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.

Managing a Hub Town: Buying Equipment after first level

Taken from a Ren Faire website.
Taken from a Ren Faire website.

The second thing players want to do in town is exchange their money for useful stuff. In most games I’ve played in & run, the same problem starts to crop up after the players have had a few successful adventures: what do they do with all their money? The classic solution of buying property property and building a citadel doesn’t appeal to many players. The game needs a money sink.

Based on my thinking, the money sinks in a hub town can essentially be broken down into 5 groups:

1. Equipment
2. Services
3. Nonspecific information / quests / hooks
4. People.
5. Property / Business

If you have any ideas which fall outside of these groups, let me know. I want to be as inclusive as possible here.

“Equipment,” which covers nearly all material goods, is obviously the broadest category. I’ve chosen to term it “Equipment,” instead of merely “goods,” because in this post I am only really concerned with what the players will find useful. Could they buy a dining room table and chairs in town if they wanted? Sure. But they probably won’t want to, because it’s a game about exploring dungeons and killing monsters. They’ll want to buy things which help them do that stuff better.

So what qualifies as useful? Obviously standard equipment like swords and armor is part of that list, but that stuff is cheap! Aside from plate mail, I’ve never played in a game where a player couldn’t purchase the standard equipment they needed with their starting money. So, obviously, this will not do as a money sink.

Players need easy access to equipment which costs a lot more than standard equipment. And it needs to be useful enough that they don’t feel like they’re being ripped off when they buy it. And both of those goals need to be achieved without resorting to any god damned magic item stores. *

I can think of two good ways to accomplish this. The first is to create items crafted with extraordinary materials or skill, that confer a small but significant benefit for a high price. For example, a 500sp length of rope which is just as light as normal rope, but is rated to 1000lb. Or a longsword made of extremely light materials, which thus does not require an encumbrance slot.

The second way would be to create fairly powerful items which have extremely limited usage. Like a 300sp smokebomb which, when used, allows the players to escape from combat without any chance of the monsters following them. A healing potion would also be a good example of this kind of thing.

I have an added advantage in Dungeon Moon, because it’s a post apocalypse. I’m allowed to make Standard Equipment much more scare. I’ve been thinking that standard equipment in Dungeon Moon is of extremely poor quality. If purchased at the normal prices, it has a -1 to its effectiveness, and breaks on a critical failure. For x10 price, you can get it with only a -1 penalty and no breaking chance. You’ll need to pay base price x100 to actually get a normal quality item.

*(I should mention that Courtney has one set of super cool solutions to this problem in his Numenhalla campaign, and a completely different set of even cooler solutions to it in his Perdition campaign. Unfortunately I don’t get to talk about those, I think. But I can be inspired by them!)


What’s the best way to manage a small hub town?

Roman Men working on constructionIn game terms, what do players want when they visit a town?

They want to exchange their loot for money, or they want to exchange their money for useful stuff.

These are not the only possibilities, but they are the prime functions of towns in my games.  I want to develop a good system for managing towns which will focus on these two points, and make both of them more interesting, without falling into the trap of burdening myself with an impossible amount of upkeep.

More specifically, I’m concerned with the town of Stockton in my Dungeon Moon campaign setting. Ostensibly, Dungeon Moon is the low-magic result of a high-magic apocalypse, where literally everything is scarce, and the areas outside of town are so dangerous that no one but the PCs dares to step outside at all. In practice, no game rules actually support that idea. So these posts will focus on addressing the specific needs of Stockton. However, I’m hoping to come up with something generally applicable enough that I can use it later without too much modification.

With that in mind, I’ll start by addressing the first function of a town: exchanging loot for gold.

When players succeed in getting their loot back to town, the total value of that loot is added to the town’s economy, and the town gains experience from it as a player would. The town uses the same experience track as the fighter, and “levels up” at every third level. So the town will reach level 2 when 4000sp has been recovered by the party, level 3 when 32,000sp has been recovered, level 4 at 256,000sp, etc. For reference, after 9 sessions of Dungeon Moon, this progression would make Stockton almost level 3, which is ’round about where the players are.

Each time a level is gained, only two things happen. First the referee should roll on a table of “town improvements.” They should roll a number of times equal to the town’s current level. Exactly what this table will include is yet to be determined, but it should be meaningful improvements to the town which will directly affect the second purpose of a town – exchanging money for useful stuff.

Examples of what might be on this table could include:

  • A trades person of a random type settles in town. The price of goods associated with their trade drops, and quality improves.
  • The town’s vendor saving throw is improved by 1.
  • A new type of service person arrives in town, such as a sage or herbalist, and they begin to ply their trade

The second thing which happens when a town levels up is that  a new batch of retainers become available. When a town levels up, it is not only a measure of how much wealth has been pumped into the town. It is also a measure of the player’s improving reputation as successful adventurers. As mentioned above, very few people on dungeon moon are willing to leave the towns. But if the players continue to succeed, more people will be willing to follow them.

At the start of play, Stockton has 1d4 – 1 people in it who are willing to hire on as retainers. Each time the town gains a level, 2d8 – [Deaths] people become willing to travel with the PCs. (Deaths include all PC and retainer deaths since the last time the town gained a level).

Another side effect of people being unwilling to leave the safety of Stockton is that there is no trade between it and other towns. The players may, if they choose, clear a path between Stockton and another town. Each time they do this, Stockton begins to trade with the new town, and the players may roll once on the town improvement table. So the players can improve the town in both active, and passive ways, without ever needing to do anything other than adventure.

The best part is that all of this should require very little upkeep from me. After the initial effort of finding / creating some tables to roll on, all I’ve got to do is record the total value of recovered treasure each session (which I do anyway), and make two rolls every 3-5 sessions when the town levels up.

I’m eager to hear some thoughts on this one. Is anyone aware of resources which could help me in this endeavor? Any input on how the above could be improved?

World of Bellumus

The Death of Brutus - Justice for CaesarOf late I have become completely preoccupied by the history of the Roman Republic and Empire In particular, the life of Julius Caesar. I’m in the middle of his Gallic Commentaries, decided to take a break to re-read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, thinking I might have a much greater appreciation for it now that I’m so familiar with the characters and events it describes. It also may help that I’m no longer in high school.

There is a soliloquy, when Marcus Antonius is left alone with Caesar’s body, which captured my imagination. It reads thus:

A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Domestic fury and fierce civil strife
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;
Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate’ by his side come hot from Hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war,
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

Obviously, Antony is speaking figuratively here, but there’s some god damned delightful images.

A curse shall light upon the limbs of men;
Those most loyal to Caesar are transformed. Their fingers fall away and their arms sharpen like blades. Their feet become cloven, and their legs bent. They cannot stop running, and they lust for the blood of vengeance.

“Domestic fury and fierce civil strife Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;”
The land becomes a man-made hellscape of endless war.

“Blood and destruction shall be so in use, And dreadful objects so familiar,” 
No one is an innocent. Women, children, the infirm, none leave their house without a sword in hand. It is uncommon to go a week without needing–or choosing–to kill.

“That mothers shall but smile when they behold Their infants quarter’d with the hands of war;”

“And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge, With Ate’ by his side come hot from Hell,”
Caesar’s spirit, given new physical form, walks the land aimlessly with Ate the Greek spirit of ruin dancing around him. He seems removed, as though he does not see, hear, or feel anything. If he desires to take a step, 100 men could not stop him. He would crash through a marble wall if he needed to.

The only time he seems to be aware of his environment at all is when someone is within reach of his sword or spear. Without hesitation he will will them, no matter the love he might have shown to them in life. He is no longer a man, but a force of nature.

“the dogs of war,”
Dogs, as large as horses, roam Italy. They are fierce beasts. They will attack any man they see, and have been known to slay entire cohorts.

Anyone within a 6 mile radius of these dogs becomes immediately aggressive and violent, lashing out at whoever they can until they pass from the dog’s presence.

“With carrion men, groaning for burial,”
The dead, though they lay unmoving, shriek and howl with still lips, cursing the living.



A Single Saving Throw

Save v. Dragon BreathIncreasingly, I’ve noticed that new games being written in the OSR style have only a single saving throw. The GM doesn’t ask you to make “Your save against breath/poison/spells/et al,” because it’s all covered by a single target number. And after seeing this three or four times, and trying it myself once, I’ve begun to wonder what value there is in dividing the saves up in the first place.

Multiple saves are certainly more flavorful and more granular, but what benefits does that bring? Half the time I call for a save, I feel as though the flavorful name of the save has absolutely nothing to do with the thing being saved against. The save versus breath (sometimes called “breath weapon,” or in the ancient texts, as the save versus “Dragon Breath,”) is used to avoid a danger which quickly fills a large space, and typically results in half damage on a successful save. Aside from a dragon’s fiery breath, it might be used to avoid a volley of crossbow bolts set off by a trap, scatter-shot from a cannon, hot oil being dropped from the parapets of a wall, or many dozens of other things. In fact, the majority of things it will be used to save against will not be breath weapons. And don’t even get me started on Paralization, I don’t think I’ve ever had cause to call for that save when its name was actually relevant.

Saves against poison and spells are a little better, but the fact remains that some of the saves are so completely disassociated from their original purpose that their names have become anachronistic. But, perhaps it is important for each class to have some things it is good at saving against, and some things it is bad at saving against. Perhaps granularity is the reason for the system’s longevity. But, if it is, can someone please explain to me the logic which dictates what makes a given class good or bad at saving against something?

Why do wizards have a save of 13 v. poison, but 12 v. paralization? What makes clerics better at avoiding being turned to stone than everybody else? Some of these decisions seem more logical than others, of course. Wands having a lower save than Spells is cool, because it means a magical device will never truly live up to the power of a real caster. But, by and large, these decisions seem arbitrary.

Furthermore, I feel I must mention the amount of bookkeeping involved in having a multitude of saves for each character. When I’m making a new character, I need to record a number of my HP, a number for my AC, and far too many numbers for my saves–which will come into play far less often than the previous two numbers will. And the way they advance is so arbitrary that, for many characters, finding out what your new saves are might be the only reason you ever need to consult the book after creating your character. HP progresses according to your hit dice, AC progresses according to the armor you find, and saves progress a random amount at random levels. When I’m playing a rules-light game, nothing but spells cause me to reach for my books more frequently than saves do.

So I must ask: is there any good reason not to use only a single save for each class?

(As an aside, I should point out that if flavor and granularity are so very important, why not use Fortitude, Reflex, and Will saves like D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder? The flavor for these saves is more broadly applicable, and they offer a reasonable amount of granularity with an easy-to-understand logic behind it. )

Edit: Some relevant reading:



New Look

Papers & Pencils Layout from 2012 through 2013As you may or may not have noticed (Hi, RSS readers!), I redesigned my website. As this change comes shortly after the first of the year, I think I’m obligated to write something to the effect of: “I’ve got a new look for a new year.” So…yeah. Consider that done.

P&P has needed this for awhile now. The old setup was clunky, loaded slowly, and was starting to have some really odd presentation issues. For example, for the last 9 months or so, when I logged into the admin account, the left and right sidebars would both load on the right side of the browser. It looked really stupid. Hopefully it was just me, as the admin, who saw it.

As rough as the old layout had become, though, it was a labor of love. I worked on it for two entire months, consulted with dozens of people, and modified it so heavily that I don’t think the original creator of the theme I used would even have been able to recognize it. This setup is much less fancy. It’s just the current default wordpress theme, with about 3 days of tinkering thrown on top of it. But there are significant improvements. Much more space for content, much faster loading times, and I’ve finally got a pretty solid search function! That’s exciting. I should also be able to get a nice navigation menu set up within a few weeks.

I hope you like it. Let me know if you’re having any issues. And just in case you’re wondering: no, it is not lost on me that my first post in several weeks has absolutely nothing to do with tabletop games. I’ll fix that too.

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