Magical Marvels 20: The Skull Censer

Skull Censer by CBMorrie
Art by cbMorrie

The Skull Censer was crafted in mockery of the sacred incense censers used by goodly faiths throughout the world. Built by the hands of devil worshipers, and consecrated with the blood of an unbaptized child, it was used during Black Sabbaths to “bless” the faithful.

The chains used for handling the censer are affixed to a human skull–rumors disagree on who precisely the skull belonged to, but it was undoubtedly a man consecrated to the priesthood of a lawful god. Long gold bands mounted within the upper jaw support the incense dish. Oddly, regardless of the incense placed in it, the smoke which rises from it is always brilliantly green, luminescent, and smells of delicious cooking meats.

Though pleasant, this smoke has a predictably nefarious purpose. Those subjected to it for prolonged periods will slowly be drained of their vital essence. It will leave them frail, and they are more likely to succumb to disease or minor injury. Whilst the user of the device grows ever stronger, feeding on their essences before abandoning their congregation to find a new one.

In game terms, anyone who breathes the smoke from this censer for 20 minutes or more will lose 1 permanent hit point, which is transferred permanently to the on wielding the censer. This effect stacks, but cannot affect the same victim more than once per two week period. So an evil priest could use this in a ceremony with 5 other people, and at the end of that ceremony each of those 5 would have 1 fewer hit points, whilst the priest would have 5 more hit points than she had before.

The victims of this censer are entitled to a save v. magic after each encounter, with a bonus to their roll equal to the total number of hit points they’ve lost. If they succeed, they notice that they have grown steadily weaker ever since they’ve been around this censer. (Though it will not grant them specific knowledge of the cause. If they started eating more grains around the same time they started being afflicted, they could easily attribute their weakness to the change in diet).

Sample Initiative

Monster Hunter SwordAfter taking some additional time to ruminate on my three requirements for an initiative system, I decided to take a stab at making an initiative system specifically with those three requirements in mind. Something which maximized excitement, without requiring too much time or attention from the players.

Players roll initiative individually, based on the speed of the weapon they are using. Most weapons, and any character who is not using weapons, roll 1d6 for their initiative. Characters using slow weapons, such as the sword pictured, roll 1d4 for their initiative. While characters using fast weapons, such as rapiers, loaded loaded crossbows, or daggers, roll 1d8 for their initiative. Slow, Average, and Fast weapons align nicely with the great, medium, and small/minor weapons in Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

There are no modifiers to these rolls. However, characters roll their initiative die a number of times equal to their dexterity bonus or penalty (with a minimum of 1 die rolled). If the character has a bonus, they take the best result of the dice they rolled, and drop the rest. If the character has a dexterity penalty, they do the opposite. Using only the worst result.

So a fellow with a -2 dexterity modifier wielding a Zweihänder would roll 2d4, and whichever result was lower would be their initiative. Meanwhile, a fellow with +2 dexterity wielding a dagger would roll 2d8 and take whichever result was higher as their initiative. Characters with initiatives of 1, -1, and 0 would all roll only a single die.

What I Require of Initiative

Some D6sRecently, Courtney asked if he could experiment on those of us in his Saturday game. I like experiments, so I said yes. So did everybody else. Courtney sent us the rules he was brewing (specific references to which will be light, as I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask Courtney how he feels about having them posted), and we began setting up our characters. The system isn’t run-of-the-mill D&D by a long shot, and I liked a lot of what I saw, particularly the way equipment will be managed. My funds were limited, so I started out with nothing but a big-ass sword, which I noted had a -3 initiative penalty. At the time, it seemed like a fine tradeoff.

I arrived late to the game, so it was already well underway by the time I showed up. Sometimes the French revolution gets exciting, and you forget that you need to wake up at 5:30am the next day in order to get to the D&D game on time. I mostly watched and listened, since I wasn’t fully up to speed on what our goals were. Everything seemed to be going well, and we were soon preparing an ambush for a set of giant cats.

There has already been some discussion of what followed. Suffice to say that the players were confused and frustrated by the initiative system. I, in particular, didn’t like it at all. Once Courtney explained it, I saw how it was–on paper–an elegant and interesting method. Clearly it did not work in practice. Though, with refinement, I think it could be more engaging than other methods. Playtesting will tell in future sessions.

Thinking about it, Initiative is odd. Every rule has permutations between various systems, and house variants besides, but the sheer number of vastly different methods of running initiative, and the effects those have on play, is kind of fascinating. It can be rolled individually for each combat participant, which takes more time, but maintains a clear order of operations. Alternatively it can be rolled for each ‘side’ of the combat (typically players / things players want to be dead), which keeps combat moving at a much faster pace, but might be a bit jumbled, with more confident players inadvertently edging out quieter players. Some people roll initiative only once, as Pathfinder does, which keeps things moving along, particularly when initiative has been complicated in other ways; whilst games like LotFP re-roll the initiative every round, so you’re never sure if your next turn will come before-or after-the thing that’s trying to kill you. Some games apply all manner of modifiers to initiative, while other keep modifiers simple, and still others use no modifiers at all.

And then there are some who run initiative in phases, as proscribed by the AD&D DMG. Spells must be declared at the start, then missile attacks take place, then melee attacks take place, then spells go off. This one consistently confuses me, and various GMs have frequently needed to tell me that I can’t perform an action, because if I’d wanted to do that I needed to declare it during an earlier phase. And then, of course, there are those who don’t use initiative at all. I’ve never tried this myself, but those who have seem perfectly happy with it.

It occurs to me that my ideal initiative system serves three functions, in descending order of importance:

  1. It does not require me to think too much. I want to focus on what my next action is, not when the rules allow me to take said action.
  2. It is fast. If the forward momentum of the game has to pause to figure out who is going next, then it is taking too long.
  3. It adds some amount of excitement to combat, beyond merely establishing turn order. If points 1 and 2 were all we cared about, why not move in descending order of dexterity?

The most basic system I first encountered when I started playing OSR style games is a good example of an initiative system which fills all of these criteria. Roll 1d6 for each side of combat, rerolling each turn. It requires zero thinking on my part, takes perhaps 10 seconds to resolve, and keeps everyone on their toes because you never know if the bad guys will get two turns in a row. That doesn’t mean the system is perfect. Points 1 and 2 are more or less pass/fail requirements. If a method fails either of them, then it’s junk and needs to be improved. Point 3 has a lot of room for creativity, though.

The goal of brewing a good initiative system is to maximize the excitement it adds to combat, without failing the other two tests.

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