Tuesday, 21 June 2022

20 Unusual potions

Getcha potions right here! Want to be thinner? Want to be stout? Want to grow hair back? Want to cure gout? Potions potions potions! I wrestled this potion off my great-grandmother. Ninety years old and she gave me a shiner that took a week to fade. This potion is how she preserved her right hook for fifty years!

Except where otherwise stated, potion effects last for 8 -  CON bonus hours.

1. Ocular vitrification tincture

This potion causes one of the user's eyes to become glassy and pop out of its socket. The owner can still see through it, no matter how far away it is. The eye will reconnect normally as long as it's back in its socket before the potion wears off. If it's not, it reverts to flesh wherever it happens to be.

2. Glossolalia dose

Anyone who drinks this potion speaks and understands a language known only to other drinkers.

3. Osteoactive jelly essence

Softens the drinker's bones. The user can't stand, but can coil around things like a constrictor snake. Or squeeze through small openings. If the opening is narrower than the drinker's head, it compresses their brain. This causes them to experience strange sights, sounds and emotions. If the opening is significantly narrower than the drinker's head, it causes damage. Make an attack with the difference in inches as a bonus and D4 damage.

4. Orchardic promoter mix 

Pour a dose on soil and it instantly grows a random fruit tree to full height and blooms with fruit. Picking the last fruit causes the tree to wither to nothing.

5. Avian transmogrification elixir

Transforms the drinker into a bird. The bird species is random, but higher HD users tend to produce birds of prey. The same elixir transforms actual birds permanently into voles.

6. Robust integument formula

Halves bludgeoning damage. Also causes the drinker to boom like a drum when struck.

7. Essentia lunula

Causes the drinker's finger- and toe-nails to harden and flatten. Afterwards they flake off like tiny knives. They can be a vicious weapon if embedded in something.

8. Cynosural enhancement draught

Gives the drinker an absolute sense of where the compass points lie.

9. Indenomitive juice

The drinker can no longer say their own name or speak a sentence that directly refers to the self.

10. Nonpareil regurgitative tonic

The drinker vomits up a precious stone. This causes considerable intestinal distress for 10 - level minutes. Until vomiting the stone, the character is at -2 to all rolls. Once uncorked, the potion sours in minutes. Drinking it after a delay causes the same sickness, but no gem.

11. Draconasal augmentation solution

Allows the drinker to smell precious metals up to three rooms away.

12. Potion of improved visibility

The drinker becomes a light source. Halfling-size or smaller produce as much light as a torch. Larger creatures produce as much as a lantern.

13. Seismic mirth tincture

Causes the drinker to laugh with a force that shakes the ground and deafens bystanders.

14. Dreischer dose

Causes the drinker's voice and mannerisms to become increasingly annoying over time.

15. Mellification formula

Causes the drinker to sweat honey. The kind of honey depends on the kinds of plants in their diet. Triggers an encounter roll if the table has creatures attracted to honey.

16. Crimson aurochs potion

Tastes foul, but allows tired people to function without penalties. Also causes scattered feathers to sprout.

17. Caustic lachrymose tonic

Makes the drinker's eyes water. The tears will rust metal instantly. Blurs vision while in effect. Lasts HD x minutes.

18. Insulating tincture

Causes the drinker to grow a thick, warm pelt. Lasts 2 hours per dose. After that, the drinker sheds all the hair over a period of ten minutes. While in effect, drinker cannot form recognisable words.

19. Essentia fructus scientiae

Causes the drinker to temporarily grow roots and branches. Clusters of berries (up to 4d6 total) grow from the branches. Anyone eating a berry will gain one of the drinker's skills (drinker's choice) for the length of a watch. A second dose will cause the drinker to be stuck in plant form.

20. Multiplication solution

Causes the drinker to split into 5 x HD miniature copies. Each is about as smart as a bright rat. Their instinct is to scatter and rejoin at the place the drinker was thinking of when taking the potion. When they assemble, the potion wears off and they're drawn back together.

Saturday, 11 June 2022

D6 wizardly wagons

1. Flying boat

The flying boat is a normal three-mast sailing ship. Instead of using sails, its booms and rigging are perches for thousands of folded paper birds. They keep it aloft by flapping in unison. It travels at the speed of an unladen European swallow, about 20 mph. It has no landing gear. When setting down it sits on its keel and lists to the side. Sometimes to a dangerous degree.

2. Elephant golem

This is a wooden elephant, three times life size. Its flanks have hatches that give access to a hollow interior with shelves and cargo nets. The driver sits on the elephant's head and operates its trunk as a crane to lift bales in and out of the interior.

The golem is smart enough to pick the most level route to a destination. It's also capable of defending itself with feet, trunk and iron-tipped tusks. It can run, but the jarring damages its frame and its more delicate goods.

3. Walking mansion

A large mansion with four wings and a central annex. The wings flex like legs, stepping like a spider and carrying the annex like a body. The wings are empty of furniture, but still hold their fittings. Those are twisted and smashed from the flexing of the building's 'legs'.

The mansion's steps are equally hard on the ground it passes over. With no foundation to bear its weight, its 'feet' sink into the soft earth and yank out giant clods of it when they lift.

4. Balloon tower

This three-level tower was crudely cut free from a larger structure. It's suspended below a large canvas balloon. Inside that are fire and air elementals performing a solemn dance together. 

The tower's contents (including a full-sized alchemy bench) are secured to the walls with nets. The bench is covered with pages written by the builder. He realised too late that he hadn't given any though to coming down once he was up. Some of the scribbled notes read COLLECT RAIN WATER FOR BALLAST? UNPICK STITCHING? JUMP WHILE OVER WATER?

5. Serpent wagon

 A covered wagon that glides along supported on the head of a giant snake. The sinuous movement covers land and water equally well. It makes any so-inclined passengers thoroughly motion sick.

There's a strong reptilian smell that makes cattle and horses nervous and jumpy.

6. Completely normal horse cart

...is what it looks like, but the horse has no reins. Tell it where to take you, and it does.

It doesn't talk and it certainly doesn't offer to share the layout of a nearby wizard's tower with adventurers in exchange for a cut of the loot am I clear, Dobber?

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

How to sell me on your game

20% more mayhem.

A brief primer on what should go in a sales pitch for your game.

Lately I've been giving the indie publishers on itch.io a lot of attention. Itch is a marketplace where the consequences of failure are low. Creators are willing to be a little braver about what they offer up for play. There's also a lot of first-time game designers wearing all the hats and doing their own editing and layout.

Between my Itch queue and the recent DrivethruRPG D20 sale, I've concluded that a lot of RPG design newcomers don't know how to pitch their games. It's no surprise, pitching is a different skill to designing. But it's not hard and it's an important tool for success as a game author, whatever that might look like. Here are my suggestions for a pitch that would intrigue me, if no-one else:

1) Tell me what the characters do. What kind of game were you thinking of when you wrote this? Delving? Investigation? Monster-hunting? Espionage? If you don't spell it out, I'm going to guess it's dungeon fantasy. But I'd still prefer to know what your assumptions were. 

1a) If it's a generic system, what supplements come bundled with it?  What supplements are available right now, and where can I find them? What are you planning on releasing later?

2) Dice and resolution mechanic. If it's roll one die + bonuses vs target number, tell me that. If it's roll a dice pool and count successes, tell me that. And let me know what dice and/or cards I'll need. If your game needs custom dice and the players don't know it without buying the book? I hope all your future rolls are critical fails.

Wow, okay. I guess I'm invested in that one.

3) Tell me what's special about it. Now when I say 'special' I don't mean you need to have invented the next obsession of the RPG world. Tell me what you like about it. Does it do something different? Is it condensed? Clarified? Rules-light? A really nice layout? Classes adjusted in a way that works better at your table? If you just had fun making it, that's good enough but think about reflecting it in the price.

4) What support do you give it? Do you hold Q&As? Can I email you with questions? Is there a fan forum or a subreddit?

5) This is more of a personal preference than a must have, but pagecount. If it's up around 100 pages, I'm going to assume there's some complexity and player choice in it. If it's around 200 pages then complexity, character creation examples, a setting and optional rules. At 400 I'm convinced you're padding it. At five pages, I'll assume it's a very simple game that relies heavily on GM fiat. There's nothing wrong with that, it's a style.

6) Last, spellcheck and grammar check. If your pitch is full of errors and sentences that are difficult to parse, I'll assume your game is hard to read. The content of your pitch might be enough to move it over the line anyway. But not usually.

Here's an example of a very good pitch. It's concise and informative.

Tuesday, 1 March 2022


This is a one-page game of being people who are halfway to zombifying. You got bitten, but medical science suspended the turning process. Now your survivor enclave wants you to stay outside and do all the dangerous jobs. They're not going to risk someone healthy, are they?

Click the image to download a copy.

Monday, 1 November 2021

Hungerling lake

A small dungeon in the Underdark for low-level characters using a Dyson Logos map. The big challenge here is not alerting the horde of hungry carnivores that some edible adventurers have entered their dungeon.You can download it from here. It's my entry for the Itch.io Dyson Logos Jam, which is all about grabbing one of Dyson's free commercial maps and stocking it with creatures and treasures.

How does Dyson keep pumping out top-tier dungeon maps every couple of days? He's some kind of prodigy. The Bruce Lee of map-making.

Speaking of Itch.io, I've made copies of anything from my blog that looks useful on an Itch page of my own. Download 'em, print 'em, scatter them on the floor and roll around in 'em. No charge.

Browsing the RPG authors on Itch, it seems like everyone's got a game or several, but there's considerably less in terms of adventures and add-on material. Maybe that's a useful area to focus.

Saturday, 16 October 2021

Black science

Mention black magic and what comes to mind is curses, necromancy, blood sacrifice, summoning demons, making pacts with Things From Beyond. All of this is obviously bad and wrong. You can immediately recognise that magic is black because there's never any positive outcome from, eg., raising the dead. A curse is a nefarious thing, even if you're cursing for a good reason. 

I'd like to create a concept of black science. Not just science conducted by illicit means, but science that poisons its goals, offends the gods (if they exist) and generally gets the scientist chased out of town by a pitchfork-wielding mob. Which might turn out to be nothing more than magic with added blinkenlights, but if that's the case then so be it.

Science is often considered to be equal but opposite to magic, particularly in RPGs. If you're talking about black science, you're talking about:
  • Re-animation
  • Opening portals to the hell dimension
  • Mind control
  • Mutating victims
  • Harvesting organs/fluids
  • Killer robots
  • Blowing up the moon. (Too specific?)
  • Draining energy from intelligent beings
  • Planarianism (learning by extracting the brain of someone who knows what you want to know)
  • Altering history
  • Biowar/chemwar
  • Bargaining with evil aliens
(Note: Since assembling this list I've been informed that it's only black science if you don't know what you're doing. If you know exactly what you're doing, it's black engineering.)

There's obviously some cross-over here. You could imagine a guy in a labcoat and butcher's apron trading threats with a guy in a purple robe and butcher's apron over the top of a freshly filled grave. Elizabeth Bathory took blood from her servants to stay young, Alexander Bogdanov took blood from his students. In DC's old Captain Marvel comics, one of the villains was Dr Sivana, who could speak a scientific formula that allowed him to walk through walls.

What does a black scientist want?

Money, power, revenge, respect... the usual gamut. He may also be motivated by a pure but reckless curiosity about things that mankind were obviously Not Meant To Know. A willingness to sacrifice others in pursuit of forbidden knowledge is a given. You don't make a megalomania omelette without breaking a few egos. Black scientists aren't necessarily mad, but they have an intensity that smaller minds can't match.

Signs and portents

Evidence that there's black science going on should leak out in the form of mass headaches, deformed animal births, mass bird deaths. A hint that someone's messing with radiation and/or ultrasonics. Power drains? Stepford people? MIBs? Mysterious lights at night?

Stepfords could be people who've thrown their ambitions in with the scientist ("Dr Deathbringer is a respected member of our community! His portal to the vampire dimension will bring industry and business back to this town!") or actual smiling zombies ("Dr Deathbringer knows what's right. We should do as he says. Dr Deathbringer knows what's right. We should --"). In the latter case, they could turn into rage zombies if something takes them outside the parameters of their programming.

I like the idea that black science inadvertently summons or even creates Men in Black. Maybe they're observers from elsewhere. Maybe antibodies in a universal immune system. Always enigmatic. Sometimes working for the scientist, sometimes opposing him.

Witch marks

Lab coats, jacob's ladders, and cackling laughter are a bit on the nose, aren't they? So maybe we don't use those. Wild hair and a tendency to rant is fair game, though. Poor social skills. A general lack of patience for ignorant outsiders.

Question: is this just a reskinned magician? Mmm, possibly. Better question: what kind of game do I intend this for? Probably not off-the-shelf fantasy. Something pulpy? Something post-WWII-cold-war-red-scare-stranger-danger-ish.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

The Why of Strongholds

It's a hazardous undertaking for civilisation to expand into wilderness. There are wild animals, monsters to contend with, hostile people who were there ahead of you, and other expanding kingdoms closing in. Everyone feels better knowing there are thick stone or wooden walls nearby they can shelter behind when they need to.

This stronghold protects a:

  1. A ferry or bridge
  2. A forest
  3. A trade road
  4. A border route
  5. A mountain pass
  6. A temple

An advantage is:

  1. An underground stream below the castle.
  2. Extensive cellars, cool and dry. 
  3. Good farming land nearby.
  4. Vantage points overseeing all approaches.
  5. Old-growth trees for timber.
  6. Protected from weather by a rock outcropping.

A problem is: 

  1. Crumbling masonry.
  2. Too small for the numbers it needs to shelter during a siege.
  3. Top floors of the keep were destroyed by fire.
  4. An infestation of vermin.
  5. The building is cursed.
  6. The lord is deathly ill.

Money raised by: 

  1.  Charging a fee to passing merchants.
  2. Taxing the local community.
  3. Operating a silver mine.
  4. A provision of the king.
  5. Contributions from wealthy landowners.
  6. Pillaging locals and kidnapping for ransom.

A historical fact is:

  1. A previous lord was killed in a mutiny.
  2. A previous siege was broken by attackers catapulting diseased corpses over the walls. 
  3. Troops here won a famous victory against enemy forces.
  4. The current lord's family were murdered by a witch he insulted.
  5. A demon was imprisoned in the dungeon for many years.
  6. The stronghold was used to test a new magical weapon. It failed.

An outside threat is:

  1. Bandits making hit-and-run raids on locals.
  2. Monsters preying on isolated people.
  3. Enemy forces just across the border.
  4. Seasonal weather will soon make the terrain impassable.
  5. A plague is spreading through the area.
  6. Raging fires.

An inside threat is:

  1. A tunnel from the outside has been dug into the cellars. 
  2. The priest is a secret member of a heretical sect.
  3. The farrier is an enemy agent prepared to poison the horses.
  4. Most of the stored grain has been stolen.
  5. The guards' discipline is lax.
  6. The lord is mad.