Magical Marvels 28: Getting Weird With the Classics 1

Lady Gaga Pyro BrassireRandomly generated magic items from the 1979 DMG, rewritten to suit my current playstyle a little better.

Ring of Invisibility
The wearer of an invisibility ring is able to become invisible at will, instantly, This non-visible state is exactly the same as the magic user invisibility spell (q.v.), except that 10% of these rings also have inaudibility as well, making the wearer absolutely silent. If the wearer wishes to speak, he or she breaks all silence features in order to do so.

Ring of Imperceptibility
The wearer of the Imperceptibility ring cannot be detected by anyone they are aware of. The wearer themselves still reflects light and produces sounds and smells, but so long as they’re aware of a person’s presence, that person is completely unable to detect any of those things.

If anyone the wearer is unaware of is nearby, they can see, hear, and smell the wearer as normal. If they notice the wearer before the wearer notices them, they are immune to the ring’s magics until the wearer manages to hide from them normally, remove the ring, and put it back on again.

If the wearer does anything that is difficult to ignore, the ring struggles to maintain the illusion that the character is not present. In these instances, the player must make a saving throw versus Magic, or the ring will erase itself and its wearer from reality in order to maintain the illusion that no one was present. If, for example, the wearer opens a door in full view of individuals that the ring is deceiving, and there isn’t any wind to blame it on, then the save must be made.

Brazier Commanding Fire Elementals
This device appears to be a normal container for holding burning coals unless magic is detected for. It enables a magic-user to summon an elemental of 12 hit dice strength from the elemental plane of fire. A fire must be lit in the brazier–usually 1 round is required to do so. If sulfur is added the elemental will be of +1 on each hit die, i.e. 2-9 hit points per hit die. The fire elemental will appear as soon as the fire is burning and a command word is uttered. (See Monster Manual for other details.)

Brassiere of Commanding Fire Elementals
A woman’s undergarment that is uncomfortably hot to wear, causing the skin of the breasts to redden, blister, and peel. When a fire elemental is encountered, the wearer may attempt to command the creature by exposing the brassiere. If the elemental fails a save versus Breath, the wearer’s sex appeal is enough to take their breath away.  They become intent on pleasing the wearer, and will attempt to perform any task that is asked of them.

After a task is completed, the elemental will return to the wearer. At this point the wearer may either spurn the elemental’s advances, or give them a new task. If the elemental is spurned, there is a 20% chance per task they completed that the creature will begin a rampage of destruction in a random direction. Otherwise, they will merely return to their home plane in frustration.

For each task requested after the first one, there is a cumulative 1 in 6 chance that the elemental will attempt a lover’s embrace before doing what is requested of it. This will immolate the wearer unless the elemental is destroyed. The brassier itself is fire proof.

Instrument of the Bard #2: Mac-Fuirmidh Cittern
This lute-like instrument is 50% likely to deliver 3-12 hit points of damage to any non-bard or bard under 5th level who picks it up and attempts to play it. A 5th or higher level bard who uses the
cittern has a 15% better chance of charming and can sing the following songs once per day which:

1. Cast a barkskin spell;
cure light wounds; and
3. cast an
obscurement spell.

Lower level bards cannot use the cittern even if they do not harm themselves (whether they take damage or not)

The Cittern of Mac-Fuirmidh

A finely made Cittern once owned by the famed Mac Fuirmidh. Any class which makes music as a matter of course may play the instrument freely without penalty. Members of other classes who wish to use it gain the “Music” skill at 0-in-6. The skill can be advanced normally. Anytime they attempt to use the Cittern, they must check to see if they’re able to play correctly. A failed skill check indicates that sour notes have been played, causing the strings to lacerate the musician’s hands, dealing 1d6 damage.

If played correctly, one of these three effects can be produced. It takes one minute of playing before any magic occurs.

  1. Any foes who can hear the music are given pause by its beauty. A new reaction roll is made at +1 to determine how they feel about the party, now that they know the party is capable of producing such beauty. Creatures who are noted music lovers, or who have large ears, react at an additional +2. Creatures who would not normally make reaction rolls, such as animals and unintelligent undead, react at an additional -2. Creatures without ears are unaffected.
  2. The skin cells of the musician’s allies begin to reproduce at an alarming rate. Their skin grows thick, and disgusting cracks form in it to allow them to maintain free movement. While under these effects, the party could understandably be mistaken for monsters. However, the thick skin does grant +2 to their armor class, and +1 to any saving throws made against a physical effect. The excess skin will flake off and shed after an hour.
  3. Once the music’s magic has taken hold, the musician’s hit points become a common pool of luck which any allied character can draw from. Each hit point can be used to reduce an enemy’s attack roll or saving throw by 1, or increase their own attack rolls or saving throws by 1. These are declared after any dice are rolled. So if Alice’s armor rating is 14, and a bandit rolls a 16 on their attack roll, Alice can spend 3 of her Musician friend’s hit points in order to reduce the bandit’s attack roll to 13. This effect ends 1 turn after the music ends.

What I Need to Improve On as a Referee, 2016 edition

I really really really really like Community.What is the essential essence of being a good referee? I don’t understand it. Sometimes I think I do a pretty good job of playing at being a referee, but if a good referee is consistently good at refereeing, then I don’t think I’m a good referee. I’m trying, though.

In 2015 I played in a lot of games, but I didn’t run more than a handful of sessions. In 2016, though, I’ve started up a new campaign for an old friend of mine who was feeling D&D starved. As I was making my preparations, I thought about what I like in a referee. How could I emulate those qualities, or how could I fake them? Two things came to mind. I’m sure I have more flaws than just two, but two is the number of potential solutions I found for myself. Obviously these are specific to what my own weaknesses are, but maybe someone out there will find my own self improvement efforts helpful for themselves.

The first thing I like is a responsive referee. Someone who keeps the game moving by having answers for players almost before they’ve finished their questions. Someone who never (or almost never) needs to look anything up. It’s something I know I’m capable of, because it’s something I’ve done before. But it’s something that I don’t succeed at consistently.

I know there are some referees, (*cough*) who accomplish this with masterful planning. It’s a skill that appeals to me, and one I’ve attempted to cultivate for years. But my brain just isn’t shaped right for it. What I really need to do is avoid excessive planning. To leave more room for discovering the world at the table, either through random determination or through improvisational world-building.

Of course, an improvising referee is in danger of creating Quantum Ogres. Care must be taken to preserve player agency. Choices must have concrete parameters before they are presented to the players. But the color of the carpet hardly needs to be specified in writing. I have a history of attempting to write entire modules before each game session, and that’s just a poor allocation of time. And it was never even that fun. I was once told that my games were more entertaining when they were poorly planned. At the time I took it to mean that I needed to plan better. What I should have done is listen to the niggling whining of Occam, and set myself to run more poorly planned adventures.

Improvisation is one of my biggest strengths as a referee. And since the goal here is “do less work,” it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Though I may benefit from preparing more random tables as well.

The second thing I like are referees whose worlds feel consistent. Who have recurring characters, and faction politics. Whose worlds adapt not just to the great deeds of the players, but also to the little things they forget they even did.

If I want my games to be more like that, I need to take better notes during play. For real this time. Note taking for me is like weight loss. I always say I’m going to start taking it more seriously, but I always give up before I see any benefits. I wasn’t even good at taking notes in school when literally all I had to do was sit, listen, and take notes. So you can understand that when you combine note taking with running a game, it’s something I’ve never done a very good job of. But the more I think about it, the more I think that taking notes during play is the most important preparatory work a referee can do for future sessions.

I could spend an hour crafting some fascinating NPC for my players to meet. But it will never impress them as much as running into the same random mook named Dave because “1d6 bandits” was rolled two weeks in a row on the encounter table. That experience communicates to the players that they’re in a world with depth and texture. It opens up their minds to the possibilities of making friends and building alliances. It allows recurring foes like Dave to develop organically. It gets them excited. It certainly gets me excited.

I’ve had some promising success with this already. Keeping index cards nearby to write NPC info on has helped. I’ve also taken to writing detailed post-mortems of every session, with treasure, session highlights, NPC developments, etc. I’ve found it helpful to think of taking notes as replacing the detailed pre-session prep I’m used to doing. It also helps that, because I’m not doing that detailed pre-session prep anymore, I don’t have as many papers in front of me to sift through. Which gives me more table space to devote to my notes.

There are other things I’d like to improve on. But these are the two things I’m really trying to get better at right now. And the three sessions I’ve run so far this year have been promising! Self improvement is a tough road, though. Wish me luck.

The Grizzled

Screen-Shot-2015-11-10-at-2.57.40-PMI want to write about board and card games more frequently than I have in the past. So I’m going to.

“Grizzled” is a game I’d never heard of before I opened it up on Christmas morning. It’s an unassuming looking thing. A small box with a stack of cards, a handful of tokens, and a rule book. My ladyfriend tells me it was an impulse buy. Something she saw in the bargain bin. A way to fill out the space beneath our tree. Neither of us expected much from it, and were pleasantly surprised when playing it become one of the highlights of a delightful evening.

The game makes a strong first impression with its art. I confess, the art is not to my particular taste, but it suits the game well. It has a distinct style. There’s an economy of lines that is evocative of the period the game depicts. A time before digital tools allowed every piece of pop art to look pristinely slick and polished. And the palette is at once colorful, but also muted enough to mesh with the game’s theme.

The theme, by the by, is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Specifically, as suffered by French soldiers in the trenches of The Great War. 

The Grizzled Board Game - Box and all components

My first impression, while reading the rulebook, was that the game was pretentious. It seems to take itself so seriously, opening as it does with a plea for the reader to approach the game as a work of art. A contemplation on the horrors of war as valid as any film, book, or painting. The rulebook as a whole is pretty bad, actually. It’s just not very efficient at communicating game rules. (A flaw shared by too many board games really). There was at least one rule we had to make up ourselves, because we couldn’t find it anywhere in the text.

(Does anyone know what enables you to make speeches? We just ruled that speeches were a shared resource that could be used at any time, but some of the game’s cards seem to imply that the leader is meant to distribute who can make speeches or something like that.)

After playing a few rounds of the game, though, I changed my mind. It’s a game about war, but the challenge isn’t enemy soldiers. The challenge is your character’s own fears. As the game goes on your character will gradually become a more broken person. Even a more reprehensible person. It’s a cooperative game, so we were all trying to help one another come back from the brink. But in the end there’s just not enough support to go around. The best you can do is beat back entropy for another turn, and hope the war is over before you reach the turn when you can’t anymore.

So as pretentiously as the game presents itself, it actually does do an admirable job of discussing war trauma not just through its theme, but through its gameplay as well. It lives up to its pretensions. 

Of course as poignant and as sad as the game is, I said above that it was the highlight of an enjoyable evening. And it was! The gameplay is pretty simple: everybody has a hand of cards, and each card has some number of things that might terrify a person on the battlefield. The players take turns laying down cards, trying to minimize the number of times any given terrifying thing is represented. If any single thing is on the table 3 or more times, the round ends. At the end of the round you tally up the number of cards that are still in everybody’s hands, and you add that number of fresh cards to the draw stack. Pushing the bottom of the stack–and the end of the war–further out of reach.

The core mechanic is solid, and of course there are a number of additional elements to give players a range of tactical choices. For example, sometimes the cards in your hand aren’t terrifying things. Instead, they’re character flaws for you to attach to yourself that make you a greater and greater burden on the other players. “Mute” is my favorite, forbidding that player from communicating with the rest of the group “in any way.” Other character flaws are less funny, and more devastating, like the one that forces players to play a random card from the deck as they retreat.

The game has just the right number of options, I think. The rounds move fast, and there’s a lot of excited chatter between players as they try to figure out how to stay in the game just a little longer. Get just one more card out of their hand before they have to retreat.

On the negative side, I don’t love the way they handled the support mechanic. Players have tiles indicating one or two seats to their left or right. As each player withdraws from the battle, they select one of their tiles and place it face down in front of them. When the battle ends, everyone reveals who they offered support to, and the tiles are passed to the players indicated. Whoever receives the most support in a round gets a bit of relief from the mounting stresses of war. If two players receive equal support, then nobody gets any relief.

It’s a workable mechanic. But there’s always a niggling question of why this works within the game’s theme. Why does a player who receives two support tokens not get any relief just because another player got 3? And why does nobody get any support if two people get equal support? I suppose it could be interpreted as an abstraction of the idea that nobody gets as much support as they ought to, but it feels awkward and a little unfair. And not a good kind of unfair. An annoying kind of unfair. If the player on my right clearly needs the most help, why should I be unable to support them just because I only have “left” tiles? And if me being forced to use that left tile causes the player on my right to be tied for support with the player on my left, then nobody gets any support at all. And that’s the kind of thing that can cost you the game. I don’t think the support system is bad enough that it ruins the game or anything, I just feel like it could probably be done a little bit better. 

As cooperative games go, it’s difficult to win. My group lost both of the two rounds we played, but I don’t think I’ve ever had quite so much fun losing a cooperative game. I’ve got no problem losing a competitive game, because that just means someone else was the winner. But it always bothers me when there’s no winner. I suspect the short play time helps here. With a game like Pandemic or Castle Panic, a loss comes after an hour or even two. Putting in that much effort makes losing a bitter pill. But Grizzled just takes 30 minutes. And, really, losing almost feels more appropriate than winning does.

The Grizzled is an interesting game. The individual turns and the overall play time are quick, but as a player you’ve always got enough options that it feels strategic. The experience is fun, but it leaves you with a little something to think about once all the pieces are back in the box. I’m looking forward to playing it again. Maybe getting everyone home safe next time.

Cool Stuff in the Wrong Direction – Overland

Picture Unrelated
Picture Unrelated

Players are genetically predisposed to being dicks. It’s a fact. Their left nostril doesn’t detect odorant molecules the way a good and proper human’s does. It smells unpreparedness. If you’ve prepared interesting material to the North, East, and South, then the players will go West. Because they’re dicks.

Fortunately, you’re the kind of referee who prepares for their own unpreparedness.

  1. The party encounters an act of banditry in progress. Everyone is occupied, so the players have a 4-in-6 chance of remaining unseen. In the chaos, both the bandits and their victims will assume the players are hostile unless they make their intentions crystal clear.

    The victims are emissaries from the noble house of Burnon. The house is in dire financial condition and have made a loathsome deal with the wizard Kelissax. Kelissax needs to sacrifice a child of noble blood for his spell research. The house of Burnon has a 6 year old, 4th-in-line heir that they really don’t need. The child is traveling by carriage, and knows nothing of his coming fate.

    The bandits, meanwhile, are in the employ of Arogoth the Cutthroat, who is known to be a loyal servant to Kelissax. The wizard, as it turns out, isn’t quite as wealthy as he suggested to the desperate Burnon matriarch. He can’t afford the child’s cost, so he’s hoping to steal the boy away for free. The Burnons can hardly mount a spirited search for his kidnappers. To do so would require them to answer awkward questions about what the boy was doing so far from home.

  2. A hamlet called Telsborough with no more than 120 residents. It’s a welcoming town, moderately reknowned in the area for its excellent food and hospitable citizens. There’s no proper inn, but several families in town have formed a “hosting committee,” and will happily put up travelers in their homes. They hope, someday, to attract a trade road to come through their town.

    Unfortunately, after 2 months of marriage, a young man named Albert has decided that it’s the perfect time to murder his young wife Felicity. Selling off her meager dowry after she’s gone will allow him to afford a silversmithing apprenticeship in the city.

    His plan is simple: Tell the ever-so-trusting felicity to meet him “where they first kissed,” which happens to be a narrow path between two homes just off the main road. Knowing Felicity, when she sees strangers come by on the main road, she’ll call a few of them over to show them her fine needlework. If they’ll just swing by the house later, she’d be happy to sell a few garments for the travelers to bring to any ladies in their life.

    Albert will watch from hiding. Once the meeting takes place, he’ll pop out, stab poor Felicity until her eyes go cold, then wait for the body to be found. He assumes people will naturally assume the strangers are responsible. It’s not the most clever plan, but Albert is hardly the most clever man.

  3. A large mound of dirt breaks the surface, with a hole at the top large enough for two humans to climb down abreast. The tunnel is buttressed with the bones of large animals. Things live here. Bulky, furred, not-quite-men with swollen tongues hanging to their chests.

    For the layout of the barrow, use a childhood home as a kind of mental map. The rooms are chambers, the doors and hallways are corridors, any stairs are holes in the floor or ceiling. Each of the creatures who live here correspond to one of the people who lived in that home with you. Their personalities are twisted and cruel versions of those people, even if those people were already a little twisted and cruel to start with.

    In the chamber that corresponds to your kitchen, there is a mass grave filled with headless human bodies, covered by a burlap tarp. Most of the heads are stored in primitive ice chest. The rest are strewn across the ground, cracked open, brains sucked out.

    In what was your bathroom are a dozen fawns of the barrow’s horrid habitants. Mewling and suckling at a tank of fluids that have been juiced from human brains. In what was your living room there is a fat candle of yellow wax as tall as a man’s belly. If its flame ever goes out, the not-quite-men believe they will be forsaken by their dirty, hateful god.

    Any exits from your home aside from the main entrance are instead hidden doors. There’s a 2 in 6 chance they lead to a small cache of treasures, otherwise it is a hidden escape tunnel that lets out under a rock 3 miles from the main entrance.

    In the place where you slept, there is a trio of elderly captives. Delicacies for these creatures. Their brains are being saved to be eaten fresh. Two of these are an old peasant couple on the road to visit their daughter the next town over. One is Sir Wulhurst, a venerable knight of 112 years. Any PCs who grew up within 100 miles of here will have heard of his exploits. Most people assume he’s dead. It’s understandable, given that he rarely leaves his keep in these final decades of his life, but the assumption still irks him.

  4. The players encounter a wall with a matte painting of countryside on it. Turns out there literally isn’t anything in this direction. Just a matte painting, and a low-level psychic suggestion that before now had always prevented anyone from walking this way.

    It won’t take much searching for the players to discover a sliding steel door in the matte painting, which can be pried open with a crowbar. Within are space aliens. Bald blue skinned humanoids with six fingered hands and bulbous red fish-eyes on either side of a narrow head. They’re running around in a mild panic, as a fire just destroyed their psychic emitter a moment ago. A panic that will only increase when they see the players–members of a truly brutal and savage race.

    These alien’s technology isn’t so much “advanced,” as it is “different” from our modern day technology. For example, the smallest computer they’ve managed to develop weighs 100lb, but they’ve discovered the means of producing psychic emissions. Likewise, they’ve never figured out rocket science, or even basic flight. But they do know how to teleport themselves to any world with a magnetic core strong enough to serve as a beacon.

  5. The players encounter a lighthouse on top of a hill, but nowhere near any body of water. The structure is simplistic, but effective and competently assembled. It is maintained by a woman named Josephene, who claims that God told her to build it. That the world will soon be flooded once again, and that the light will guide people to her when the floodwaters come. When they arrive, she will give them the word of God’s new covenant. She’s not willing to share God’s new covenant yet, but welcomes any potential faithful to stay with her and tend the lighthouse until the hour arrives.

    Josephene is not crazy. She’s the victim of a megalomaniacal fly who feasted on the mind of a dead prophet as a maggot. Gifted with long life and knowledge of the future, the creature has learned to buzz its wings in a way that humans are able to interpret as speech. Buzzing accurate predictions in a person’s ear is liable to convince just about anyone that they’re receiving messages from some unseen deity. And in point of fact, the area will be affected by massive flooding early this coming spring. If left alone, a cult will form that venerates flies as sacred creatures. The presence of an active “voice of god” in people’s ears will cause it to grow quickly, rivaling other major religions in the region.

  6. A small copse of trees, perhaps 500’ in diameter, with a guard tower rising from the center. The foliage is dense, and within 30’ the party will have lost sight of the forest’s edge. Which is a problem, because for anyone who cannot see the world outside of the copse, this forest is infinitely large.

    The players can search all they wish, but they will not find the guard tower until they attempt to leave the forest, after which they will encounter it after moving 100’. Outside the tower are a few dozen graves, and a set of digging tools. Within is a group of eight people, emaciated and hungry. Anyone who becomes lost in the forest is invited to join their little community. As they have no food and no way of escaping the forest, the primary purpose of the group is to bury the dead, welcome any newcomers, and eventually die themselves.

    Though your players may find any number of solutions, the most obvious is to simply climb along the tops of the trees. They’re dense enough that it should be a simple thing to do, and since you can see the world outside the copse, it’s no more than 250’ to freedom.

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