it.

The clumsiness of the original saving throws is also what gives them their charm. If, as is commonly believed, the rules of the game were invented gradually through play, then these five phrases might very well be a list of the first five bad things that ever happened to player characters in a game of D&D. To my mind there is something rather beautiful about the idea that the game still contains a trace of the earliest days of the hobby, like tree-rings encoding the history of the seasons the tree has lived through.

It is not only the past that is encoded in the original saving throws, however, but also the future: they contain an implicit preview of the kinds of dangers that players can expect to face in the game. What better way to present the call to adventure than to say: “here is the number you will need to roll when a dragon breathes fire at you”?

Because the saving throw list can be seen as a kind of primer for the action that will happen in the game, it’s interesting to see how other games with D&D’s DNA have created their own unique saving throw lists. Flying Swordsmen, while hewing fairly close to the original five categories, has renamed them after the five Chinese elements (Wood, Water, Metal, Fire and Earth). And James Young’s extensive LotFP houserules have replaced the “Spells” and “Magic Wands” categories with “Chaos” and “Law” to emphasise the Moorcockian cosmology of his game world. I’d be curious if anyone knows of other examples like these.

I love the idea of different games or campaign settings having their own saving throw lists based on the most common (or most iconic) dangers present in the game world. A campaign based on Greek mythology might have a saving throw list like: “Poison, Gaze Attack, Madness, Transformation, Divine Wrath”. Carcosa’s list could be: “Mutation, Madness, Cosmic Fate, Tech Weapon, Energy Burst”. For a Paleolithic setting: “Fear, Weather, Disease, Nature Spirits, Evil Eye”.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Some Fantasy Races Based on Real Animals

Goat people are motherfucking ninjas. Hoary survivalists living in vertical villages clinging to cliff faces. Bandits with iron-dipped horns pronking down the slope towards you, whirling the skulls of their ancestors above their heads. Goat-monks balancing on mountain peaks or at the tops of trees, listening to the voice of the earth in tiny vibrations.

Hyena-folk (gnolls)
Hyena-folk are matriarchal. The hyena-men are slinking and submissive, scheming behind the scenes, wearing painted veils. The hyena-women are ruthless and cruel. They have both a phallus and a womb and so consider themselves 'complete'. Their word for 'male' literally means 'womb-lacker'. They worship a priapic mother goddess called the Autofecundator. The matriarchs prepare for war by impregnating themselves with powerful spells, which they then disgorge from their wombs on the field of battle.

Amphiprions (clownfish-people)
They look mostly human, except for the eyes. They live in the Envenomed Wood, where there are 97 different types of venom & poison, from the trees to the snakes to the deadly black moths. The Anemonides expose their children to all the poisons to make them immune. If you get a transfusion of anemonid blood then you will gain their immunity for a few days.
 All of the children are born male; a single woman presides over the tribe. When she dies, the men fight for the right to replace her. The winner carefully removes her womb and inserts it into his own abdomen. There is only one womb and they have had it for as long as anyone can remember.

Pirates of the saltwater estuaries. They live in floating villages that can be disassembled, wrapped in watertight skins, and hidden at the bottom of the river. When they face organised resistance in an area they simply leave, float out to sea, drift to another continent where their last appearance is barely remembered by the short-lived people of the land.
They can enter a death-trance where they need no sustenance for months. Sometimes one navigator guides an entire tribe across the sea while they are comatose, tied together with long lines.
They do not age, but grow larger with each passing year. The biggest are also the wisest. Their children cling to their flanks, build houses on their backs. These elders require massive amounts of food, so they enter the death-trance frequently. Eventually they choose not to wake up and slowly transform into giant logs. Then over years they are cut up to make tools and weapons for their descendants.
The biggest crocodile-folk are hundreds of years old and know many forgotten things. When they become wood, their secrets are inscribed like tree rings in their flesh.

 First there is the Queen, with a human upper body and a bloated abdomen. With her ovipositor she lays eggs in the fecund earth. Humanoid creatures are born from these eggs, each one a dull-eyed brute, empty of identity.
The Queen daubs a handprint of scented paste across the ant-orc's face. The smell gives it a purpose and a personality. Different smells make different types of orc: belligerent soldiers, cheerful labourers, anxious scouts, evasive diplomats. If the scent is wiped off the orc regresses to a tabula rasa and seeks to return to its mother.
Their memories are also scents - kept in blobs of jelly under their armpits. All orc bodies are interchangeable. If one dies then its memories can be scooped out from its armpits and stuck into a new body.
Splashing the ant-folk with strong smells will drive them insane. Mixing together different scent-identities creates strange hybrids, often hostile to their mother and/or wracked by existential confusion.

Their bodies are made of wet clay. They can clone themselves by moulding a new body out of fresh clay and spitting into its mouth to bring it to life. The clone retains the memories of its creator up to the moment it was brought to life.
They conceive of identity as a spectrum rather than a binary. Two clones recently diverged will consider each other to be almost part of themselves - like two limbs of the same body rather than two separate beings. They don't fear death of a single body, only annihilation of the entire lineage.
Their secret weakness is corruption of the lineage. If you can trick them into growing apart from their clone-siblings, then their sense of identity stretches like warm toffee... stretches, snaps, and then they fall to fighting each other, horrified by what they see in the mirror.

Monday, 18 February 2019

The Arid Pelagia

This summer I went to Koonya Beach on the Mornington Peninsula. There's not much sand there, just rockpools surrounded by wide shelves of stone. The stone is quite flat, coated in soft sea-moss and anemones; the waves roll over it at ankle height. Dotted here and there are deep blue rockpools, clogged with kelp, concealing the homes of crabs and octopuses. Elsewhere there are direct inversions of these holes - tall spurs of windweathered stone jutting up from the flat plain. It's an alien place, one of those places they would go to film sci-fi movies.

The Arid Pelagia is like that, but a hundred miles wide.

A stone plain with a film of restless water stretched over the top of it, where waist-high waves roll for miles without breaking. Where one false step can send you tumbling into shadowy caverns beneath the water's surface. Where there is no fresh water and no shelter from the sun. A wet, humid desert.


At the far end of the plain is Mother Sea, who surges at the edge of the world. Every year she sends storms to cross the Pelagia. They come quickly, turning the bright blue sky to blackness, scouring life from the stone. Everything that lives in the Pelagia must have a way to survive the storms. The crabs and the flat-headed worms take shelter in the deep rockpools; the giant limpets adhere to the rock; the yellow gulls and the striders ride the wind to escape.


Natives of the Pelagia, nomads who drag their possessions behind them on bladder-sleds (flat bottomed boats that float with the help of inflated bladders). They wear grey djellabas and broad-brimmed hats; on their backs they carry tiny stills that make fresh water by evaporation. When the storms come and the waves grow tall, they puncture the bladders and their sleds become skiffs on which they ride out the storm.
They live by hunting game in the rockpools. Teams of naked divers, armed with bone spears, plunge into the kelp forests to hunt the giant white worms. They are also traders: every calm season they go to the edge of Mother Sea to meet ships from the Incomparable Isles, then return across the desert to sell rare goods to the people of the mainland.


Stone outcrops rise from the plain here and there, scoured by the wind into twisted and fantastical shapes. The mystics of the Wadermen say that in these rocks they can discern the voices of the winds, who speak to the stone on geological timescales. The mystics identify ninety-nine distinct winds, but ultimately seek to go beyond these voices to hear the deep song of Mother Sea herself.
The Wadermen believe Mother Sea is angry with her children for abandoning her. Therefore she sends storms to wear away the land; eventually all the land will return to her, and the world will end. The Wadermen do not fear this, but they hope that before it comes they can finish their translation of the rock, which contains the sea's last message to her children.
Most of the windwrought stones are only small spurs, but a few are large enough to contain chambers within. These monoliths are taboo places for the Wadermen, but it is said that strange treasures can be found inside them, deep within caverns shaped by the voice of the sea.


Most of the rockpools are small, but some are very large, up to a mile across. Some of them also connect to caverns underneath the plain. Each pool is its own tiny world: kelp forests and sandbars, twisting worm-tunnels, shell graveyards, and dappled grottoes where red crabs gather. As well as hunting, the Wadermen dive these caverns in search of rare opal-pearls, which are formed by a strange interaction between the sands, the tides and the refracted light of the midday sun.


The Wise Limpets: They never stop growing. The oldest are bigger than horses, and have many children and grandchildren clinging to their backs. They know many things, most of which humans cannot understand. The only way to communicate with them is to lie down at dusk beside them in the surf; at midnight they will crawl over you, suffocate yet sustain you, and speak to you in dreams. Make sure the limpet is your friend and not your foe before doing this, or you make never wake again.

The flat-headed worms: White, sinuous, fifty feet long with arrow-shaped heads and a ruff of venomous quills. They dwell in the blue holes but can also slither across the plain. One bull-worm can feed a tribe of Wadermen for a month. Their quills are used as spears and their proto-cartilaginous skulls as ceremonial breastplates. Every nine years they migrate to the largest pool in the Pelagia, where they breed in a massive loathsome tangle.

The Striders: Most feared creatures of the plain. Giant pondskaters on four insectile legs, they ride the surface tension to skim along the water at incredible speed. They spear victims with their legs and then impale them, still living, on barbs at their leg-joints. A successful Strider keeps a small menagerie of impaled prey in order to attract a mate. When storms come they unfurl four diaphanous 'wings' (actually more like sails) and ride the wind to safety. Thus the Wadermen say: "the only thing worse than a Strider charging at you is a Strider charging past you."

Shell Horrors: The motion of the tides collects countless small shells and deposits them in deep clefts in the rockpools. When these shells have been collecting and grinding into dust for a hundred years or more, then the cleft becomes choked with the ghosts of molluscs. They coalesce into an undead thing, an amorphous blob of sand that bristles with shells. It attacks by grazing the target, slicing their flesh with hundreds of shell edges. Shell Horrors are hungry but unable to eat, which in turn makes them angry and vengeful. If they can be lured into the open air they will quickly dry out and collapse into dust.

Among the other fauna of the Arid Pelagia are the blind crab-people who live in deep caverns and dress themselves with poison anemones; the murderous plaice that disguise themselves as stone; the blue-ringed octopuses and sly reef sharks; the rockpool-diving cormorants, the gulls and the albatrosses; the midges who breed in the salt water in summer, and the great turtles who come from the world's edge to lay their eggs.

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...