Death Touched

620x315xOSRToday-Fiction-Friday-620x315.png.pagespeed.ic.m8zwZ2iuCQI recently wrote a piece of short fiction about a magic user, a fighter, and a specialist who band together to go treasure hunting in a dungeon deep in the forgotten wilderness. OSR Today has graciously given my fiction a home, and for the last 5 weeks, one chapter of my story has been going up every Friday. As of today, the final chapter has been posted, and you can now read the story in full.

Death Touched Part 1.

Death Touched Part 2.

Death Touched Part 3.

Death Touched Part 4.

Death Touched Part 5.

 

It only now occurs to me that perhaps I ought to have been making blog posts about this the whole time. Self promotion doesn’t really come naturally to me. I’ll do better next time.

Magical Marvels 22: Raggi’s Rejects 2: The Scepter Prison of Thing No Thing

A magical whestone scepter based off the Sutton Hoo whetstone.

A 4-sided, 2′ long wheststone, shaped to serve as a scepter. It is capped with bronze at each end. A large ring at the top contains a lens, and standing atop the ring is a curly horned ram. At the base are four faces carved into the stone. They are plain, with hollow mouths and eyes, and no distinguishing features. The metalwork is detailed, but rough. Clearly this was crafted with much less advanced techniques than are used today.

Blades sharpened on the stone turn a slightly darker color. Anyone touching the blade feels a sharp pain, and wounds caused by the weapon are more painful than normal. This effect has no mechanical benefit. The primary target of the whetstone’s magic is the wielder of a sharpened weapon.

When someone picks up a sharpened weapon, one of the four faces on the whetstone will close its eyes and mouth. As long as they hold the weapon, they will be possessed by one of the four spirits within the whetstone. A scabrous mask will grow over their face, with the same hollow features that are carved in the stone. The character becomes a mute servant to whomever currently holds the whetstone. They retain all of their normal abilities, or gain the abilities of a 2nd level fighter, whichever is better.

Characters may sharpen as many blades as they want, but there are only four spirits. The spirits will automatically choose the strongest four people available to them. Characters who who have been vacated by the spirits recall only that they were possessed, but not what they were forced to do, or how long they were possessed for. The person who sharpened the blades is not immune to this possession. Only the person who currently has the whetstone in hand is able to hold a sharpened weapon without being possessed.

When a possessed character makes the killing blow against an intelligent creature, blood flies from their victim’s wounds, and into the mouth of the scabrous mask. The process of draining their victim of blood requires a full combat round, during which they will ignore any commands they are given. If the spirits perceive that they are intentionally being kept away from tasks that would allow them to kill intelligent creatures, they will return to the stone.

When a player finds the whetstone, the spirits are 2d12 kills away from their goal. If a character looks through the lens at the top of the stone, they will see the number of kills remaining scratched into every surface they look at. Once the possessed characters have killed enough, the whetstone will crumble to dust. Thing No Thing, a spirit of non existence, has been released from its imprisonment within the stone. It is invisible, but will gather the remains of the destroyed whetstone to create a similar mask for itself. The activity of intelligent minds is a maddening cacophony to Thing No Thing, which it seeks to end by the most expedient means available. Thing No Thing is able to create new servants for himself by making a successful attack. Save v. devices to resist.

Magical Marvels 21: Raggi’s Rejects 1: The Bonebarrow

Recently James Raggi held an open call for magic items for the upcoming LotFP Referee Book. I submitted 13 different items to him. Two of those were accepted. One of the others was based on a completely useless premise. Raggi was right to reject it. I’ve thrown it out.  Another one is essentially a perfect fit for a module I’m writing. So I’m going to keep that one in my pocket.

That leaves me with 9 of Raggi’s Rejects that I’m happy to share here. I’ll break them up into 9 posts over the next few weeks. I hope you enjoy.

The Bonebarrow

WheelbarrowA wooden wheelbarrow, like those commonly used by workers digging a foundation. The sides have been crudely etched with images of skeletons. The scrawls represent only the most basic artistic talent.

If at least one full human skeleton worth of bones is placed in the wheelbarrow, then wherever those bones are dumped, they will animate. The skeletons will begin digging using the wheelbarrow, and any other available tools. They work at the same rate as a human man, as described under “Excavations” on page 33 of the Rules & Magic book. Their hole will be roughly circular, with a diameter of 1′ for every 3′ deep.

Any bodies uncovered by this process will animate and join in the work. Anything other than a body (such as underground structures, buried treasures, or veins of precious metal) will be destroyed by the digging. The skeletons work without stopping. However, each night (or other time when they are least likely to be observed) some of them will take the wheelbarrow to the nearest graveyard to gather more workers. If no graveyard is available, the skeletons will instead harvest fresh bones from nearby settlements. The number of workers will increase by 15-25% each day, with a minimum increase of 1 new worker.

The skeletons will not harm whomever first created them. And they don’t wish to be caught expanding their numbers, so it is often (though, not always) more convenient for them not to harvest their creator’s companions.

The skeletons have 1 hit die, +1 additional hit die for every day since the digging began. The skeletons will dig ever deeper until they are destroyed. Any attempt to stop their project will be met with lethal force. If their creator attempts to destroy them, the skeletons will capture, and imprison that person. If a hole goes deep enough, the referee must decide: do they break through to the core of the earth, or do they open the way to an inner-earth world?

Lamentations of the Flame Princess House Rules, Part 2 of 2

Jan2015_LeapofFaithSkills are a tricky business. They can be a valuable mechanic. But if the GM doesn’t call for a particular skill, then any players who advanced that skill gets fucked over. Case in point: architecture. I do not understand this skill. I’m supposed to ask for an architecture roll if players want to know the age of a wall relative to the rest of the building. Or if they think some bit of floor is unstable. But, if the players are clever enough to ask those questions, I prefer to give them the information outright, without a chance of failure. Which is fine, different GMing styles work for different folks. Except now the player who put a bunch of points into his architecture skill has wasted all those points.

The skill system and the GM need to be in agreement. But you can’t trash skills willy-nilly. There are 9 skills in the base Lamentations of the Flame Princess game. And a Specialist character gains 2 skill points at each level. If the number of available skills is reduced too much, then the Specialist will lack for options. Since there are a lot of skills in Rules-As-Written LotFP that I don’t use (4 out of the 9), I need a better solution than just dropping the skills I don’t like.  I’ve made an effort to rehabilitate some of the skills I don’t like, and to create some new ones which fit my play style better.

I should note that I’m also working on implementing a way for any character, not just specialists, to improve their skills. That’s why I’ve noted two of the skills below as “Specialist Only.” I’ll go into more detail with that system in a later post. (Spoiler: it’s mostly stolen from better GMs than me.)

Note also that skills listed with a parenthetical ability are modified by that ability’s modifier (if any). If two are listed, the skill is modified by whichever of the two are better.

-Mostly Unchanged Skills-
(You can probably skip this entirely)

Sneak Attack (SPECIALIST ONLY): Characters with no points in this skill have their damage multiplied by 1 when they attack from hiding, or while flanking an enemy. For each point a specialist puts into Sneak Attack, their multiplier is improved by one. (x2 for 1 point, x3 for 2 points, etc.)

Languages (Int): Whenever a new language is encountered, characters roll their language skill to determine if they already know it. The check is made at a -1 penalty if the language is monstrous or exotic, a -2 if the language is exotically monstrous, and -3 if the language is an ancient, dead tongue. Magical languages, or the languages of outsiders, cannot be known using this method. Players must record both the languages they do know, and the languages they do not know, on their character sheet.

Tinker: Tinker allows characters to manipulate mechanical devices. This includes opening mechanical locks, disarming traps, or activating unfamiliar machines. Locks or traps of particular difficulty may have a penalty to tinkering rolls made with them. Non-specialists who fail a tinkering roll may not attempt it again until they gain a level, or improve their tinkering skill. Specialists may make as many attempts as they wish, but after the first check, each subsequent check takes 1 hr. Characters using this skill must have a tinkering kit, which is an encumbering item.

-Rehabilitated Skills-

Stealth: Stealth is used to move silently through a corridor, to sidle up against a door and listen without alerting those inside, to hide a small item on your person, to pick-pocket a foe, or to ready a weapon without observers noticing. When used to move silently, characters should first describe a move roughly within their current line of sight. If they fail, the GM should roll a percentile die to determine how far along their path they were when they were noticed.

Athletics (Str/Dex): Not mere brazen acts of strength or dexterity, but skillful applications of such. Notably, climbing sheer surfaces without obvious handholds is covered by this skill. Characters (except specialists) must be unencumbered to make such a climb. On failure, roll d% to determine where in the climb the character was when they fell. Other applications of Athletics are: moving past a monster without provoking an opportunity attack, unusually challenging swimming conditions, balancing on a rope, and jumping more than 15 feet (up to 30 feet).

Bushcraft: When traveling through the wilderness, a Bushcraft roll is used to forage or hunt for food, as described on page 34 of the Rules and Magic book. A bushcraft check also allows characters to identify natural plants or animals. Additionally, when encountering a natural animal, a successful bushcraft check will allow the player to take the animal as a companion so long as the animal has 2 fewer hit dice than the player.

-New Skills-

Prayer (Wis): As a free action, players may beseech their god for aid with a specific task. The referee may adjudicate small bonuses or penalties for tasks in keeping or out of keeping with the player’s faith. Referees may also rule an auto failure if the task directly contravenes the player’s faith. On a successful check, the player may roll the die for that task twice, and take the better result. At the end of the session the character must make a sacrifice to their god. The value must be either 20% of their total treasure haul from this session. Or, the difference in the two die rolls they made, multiplied by 100sp. Whichever is more. If this sacrifice is not made, then during the next game, the player must roll all their dice twice, taking the lower result each time.

Appraisal: A successful appraisal allows characters to know the value of a given piece of treasure, and whether there is anyone who might pay extra for it. Appraisal will also identify fake treasures, such as copper coins painted gold.

Healing: Once after each combat, characters may spend 3 turns attempting to heal themselves or an ally. If the check is successful, the attempt restores 1d4 HP for each point by which the check succeed. (Ex. success chance is 1-in-6, a 1 is rolled, heal 1d4. Success chance is 4-in-6, a 2 is rolled, heal 3d4). Characters using this skill must carry a healing kit, which is an encumbering item.

Vanish: (SPECIALIST ONLY): A vanish check has two uses. First, a specialist may attempt to hide by blending in with their surroundings, using only shadows and foliage to remain hidden. If successful, they cannot be seen until they move, speak, or attack, at which point the effect ends. Second, a vanish check can be used to stealthily disengage from combat without being noticed. This check is made at a -1 penalty for each attack directed against the vanishing character during this round (whether they hit or not). If successful, the vanished specialist can choose to re enter the battle with a sneak attack on their next turn, or skulk away to safety.

-NOT Skills-
I know not including a search or listen skill is unusual, and even controversial, so I may as well address why I’m not using either of them.

The listen skill is already missing from the base LotFP game, but even ignoring that, it never made any sense to me. It’s usually used when a character is pressing their ear to a door to hear what’s going on inside. Failure baffles me. Common doors are hardly soundproof. It could be argued that the roll isn’t a test of hearing, but rather, a test to see whether the creatures inside the room are making any noise. But I find that unsatisfying. If there’s anything beyond the door, I’d prefer to tell players outright, rather than arbitrate it with dice.

The real challenge of listening at doors is doing it without alerting the people on the other side. It’s hard to press your head against a door without causing it to move audibly. That’s why I’ve replaced the listen check, with a stealth check. Not only does it make more logical sense, but failure creates a more interesting situation. The bad guys know something is outside their door, but they don’t know what.

My reasoning for dropping search is similar to my reason for dropping Architecture. I’ve run a lot of dungeons for a lot of players, and I don’t think any of them have yet found a single secret door which wasn’t somehow revealed to them in advance. So why in the world would I want to create a situation where the players have correctly identified an area with a secret door in it, and I’m forced to tell them there isn’t one? I want them to find at least some of my secret doors. There are cool things behind those doors that I want people to experience.

The same goes for traps. If players must roll a check when they’re looking for traps, then they might fail that check. Then the GM has created a situation where a player is killed by a trap immediately after being told that there is no trap. I’ve done this before and it feels wrong to me. I don’t like it.

In previous discussions on this subject, I’ve encountered a common objection: what’s to stop players from just checking everything? There are two good reasons that players won’t search everything they encounter. Both of which are both better than the bad reason of “they won’t check everything because the results would be unreliable anyway.”

  1. Players aren’t that diligent. Diligence is boring. A game where the primary challenge is diligence is a dull game that I don’t want to play. Players will search when they think there is something to find.
  1. Searching takes time. Searching a 10 x 10 segment of wall for a secret door takes 1 turn. Searching a larger area takes a commensurately longer amount of time. The number of encounter checks a group of players would earn by searching every single room would not be worth the damage inflicted on them by so many wandering monsters. There should always be wandering monsters.

-Dwarfs and Elves-

By removing the Architecture and Search skills for my games, I’ve crippled the Dwarf and Elf classes, which use those skills as part of their level advancement. This can be solved either by awarding players skill points equivalent to their lost skill’s progression (So for dwarfs, two at level 1, and one more at levels 4, 7, and 10). Alternatively, the GM can select a skill to progress along the same advancement track. I would recommend appraisal for dwarfs, and healing or bushcraft for elves.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess House Rules, Part 1 of 2

Jan2015_FencerWhen I was a Pathfinder GM, tinkering with and  changing the game’s rules was a pastime of mine. It was the primary driving force behind most of my writing back then. There were some downsides to it. I annoyed my players, who had to adjust to my frequent rules changes. And, occasionally, I would make the game’s rules lopsided, by failing to take rule interactions into account.

Since switching to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, I’ve had little to tinker with. I’ve done a fair amount of adding rules on top of the existing ones. But for the most part, LotFP’s rules do exactly what they should. They give me a framework to run the kinds of games I like to run, without getting in my way.

But no game system can ever be perfect for anyone but the GM who wrote it. After more than a year of running LotFP Rules-As-Written, I’d accumulated a small list of inadequacies I wanted to correct. So I’ve been experimenting with a few alterations that I’d like to share.

I’m going to break this post up into two parts. The changes to combat rules are here, and the changes to the skills system will come later.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

-Weapons, and use for the off-hand-

In RAW LotFP, there are four weapon types:

Minor: 1d4, -2 to hit v. unadjusted AC of 15 or better.
Small: 1d6
Medium: 1d8
Great: 1d10

Great weapons require two hands, while all other weapons use only 1 hand, aside from a handful of special cases (like the staff).  The only thing the player can do with the off hand is hold a shield. I’d like to keep this simplicity, but open up a few options for the player. My four weapon types are:

Minor: 1d4, -2 to hit v. unadjusted AC of 15 or better.
Small: 1d6
Medium: 1d8
Great: 1d12, -1 AC, Requires both hands.

If the player isn’t using a great weapon, they can use their off-hand in several ways:

Shield in off-hand: +1 AC v. melee attacks, +2 AC v. ranged attacks. (Unchanged from RAW)
Second weapon in off-hand: +1 AC v. melee attacks, +2 when fighting defensively or parrying, +0 v. great weapon and ranged attacks.
Free off-hand: +1 to hit, +1 to AC v. melee when parrying.
Both hands on Medium weapon: 1d10 damage instead of 1d8

I like giving players access to a 1d12 weapon; and I also like that great weapons come at a cost. I don’t think enough systems give players an advantage for focusing all their attention on a single handed weapon. I also like the idea of a player shifting between one and two hands with their medium weapon. Allowing them to swap between higher damage and higher hit chance.

I do think the benefit of having an off-hand weapon is too low, but I want to avoid making it too powerful. I want it to be an interesting option, not means to make characters “totally badass.”

-Grappling-

Grappling has historically been a big problem for D&D. And, while LotFP’s “Wrestling” rules are adequately simple, they aren’t perfect. But, as I’ve recently learned, Gygax published a rule in Strategic Review which is pretty close to perfect.

I’m sorry I can’t find the blog which turned me on to this rule (and had a great variation on it), but thanks to Courtney Campbell for pointing me to the rule’s source. After some tweaking, this is what I’m going to try:

When characters grapple, both sides roll their hit dice as a pool. (So a single level 10 fighter would roll 10d8, and 20 1-hit-die kobolds might roll 20d4). The defender must always be a single target, but multiple attackers can attempt to swarm the target. The side which rolls the higher sum number wins. The winner can choose to do one of the following:

  • Knock their opponent(s) prone and stun them for 1 round.
  • Knock their opponent(s) 10’ back and stun them for 1 round.
  • Pin their opponent. (Only one)

A pinned character can attempt to throw off their attacker(s) by rolling half their hit die pool each round. Attackers can opt either to deal 1d4 damage to a pinned character each round, or to move the pinned character up to half of the attacker’s movement speed. A single attacker may also use a small or minor weapon against a pinned character–but not if they’re part of a ‘swarm.’

Aside from simplifying grappling enough that I won’t need to look it up again, the major benefit of this rule is the way it empowers swarms of small creatures. Traditionally, a mid level fighter can stand in the middle of a dozen first level foes, and slay them at leisure. Using this rule, large groups will always be a serious threat, because of their ability to overwhelm a defender.

A look at Wonder & Wickedness by Brendan S.

cover-black - blackYesterday, Brendan of Necropraxis published “Wonder and Wickedness.” And I did something which I’ve never done before: I read an entire RPG book front to back on the same day it was released. This puts me in the fairly unusual position of being able to share my thoughts while they’re still relevant.

Full disclosure: Brendan and I are buds. This post isn’t a ‘review,’ so much as it is an account of why I like this book.

Wonder & Wickedness details a surprisingly modular magic system. It could entirely replace the more common magic user’s system without any tinkering in most games. And if entirely replacing the MU’s spell system doesn’t interest you, it would be a simple matter to cherry pick the magic dueling system, maleficence rules, spell mishaps, magic items, or just the spells themselves. Any of these elements could be plopped down into any D&D game without trouble.

The basic idea that drives the new magic system is dropping spell levels entirely from the game. Instead, the book is filled with spells which can be cast by an MU of any level. Spells scale with the MU’s level, keeping them relevant even in higher levels of play.

The spells themselves are evocative and interesting. Brendan’s well-documented love of Necromancy is evident. His rehabilitation of that often-overlooked school of magic rivals Gavin Norman’s also excellent “Theorums and Thamaturgy.” Other spell schools have been entirely reinvented with a less-than-wholesome bent. The implied setting is one where Magic Users are shunned by decent folk. And for good reason.

The spells themselves are inventive. I’m rarely surprised by something truly new when reading a new spell. They’re either more evocative versions of currently existing spells, or they’re extremely situational to the point of near-uselessness, or they fill some obvious kind of gap (Low level fireball, high level fireball, etc.) There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and some of it certainly shows up in Wonder and Wickedness. But I was surprised by several spells which truly break the mold and offer something entirely new, useful, and not overpowered.

In particular, there are a number of spells in the Translocation school which I can’t believe aren’t commonplace in every D&D game. “Recall” and “Revisitation” seem so quintessentially perfect for basic D&D play. And in the Psychomancy school, “Fascinating Gaze” is just fucking perfect. On the one hand, it’s a fairly weak spell in most situations. But, if applied with some skill, it’s exactly the kind of spell that makes Conan afraid of magic users.

The book’s 84 spell mishaps are curious. In most cases, the effects are far more devastating than any of the actual spells. And, while most of them are certainly a detriment to the caster, they’re also a detriment to everyone around the caster. Plus, there are a number of spell mishaps which actually empower the caster into an even more terrifying and unwholesome force. It creates a sense that whether you’re the caster’s friend or foe, you probably don’t want to interrupt their casting once it starts.

The magic items have a good mix of risk and reward. They foster the idea that, even for PCs, magic is something to be treated with caution. But none (save the Crown of Extinction, wtf man) are outright cursed. I like that several are creatively finite. There’s nothing so crude as “this magic item has 10 charges,” but there are several options for items you can give players without worrying about their long-term effects on your campaign.

The Bridging Arrow is my new favorite thing. Hot damn I can’t wait to see what my players do with it.

I can’t talk about Wonder & Wickedness without mentioning that the book’s interior was illustrated by no less than Russ Nicholson. Who, among many other RPG publications, also made art for the original Fiend Folio.  And he didn’t slack off just because this is a small indie publication–his work is as beautiful here as it was in the FF. There are several full-page illustrations. The kind you can stare at for several minutes, picking up nuances of character expression and item detail.

I also want to give props to Brendan and Paolo Greco (Who did layout) for how easy W&W is to read on a Kindle. I’ve always hated reading on a computer screen, and since the majority of indie RPG publishing is done on PDF, I bought a Kindle earlier this year to help myself deal with that. But the majority of PDFs I’ve read seem to be optimized for print, or for larger screens than the basic Kindle has. The print in W&W is nice and big, and required no squinting–or worse–magnifying the page, and scrolling around on it.

Wonder & Wickedness is absolutely worth your time. You should go buy it now. Not just because it’s great, but because The Lost Pages shop is shutting down at the end of 2014 due to legal issues. It’s a god damned shame. Hopefully the issue can be resolved, but it doesn’t look like it will be resolved quickly. So buy all your PDFs while you can!

I want to close on this note: I came up with the cover for Merciless Monsters before Brendan came up with the cover for Wonder & Wickedness. So nobody gets to call me a copycat when my book comes out. Seriously.

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