Sunday, 31 May 2020

Horrible House playtest

I've written a procedural OSR-style adventure in the vein of Emmy Allen's Stygian Library. Having just come off a Shadowrun campaign, my Tuesday night gaming group are letting me run a playtest game. We're playing via Roll20 at the moment, our rooms at the local university having been shut down as a coronavirus measure.

The idea is that the characters enter a generally normal-seeming Victorian mansion with a chained angel at its heart and things get stranger and more threatening as they move further inside. I copied Emmy's depth mechanic almost unchanged.

This is all being done using Ben Milton's Knave as the system, with a few houserules. The characters are starting the adventure at level 3 because I'm not sure the players are ready to embrace the cheapness of life in OSR games just yet.

The characters are:

Maximus (Max) Johnson, played by James K. A student, mostly of ways to make other people's property into his property. Has been exiled in the past.

Adelaide, played by Tim. A gambler, who has been disowned.

Iris MacLeod, played by Theo. A herbalist who is suspected of crimes.

Castor, played by Mila. A poverty-stricken magician who carries around a hen named Eggrietta.

Karros Shepherd, played by James C. A tracker who has been replaced in his job.

The party started on the front porch. They needed to enter the house to find out what happened to the delegation of clergy they were supposed to accompany as a cover. They also had instructions to retrieve the magic tome Ivan Vantig (the owner) used to snare an angel.

There was no-one visible from the porch, just a swing seat creaking in the morning breeze. Adelaide and Iris approached, and the seat cast Charm. Adelaide successfully resisted but Iris sat down and the swing seat launched her into the air, inflicting 1d6 damage. She picked herself up and the party entered.

At depth 1 they found themselves not in a foyer or entrance hall, but in a portrait gallery. Max tried taking one of the several brass candelabra lighting the paintings, but it squirmed out of his grip. It backed away from the party, but stayed close, helpfully attempting to illuminate whatever they looked at. They were distracted from examining the paintings by their shadows, who were doing their own thing rather than mimicking the characters' actions. The shadows were miming their normal morning routines, so the characters wrote it off as odd but harmless. They proceeded into the next room.

Depth 2 found them in the house's private theatre, which the Vantig children had clearly been using as a playroom. There was a small pile of toys on the stage. Looking through them, Iris and Adelaide found a pair of earrings and a necklace. They might be costume jewellery, but they have the weight of the real thing, so they split the pieces between them and wore them to save inventory space. They also found a sheet of paper which had symbols scribbled on either side. The characters recognised one as a name in angelic script: Nelphael. The other is the demonic glyph AGA, meaning confinement.

(I made a mistake here. I made the players roll to recognise the symbols when I should have just given Castor the magician's player the information.)

There were a couple of (non-creepy) dolls in the pile, one with a button eye hanging loose from a thread. Castor repaired it as a gesture of good will in case the dolls came to life and tried to stab them in their sleep later. That took long enough for a random encounter roll and they found themselves attacked by three Wig Beasts. Springing from among the costume equipment, I gave the beasts surprise. It took two full rounds to put them down, during which Iris took more damage. (I took the Wig Beast damage die down to 1d4 when I realised these creatures which I intended to be just an annoyance were a genuine threat.)

Iris and Adelaide (who were co-incidentally the front line for the battle) both lost big tufts of hair to the beasts' attempts to sink tap roots into their scalps. Iris was hurt badly enough to take 10 minutes to prepare a dose of her healing herbs. There was no encounter during that turn. The candelabrum, which had followed them from a previous room, accidentally set the stage curtains on fire. They managed to pull it down and stamp it out before it spread.

It was a game with a lot of prep, so that was as far as we got. Tonight's session continues from there.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The why of villages

According to British crime dramas, you're 900% more likely to be murdered in a sleepy little countryside village than anywhere else in England. But when you've been on the road for weeks and supplies are running low, they can be a godsend.

So what makes this village tick? What do they do all day, what's their background, what are they secretly ashamed or proud of? Will they sell you supplies and wish you a safe journey, or will someone knife you in your sleep as a potential threat to her victory in this year's rhubarb pie baking contest?

The main source of income is:

  1. Farming
  2. Fishing
  3. Mining
  4. Hospitality for travellers on a nearby trade road
  5. Craft - smithing, cooping, wagon-building, etc.
  6. Forestry

An important nearby resource is:

  1. A forest where game can be hunted
  2. A bridge or ford
  3. A marsh where bog-iron can be collected
  4. A clay pit
  5. A bat cave where guano can be harvested
  6. A medicinal/culinary herb that grows wild
They offer adventurers (roll 3 times):

  1. A blacksmith
  2. Horses for sale
  3. Dried food, lamp oil, rope, arrows
  4. Healing
  5. Cleric services
  6. Guides

They are led by:

  1. A minor noble family
  2. A council of business leaders
  3. An elected mayor
  4. A clan chief
  5. A governor assigned by the kingdom
  6. An informal group of village elders

Who is/are 'advised' by:

  1. A wealthy family stripped of a noble title generations ago
  2. A secret council of 'concerned' citizens
  3. A bandit clan with a nearby secret camp
  4. A coven of witches
  5. A whispering presence
  6. A spy for the ruler

The citizens are:

  1. A single race
  2. Two or more races living together
  3. Several races and immigrants
  4. Mixed and include a small population of highly unusual creatures 
  5. Mixed and include many exotic creatures
  6. Mostly exotic creatures

An unusual feature is:

  1. A ghost in the ruler's chambers
  2. A fairy market every full moon
  3. A law against killing cats
  4. An inn built into an old ruin
  5. A barred and shuttered building no-one is permitted to enter
  6. An unusual town official - witch finder, sword examiner, nose-measurer, plague doctor, etc.
A nearby threat is:

  1. The beast in the woods
  2. The goblin camp
  3. A border war
  4. An ancient curse
  5. A growing cult
  6. A feud between two influential families
They don't talk about:

  1. The leper colony their grandparents' generation burned down
  2. The smuggling tunnels under the oldest houses and what they're used for today
  3. The deal they made with an evil sorcerer during a hard winter
  4. The massacre that happened decades ago
  5. The unusual religion they practise
  6. The reason for the sunset curfew

Saturday, 2 May 2020

Court of Apes

A bestiary of apes for a dungeon adventure because sometimes the solution is more monkeys.

Macaque Minister

Ever-mindful of their dignity, Macaques are the orators and speech makers of the court. They argue their positions with punctilious decorum, no matter how ridiculous they are.

"I admire the passion with which the honoured member advocates for socks to be worn inside-out, but has he considered the impact on the yarn-makers and dyers?"

AC 9 [11], HD 2 (5hp), Att 1 × rapier (1d6), THAC0 18 [+1], MV 120’ (40’), SV D13 W14 P13 B16 S15 (MU2), ML 7, AL Neutral, XP 60, NA 2d4 (1d6+2), TT B

Sleep - Once per day a Macaque Minister may cast Sleep on any number of creatures who can hear it. Requires a common language and an uninterrupted round of waffling speech. Save vs paralysis resists.
Climb - Can Climb as per a Thief of 3 levels higher.
Ambi-ambidextrous - Can wield a weapon as long as any limb is free.
Prehensile tail - Tail can be used to grip. Can hold the Macaque's and extra weight up to that of a Halfling.


Colobus Counsellor

Always ready to offer stupid advice, whether asked for it or not.

"M'lord, I can assure you we will save hours of the servants' time cleaning by simply diverting a river through the castle on alternate Wednesdays."

AC 7 [12], HD 2 (7hp), Att 1 × staff (1d4), THAC0 18 [+1], MV 120’ (40’), SV D11 W12 P14 B16 S15 (C2), ML 7, AL Neutral, XP 25, NA 1d4+2 (2d4), TT N

Cure light wounds - Once per day a Colobus can examine a patient and pronounce a diagnosis "You're pregnant/You're dead/You have bees." and provide a tonic in the form of 'medicinal' brandy that restores 1d6+1 HP.
Escape - If attacked, a Colobus may disappear into its own baggy robes and emerge fleeing in an unexpected direction.

Gorilla Philosopher

Gorillas who spend their time debating schools of thought. They slam their fists on the ground, beat their chests, snort and shake their heads, but there's no actual violence.

"The sock question is fascinating and deserves careful consideration. Nevertheless, we are apes and apes have no feet."

AC 6 [13], HD 4 (18hp), Att 2 × slam (1d4) or 1 x logic (1d6 + paralysis, see specials), THAC0 16 [+3], MV 120’ (40’), SV D12 W13 P14 B15 S16 (F2), ML 7, AL Neutral, XP 80, NA 1d4+1 (2d4), TT O


Logic - a Gorilla Philosopher may attempt to disprove an opponent's existence. Requires a common language. Attack uses target's Int modifier as a bonus. Success does 1d6 psychic damage and target must save vs paralysis or lose a turn while they doubt their own reality.
Snarl - Once per combat a Gorilla may vent a growl of animal fury and automatically gain initiative for its side in the following turn.

Gibbon Scribe

Gibbons bumble about looking for things to record. Any things.

"Hang about, hang about - what was that part about winding my entrails around the flagpole? And do you mind if I write 'guts'? It's easier to spell."

AC 9 [10], HD 1 (4hp), Att 1 × sharpened quill (1d4), THAC0 19 [+0], MV 120’ (40’), SV D11 W12 P14 B15 S16 (C1), ML 7, AL Neutral, XP 10, NA 1d6+2 (2d6), TT S

Chimp Guard

Slouching chimpanzees with chainmail and dented helmets, using spears to prop themselves up. They watch proceedings with a sleepy disinterest until it's time to leap screaming into battle.

"You saying I'm corrupt? 'Cos that's insulting and when I feel insulted it costs twice the usual fee to walk through this door."

AC 7 [12], HD 3 (14hp), Att 1 × sword (1d6) or spear (1d6), THAC0 16 [+3], MV 120’ (40’), SV D12 W13 P14 B15 S16 (F2), ML 7, AL Neutral, XP 35, NA 2d4 (1d6+2), TT K

Bonobo Page

Chimp-like apes in livery, carrying trumpets and scrolls. They announce visitors and shout the events of the court as they happen.

"Hear ye! Sir Reginald Montague Fineteeth throttles Lord Eustace Curlwhiskers with his tail! Lord Eustace responds via an attempted eye gouge with a fish fork! Lady Marjorie Goldenfur absconds with the last of the pastries!"

AC 6 [13], HD 2 (7hp), Att 1 × trumpet (1d4), THAC0 17 [+2], MV 120’ (40’), SV D12 W13 P14 B15 S16 (F2), ML 7, AL Neutral, XP 20, NA 1d6 (2d4), TT P

Good King Paul

A 7-year old human boy with a cloth tail stitched to his shorts and glued-on monkey whiskers. He shouts nonsensical commands and the apes hurry to carry them out while applauding his wisdom.

"I declare today cheese day! Everyone eat cheese!" "Urgh, cheese is yuck now. It makes me feel funny. Anyone with cheese shall be put to death!" "By royal decree, everyone walk backwards!"

AC 9 [11], HD 1/2 (2hp), Att 1 x kick (1d2-1) or 1 x bite (1d2-1), THAC0 16 [+3], MV 120’ (40’), SV D14 W15 P16 B17 S18 (NH), ML 6, AL Neutral, XP 5, NA 0 (1), TT I

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Drunk fighting

Rules for fighting while drunk, to resist supernatural mental influences or just because that dwarf at the inn was looking at you funny.

Once upon a time my players were facing a demon that had the power to hypnotise people into a dream state and control them while they were in the trance. One of the characters had already come very close to death that way before they realised what they were up against. They had to physically restrain her from climbing into a hospital furnace while dreaming that she was dead. Their most useful resource on demonology was a semi-reliable book of centuries-old witchcraft. They asked me how the witch hunters of olden times resisted demon illusion powers and I tossed off a line about going into battle roaring drunk.

It was meant to be a throwaway that clearly wasn't practical in modern times, but they grabbed onto the idea and ran with it, so I improvised a system for drunk fighting. The battle that followed was awesome. Here's a refined version of the system I used that day.


At the start of each round players decide how many points to sacrifice from their attribute bonuses to a pool to resist Charm-like spells and Charisma-based attacks. Points put into the pool cannot be recovered until the character sobers up. Each point spent from the pool gains +2 to saving throws against influence. Bonuses may stack.

Points can be taken from Dex, Int, Wis and AC. Players can take their bonuses as far into the negatives as they like.

If the characters are not resisting mental influence and just brawling drunk (eg. a tavern fight, crashing a wedding or smuggled themselves into a fortress in wine barrels) then they automatically lose 1 point from a random bonus until they reach -1 to Dex, Int and Wis rolls.

Characters regain their normal stats after a night's sleep.


When characters take HP damage, if the amount of damage is odd it gets added to a tally instead of being immediately taken from HP. The character feels nothing and instead suffers that damage at the end of the fight.

If this takes the character below 0 HP, the excess comes off Str. This regenerates at the normal pace for attribute damage in your game. If Str is taken to 0 or less, the character can use any remaining points in the resistance pool for bonuses to a death saving roll. On success, the character is brought up to 1 Str and 1 HP. On failure, death.


While drunk, characters subtract their normal Cha bonus from 5. The result is their new Cha bonus until they sober up. Characters that are normally charismatic become obnoxious and crass. Characters who are normally reserved become charming and outgoing.

Equipment loss

The next day when the characters are recovering and complaining about their hangovers, they each roll 1d6:
1 - 3: Nothing lost.
4, 5: A minor item lost.
6: A weapon, piece of armour or some other important possession lost.

These may be recoverable from the battlefield, or may be gone for ever.

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Fantasy X-Men

In a previous post I mentioned an idea about ordinary characters having minor superpowers because they're polymorphed monsters and don't know it. Each character would have an ability stemming from their monster nature and a taboo that would undo the spell if they transgressed it.

The original idea was for each party member to be the only one who knew about another member's taboo, and have the responsibility for making sure they didn't break it. The monsters would effectively be each other's guards. However, I'm not that fond of games that give you knowledge your character doesn't have. Where's the fun for the player in uncovering the mystery?

So instead I think it should be handled by the GM. Players don't even need to know what sort of polymorphed creature they are. They can just be told that they always have advantage on certain skill tests, or that they have a supernatural power that works once per level per day. And supernaturally punished when they break their taboo, which they also don't know about.

I looked through the B/X Essentials monster manual for creatures that were A) living and B) intelligent and found a bigger list than I expected. Some are close enough to be cousin species, but that's an advantage if it gives a player the chance to form a completely wrong theory about what they are.

As of right now, I'm going simple and saying that breaking a taboo causes a psychic shock that does 1d6 HP damage, but it could easily be expanded into another subsystem. Maybe it damages the illusion and once you realise what you really are Wizard X unleashes the hounds of Tindalos to destroy you.

Bonus: Advantage on stealth rolls for character and anyone accompanying.
Taboo: Labour for wages.

2) Centaur
Bonus: Movement rate tripled.
Taboo: Carrying a person.

3) Djinn
Bonus: Breath weapon. Any creature of lower hit dice in a 5-space cone ahead of you is knocked prone. Equal hit dice are driven back 1 space.
Taboo: Go underground.

4) Doppelganger
Bonus: Imitate a person's voice and mannerisms perfectly. +2 bonus to disguising yourself as someone specific.
Taboo: Speak your own name.

5) Dragon
Bonus: +1 spell slot which can be cast hit dice x times per day.
Taboo: Give up a prized possession.

6) Dryad
Bonus: Advantage on woodcraft skill tests.
Taboo: Light a fire.

7) Efreet
Bonus: Instinctive understanding of fire - how to start it, how it spreads, how to contain it.
Taboo:Immerse yourself in water.

8) Gargoyle
Bonus: Wakefulness. You're immune to charm person and sleep spells and can stay awake for hit dice x days with no harmful effect.
Taboo: Sleep in a bed.

9) Giant
Bonus: Advantage on strength rolls.
Taboo: Act humble.

10) Gnoll
Bonus: Advantage on tracking rolls
Taboo: Eat before the party leader does.

11) Goblin
Bonus: Advantage on caving skill tests.
Taboo: Pay for something honestly.

12) Harpy
Bonus: Cast Charm Person hit dice x daily.
Taboo: Let a personal offence go unpunished.

13) Hobgoblin
Bonus: Advantage on stealth rolls for character and anyone accompanying.
Taboo: Enter combat without backup.

14) Invisible stalker
Bonus: Automatically surprise on your first attack in any combat.
Taboo: Alert someone to your presence.

15) Kobold
Bonus: +2 AC without armour, advantage on rolls to dodge.
Taboo: Attack an opponent from the front.

16) Lizardman
Bonus: You can slow your metabolism at will, entering a meditation-like state you can dismiss instantly. You need no food or water in this state.
Taboo: Kill a snake.
17) Lycanthrope
Bonus: Improved senses, especially smell. You can only be surprised on 1-in-6.
Taboo: Handle silver.

18) Manticore
Bonus: Poison bite. Hit dice x times per day. Victims must save or die.
Taboo: Speak words of comfort.

19) Medusa
Bonus: Cast Sleep on one target hit dice x times per day, by making eye contact.
Taboo: Look into your own reflected eyes.

20) Merman
Bonus: Advantage on swimming tests, hold breath for 2 + hit dice x minutes.
Taboo: Taste brine.

21) Minotaur
Bonus: You can handle weapons as if you were a larger creature - eg. weild a two-handed sword one-handed.
Taboo: Handle ceramics.

22) Nixie
Bonus: Cast Charm on up to hit dice x animals, once per day.
Taboo: Kill an animal.

23) Ogre
Bonus: Advantage on strength rolls.
Taboo: Share food.

24) Orc
Bonus: Advantage on caving skill tests.
Taboo: Enter combat without backup.

25) Pixie
Bonus: A successful save vs petrification nullifies all fall damage, otherwise fall damage is reduced by half.
Taboo: Harm a winged creature.

26) Salamander
Bonus: A successful save vs breath nullifies all heat or cold damage (choose which at character creation), otherwise damage is reduced by half.
Taboo: Use your opposing force as a tool or weapon.

27) Sprite
Bonus: Cast a minor curse up to hit dice x times per day. The curse target will suffer a clumsy accident, have a tool break, or some other distracting inconvenience.
Taboo: Speak a compliment.

28) Treant
Bonus: Up to hit dice x times per day a tree will find a way to help you - drop a branch in the right place, bear fruit out of season, etc.
Taboo: Cut wood.

29) Troglodyte
Bonus: Advantage on climbing tests.
Taboo: Sleep under open sky.

30) Troll
Bonus: When you roll for healing, use the rolled value or your number of hit dice, whichever is better.
Taboo: Handle open flame.

Saturday, 11 April 2020

The why of roads

If you come across a road that's not marked on your map, all you really know about it is that leads to, or from, some place that people wanted to be.

This road leads to:
  1. A city
  2. The coast
  3. A market town
  4. A keep
  5. A ruin
  6. A demihuman community
It's a:
  1. Paved military road
  2. Graveled trade road
  3. Muddy parallel wheel ruts left by farm carts
  4. Trampled grassy track cleared of trees
  5. Forgotten and badly-maintained highway
  6. Raised wooden boards above marshland
It passes:
  1. Through the foothills of a mountain range, winding between the peaks
  2. Along the bank of a fast and wide river
  3. Across bare ground at the border of a desert
  4. Along the edge of coastal cliffs where heavy waves break on rocks at the base down below
  5. Through dense woodland where sunlight never penetrates to the forest floor
  6. Through a deep valley that reduces the range of vision and hampers lookouts
A standout feature is:
  1. Toll houses a day's ride apart
  2. Guard posts garrisoned to hunt bandits and highwaymen
  3. Robber gangs preying on traveling merchants
  4. Coach inns of varying quality
  5. A section cut through a dangerous forest
  6. Tales of ghostly riders
 The most frequent travelers are:
  1. Mail coaches crewed by tough and well-armed drivers
  2. Merchants driving covered wagons full of wares for trade
  3. Farmers delivering produce to nearby communities
  4. Pilgrims visiting holy sites
  5. Companies of soldiers relocating to new duties
  6. Traveling entertainers
Travelers should watch out for:
  1. Shopkeepers inflating prices for out-of-towners
  2. Wild animals
  3. Squads of fighters from two different factions who each claim jurisdiction over the road
  4. Monsters
  5. Weather that makes the road impassable
  6. Slavers and military press gangs

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Destiny combat

Image by Pete Linforth
I've been noodling with a concept I call destiny combat, which is how the very wise and powerful get their revenge on each other. The idea is that with a great deal of planning and effort, you can ensure a rival fulfils their destiny in the absolute worst way possible.

The foundational premise is that everyone has a destiny, whether it be large or small. You're fated to live and die in a particular way, and that's unchangeable. But while the outline may be fixed, the details are forever changing. That's why fortune-tellers are unreliable and oracles are mystical and cryptic. They can only see your current future and by the time it arrives it may have changed.

The outline of your destiny is important to the world, but it's the details that are important to you personally. For example, your outline might be that you're destined to inspire generations of the world's great philosophers. That might be through founding one of the great colleges, with a strong tradition of sharing knowledge... or by getting tortured so horribly that a religion forms around it. Obviously you'd prefer one. Your enemies might prefer the other.

The very powerful are capable of reading destiny (theirs and others) but they usually don't. In the process of looking hard at someone's fate, it gets fixed in place. Both the outline and the details. That might mean the good outcome gets selected, but then again it might not. It's a heavy responsibility to bear. And if you fix your own bad outcome in place you'll have good reason to regret being so curious.

Naturally, wizards will ward their own destiny to prevent someone else examining it. Even so, there are ways and means to get partial but accurate glimpses of a future without running into a ward or altering fate. Certain places, times and rituals you can follow. To outsiders, the process seems even more vague and mystical than normal wizardry. Use them properly and you can observe a fate like a bird in your peripheral vision, ready to fly away if you turn your head. You can make guesses about it based on that, and maybe nudge it a little to move in the direction you want.

This is the work of years, or perhaps even lifetimes. Great sages trying to uncover and fix their own good end in place, and infer from unexpected changes who’s working against them and how.

In a world like this, what happens to people who achieve their great destiny and survive? If you believe that the workings of destiny are as perfect and omnipresent as physics, they probably just live quietly until they die unremarkably. In a world where it’s a legitimate threat that a god might drunkenly lose your planet in a game of cards, things might not be so neat. I think a party of former Prophecied Heroes would be perfect agents for a high-powered wizard. Cut loose by destiny, unpredictable and un-divineable. And it makes sense of the way players will stomp all over a GM’s plans for them.

And it makes this scene possible:

“You’re a former chosen one of the prophecy? So am I!”
“And me! I fulfilled a prophecy. What about you?”
“Well, yes. But I don’t like to talk about it. There were spiders.”
“‘Scuse me, I just recently fulfilled quite a big prophecy--“
“Shut up, assassin. We’re still turning you in for the bounty.”