Blogs on Tape Update

I wasn’t sure if Blogs on Tape was going to resonate with people. Turns out, you all really like it! We’ve had a ton of vocal support from all over the OSR community. As a result, we will absolutely move forward with making new episodes.

The most common request I heard was that people wanted an RSS feed for the project. So, I’ve set up a site just for Blogs on Tape, which has its own RSS feed for your blog-listening convenience. The site itself is a little bare bones, but I hope to make it into a valuable resource over time. You may also notice there are two new episodes already available. I hope you enjoy them!

I’ve also managed to get Blogs on Tape set up on iTunes, which was a surprisingly nightmarish process. Hopefully it’s stable now, but if you encounter any issues let me know.

If you’re interested in contributing to the project, there are two things we need:

  1. Blogs that we have official permission to read from. If you have a blog, and you’re okay with us reading posts from it, please let us know.
  2. People who can do the readings and make the recordings. If you’ve got a halfway decent microphone, a quiet environment to use it in, and the ability to speak clearly, I’d love to have your help in getting these recordings made.

Future updates for this project will be mostly show up on the Blogs on Tape website, so I recommend everyone follow that if they’re interested.

Thanks for listening!

 

The Cozy Catacombs: A Demonstration of Flux Space

Paris CatacombsA few weeks back, I wrote up an idea that I called Flux Space, which is basically a method for randomizing segments of a dungeon. It helps dungeons to feel more like vast environments, and makes it a little easier to organize your notes.

In the thread about Flux Space on google+, Aaron Griffin asked me if I would post an example. So that’s what I’m doing. The Cozy Catacombs are a small example–just 3 locations and 3 fluxes arranged in a triangle. It’s pretty much the bare minimum size for something like this, but I think it gets across the idea pretty well, and there’s enough here for at least one or two game sessions if you want to try it out.

The Cozy Catacombs

Flux Space DiagramThe city of Sarip is old. Its been inhabited since pre-history, and through the millennia has always lent authority to whomever lived there. Empires, religions, and societies may pass, but Sarip remains. The Immortal City.

Beneath Sarip is a sprawling network of catacombs. Countless generations of bones are stacked along the walls so thick the stonework isn’t visible between them. The catacombs themselves have been out of use for hundreds of years now, at least officially. They’re a popular retreat for anyone not welcome in the city above, with plenty of space to live and work rent free, so long as you don’t get lost.

Area 1: Entrance

Flux Space One1. At the bottom of the stairs is a bronze plaque mounted on a plinth. It’s a recent addition, put up by city officials, warning people to stay out of the catacombs, lest they become lost.

The floor is littered with empty booze bottles and scraps of trash.

2. A small group of homeless folks have set up a camp here, around an old fountain they use as a urinal. One of them has scurvy, and will soon die from it.

3. A group of fresh corpses. They’ve been flayed, and their bones taken. From the scattered equipment, it looks like they weren’t homeless. Probably here hoping to plunder some treasure. Bloody, boney footprints trail off to the south, towards Flux B.

4. A larger group of homeless folks, cooking a stolen chicken on a spit. There are some children running around and playing loudly. Among the group is a well dressed young man, about 20 years of age. He seems to be having fun, slumming it down here, seeing how the other half live.

5. A group of 7 teenage girls. They’ve all got dirty faces, and kitchen knives. They’re arguing about how they should divide the 6 silver coins they found.

Area 2: Necrotic Praxeum

Flux Space Two1. Long benches are arranged next to one another in this room, with rows of zombies standing on either side, polishing old bones to a pristine white sheen. Other zombies with carts move up and down between the tables, handing out dirty bones, and taking the clean ones.

2. A few shelves, and a collection of tomes detailing the history and practice of necromancy. The librarian is a wizened old man named Bu’zaldu. It’s not clear whether he’s undead, or just very very old. He teases the students here with cryptic hints, and there’s a rumor that if you can prove which one he is, he’ll teach you a spell even the headmistress doesn’t know.

3. 12 beds, stacked 3 high, where students are allowed to rest between lessons. There’s very little downtime here, and even less privacy.

4. A well stocked alchemical laboratory, with jars all along the walls containing a variety of exotic items. In the middle of the room is a student who has fallen asleep in their chair, next to a solution that is slowly dribbling into a vial. It’s just about full now. If thrown, this concoction will explode, dealing 3d6 damage, and instantly transforming anyone killed by it into a zombie under the command of the thrower.

5. Most of the students are congregated here. There are piles of polished bones in front of each student, while the school’s headmistress walks around the room, describing the proper method of raising a skeleton from the dead. Students work in pairs to raise each one, which the Headmistress then comes over to inspect. If she approves of it, she’ll congratulate the students, give them some pointers on refining their technique, and give the skeleton some task to perform. If she does not approve, she’ll berate the students, and send their skeleton walking down the path of shame (into Flux C.

She only approves of roughly 1 in every 5 skeletons.

6. The office and living space of the head mistress. Skulls and gargoyles are everywhere you look. There’s a bed, a desk, and a rack for punishing students who perform poorly. On the desk is a stack of wax-sealed letters, tied with a ribbon, waiting to be delivered. If opened, they all contain a list of students who are doing poorly, as well as a brief description of each one’s qualities. The letters are addressed to various peoples: inquisitors, slavers, and a cyclops named “Gorkk Manmuncher.” The implication of each letter is clear: I don’t really want these kids anymore, so I’ll happily part with them for a good price.

Area 3: Skeleton Vanguard

Flux Space Three1. An old chapel, with a statue of St Stephen. The pews have been stacked into a circle, which serves as an impromptu fence for a group of skeletons. The skeletons wander around without any apparent purpose, bumping in to one another, falling down, and losing body parts. Whoever raised these obviously did a terrible job of it.

2. Havord, the leader of the skeleton vanguard, is conferring with five of his most intelligent comrades. They’re looking over crude maps they’ve been able to make of the dungeon, and arguing about where they should expand to.The two Flux spaces would be difficult to defend. But Area 1 would expose them to detection from the outside world, and Area 2 would cut off their supply of incoming skeletons. It’s a serious problem, and the argument is getting heated.

Havord himself has a skull 4 times larger than a normal human skull. He is otherwise a normal skeleton.

3. A classroom where a trio of intelligent skeletons try to teach some of the dumb reject skeletons how to think, and perform simple tasks. The program is effective, but frustrating. The curriculum is similar to what you might see in a kindergarden class, but with a lot more discussion of killing the living.

4. A storage room where the skeleton vanguard keeps their weapons, and a bunch of animated skeletons folded into boxes because there’s not enough room for them to move about more comfortably.

5. A 24 hour skeleton dance party. The best way to unwind for off duty skellos.

6. The floor of the room has been dug up in several places, and a frail weave of twigs placed across the opening to 15′ pits. The trap is painfully obvious to anyone with any intellect, but apparently it’s sufficient to trap dumb, wandering skeletons. Even now, scraping sounds carry from several of the pits, where dumb bags o’ bones are trying to claw their ways out.

Flux A.

Description: Small gargoyles and other statues punctuate the stonework. Every so often, when you look away, the bones here rearrange themselves.

Size: 3

1. 2d4 students from the Necrotic Praxeum. They’re either on their way to, or returning from, a supply run in the city above.

2. A door made of pink flesh. A supernatural darkness obscures the room beyond, refusing to allow any light to penetrate. The room beyond can only be navigated by touch. It is soft and fleshy, with a slimy mucus seeping in through the floor and walls. The room is deep, but does not seem to contain anything interesting. Each turn, there is a 1-in-4 chance that 2d20 goblins will come flooding out of this room, and out into the catacombs beyond. If the room is harmed, this flood may be prevented for a few days. If it is harmed severely, the room may be killed, and the goblins will cease to be born from it.

3. The Goblin Market, where all manner of oddities are for sale. There’s jars full of eyeballs, armors, buttplugs, and a whole shop dedicated to selling various styles of 10′ poles. (That last one is having a blowout sale. They’re overstocked). No violence is allowed at the Goblin Market.

4. 2d6 + 4 goblins, which have just finished killing a group of three human adventurers. The goblins are in the midst of organizing the adventurer’s equipment, and slicing off meat from the adventurer’s bodies.

5. A randomly determined member of the party trips. They flail their hands, and grab on to a leg bone that’s sticking out from the wall of the catacombs. Unexpectedly, it turns down, as though it were a lever, and a secret door swings open. Beyond is a room with a plinth in it, and a skeleton wearing golden armor.

The armor is incredibly valuable, but whomever takes it from this place is cursed. Any building they sleep in has a 1-in-6 chance of catching fire in the night.

6. A map to a Vampire’s lair is sketched onto the wall. Next to it are the words “PLEASE KILL ME.”

Flux B.

Description: A green ooze seeps from between the stacked bones, dribbling onto the floor and disappearing into the cracks. Many of the rooms contain abandoned camps. Apparently this area was once more heavily settled by homeless people, which have since left for whatever reason.

Size: 4

1. 2d6 + 5 highly capable troops of the Skeletal Vanguard. One of them is working on a map of the area, while the others are holding weapons at the ready to kill any meat-people they bump into.

2. A little shop, built into an alcove in the wall. It has a bar, some stools, and a sign which reads Durza’s Drugporium! Durza herself is a squat, fat old woman. She’s coy about how she survives down here, and she sells the best drugs you’re ever likely to get your hands on, at cut rate prices.

3. A fountain swarming with fairies, all of whom are men. They’ll offer to cure anyone who is injured, only revealing after the fact that they require blowjobs in return. And you’ve gotta swallow, ‘cuz that’s the part that will heal your wounds. To add insult to injury, their vaunted curative abilities amount to a single hit point of restoration.

4. A finely ornamented Victorian parlor, with all the fashionable amenities. There’s a fire going in the fireplace, fresh biscuits on a tray, and several comfortable looking lounge chairs arranged in a conversation circle.

The chairs are alive, and will attempt to eat anyone who sits in them.

5. 2d4 + 2 goblins fighting with 2d4 + 2 skeletons.

6. A very obvious lever, built into the floor. There’s writing on the handle which reads “Pull for treasure!” If pulled, nothing happens.

Flux C.

Description: Apparently there’s an underground river running nearby, because there are fountains everywhere, pumping cool clean water, despite the fact that none of this has been maintained in centuries.

Size: 3

1. 1d4 skeletons who are wandering away from the Necrotic Praxeum. They’re dumb, and clumsy, but do have basic life-destroying instincts, and will try to attack any living creatures they encounter.

2. 2d6 + 6 soldiers of the Skeleton Vanguard. One is mapping, while the rest seek out dumb skeletons to recruit, and fleshlings to kill.

3. If the players found and pulled the lever in Flux B.6, they will a door here, with a plaque on it that reads: “Congratulations, lever puller!” Within is a chest containing two bags, each olding 500 silver pieces each. If its been more than a day since the players pulled the lever, the chest may already have been looted. If the players haven’t pulled the lever at all, there won’t be any door. They’ll just have the vague sense that they’re missing out on something cool.

4. A forge, with a bellows and an anvil. The air his hot, and rings with the blows of hammer against metal. Weapons of war are being forged here by…snakes. Snakes, holding hammers in their mouths, and slithering around with buckets of water on their backs. Thousands of them are here, working together. If the players bother them, they will scatter into little holes in the wall, and wait for the players to leave.

5.Garrison Renuar, a 325 year old Vampire, sitting on the edge of his coffin with his head in his hands. Garrison wants to die. Life is dull, and he doesn’t really like killing people. However, the vampire which birthed him is still alive, and he is incapable of killing himself of his own free will without permission from his ‘parent.’ He will beg anyone who meets him to try and kill him, but is obligated to fight his best to stay alive.

6. A nearby fungus growing into the corpse of a wizard has been mutating out of control for awhile now. Recently (as in, last week), it began to produce a race of mushroom people: squat, 2′ high mushrooms with eyes, mouths, and feet. These new creatures don’t really know what to do with themselves. They haven’t developed a language or a society yet, though they are intelligent enough to do so. For now, they’re just following their fungus instincts, but those aren’t really taking advantage of their new mobility and intellect.

Blogs on Tape

Blogs on Tape OSR MixtapeAudiobooks are great. The ability to read while I’m driving, walking, exercising, cooking, or doing the dishes has allowed me to absorb so many books. Stuff that I probably wouldn’t have made time for otherwise. By now, I think I’ve actually listened to more books than I’ve read, and I’m extremely grateful that the option exists.  I’d have missed out on some of my favorite stories if it didn’t.

The biggest problem with audio books is that there aren’t enough of them. Too much great writing is trapped in squiggled symbols on a page or computer screen. If you can find the time, reading them is a joy. But, none of us has enough time to read everything we’d like. And a particular issue for me is that there are dozens or hundreds of OSR blogs, all of which have good stuff on them just waiting to be read.

TL;DR, does anybody else think it would be really cool to have a podcast where people read OSR blog posts aloud?

It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for awhile. And, over the past two weeks, I’ve been getting in touch with people to start the ball rolling on what I’m calling a “pilot series” of episodes. Something to test the waters a bit before anybody decides to really commit themselves to doing this. And so, below are 10 blog posts, read aloud by myself, Sam Jack, and Gregory Blair. Please give them a listen.

The music used is a selection from “Journey of Solitude,” composed and performed by Russel Cox, distributed through OverClocked Remix.

Episode 1 – Structuring Encounter Tables, by Nick LS Whelan
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 2 – The Purpose of a Map, by Alex Schroeder
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 3 – Tangle Armor, by Brendan S.
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 4 – Tests of Skill and Tests of Chance, by John Bell
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 5 – An Orcish Prayer, by Arnold K.
(Read by Sam Jack, Original post here).

Episode 6 – Basic Wands, by Brendan S.
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 7 – Questgivers are Evil, by Nick LS Whelan
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 8 – God Hates Orcs, by Arnold K.
(Read by Sam Jack, Original post here).

Episode 9 – On Erecting a New Campaign, by Courtney Campbell
(Read by me, Original post here).

Episode 10 – Tiki & D: Gary’s Hawaiian Shirts, by Richard G
(Read by Gregory Blair, Original post here).

It was also suggested that we might do periodic “round table” episodes, where folks discuss some of the previous posts. I thought it was an interesting possibility, so I made one of those as well, with Sam Jack and Michael Raston joining me.

Roundtable 1 – Nick LS Whelan, Sam Jack, & Michael Raston

Alright, so, didja listen to those? Didja like them? Didja hate them? I know blog comments are kinda passe here in 2017, but I really want to know how people feel about this. If we go forward, it’s going to require a lot of time, and a lot of bandwdith to keep up with. I had a heckin’ good time with these first 10, but I have to admit the idea of committing myself to doing this long term is pretty daunting. So criticism, detailed ones, would be very welcome right now.

Hopefully, if the series does continue, we can make it into more of a community effort. Sam & Greg both helped the project along quite a bit by contributing episodes of their own. If that could eventually grow into five, ten, or more people all recording episodes, it would make managing the project much less daunting than it is.

So, what do you think?

8 Reasons Why D&D Is Better Than Video Games

Dont You Just Hate ThisDumb people think D&D is an outdated game. That it served us well as the midwife of video games. But, now that video games are here, it’s stupid to go back and play something so much less advanced.

Ironically, this view seems to be most common among people who actually play tabletop RPGs. Specifically, the folks who emphasize the thespian aspect of role playing, to the exclusion of all else. They seem to think anyone who didn’t get rejected from Shakespeare in the park is a pleb, who would be much happier playing video games, rather than sullying the good name of their noble and artistic hobby. 

My frustration with this pervasive idea led me to start collecting these reasons that it’s wrong. So if you’ve got any to add to my eight, I’d love to have a few more.

1. Tactical Infinity

In any given situation, there are only so many actions you can attempt in a video game. If it’s a game about punching, you’ll have a punch button, and most problems will be solvable by punching. There may be other options (kicks, jumps, headbutts), but the list is necessarily finite. This is not a bad thing. Video games work best when they focus on doing a small number of things really well.

Adventure games, like Zork, probably have the greatest number of possible actions you’ll ever find in a video game. But even still, the player is limited to whatever actions the game designer was able to predict they might attempt. If the player is clever enough to come up with something the designer never expected, rather than being rewarded for their cleverness, they’ll be slapped down with some variation of “You can’t do that.”

When you play D&D, the game designer is sitting right there with you, creating the game moment to moment as you play. So when you decide that the best way to defeat the Cult of Filth is to buy a pig and convince them it is the avatar of filth on earth, the game can accommodate that. Maybe you will fail spectacularly, but at least you were able to try.

Rube Goldberg2. Having a Real Impact on the Game World

The other side of tactical infinity. You could call it infinite reaction.

In a really good video game, the player will see the world change in big and small ways as a result of their successes and failures.  If you save the farmer’s son, then when you go to the farm she won’t be crying anymore. Instead, she’ll be happily going about her farming, with the help of her son. This is good. When the player sees the impact of their actions, it will make those actions (and by extension, the game world they happened in) feel true.

But the game’s reactions are limited. It’s not even proper to call them reactions in the first place, since they’re scripted in advance. It’s a Rube Goldberg machine. Complex enough that it’s fun to follow along from point A to B to C, but the end result is already there, waiting for you to reach it. Even if the player does make a choice, it’s always between two, or three, or ten different pre-scripted results. And, once you see them, the message is usually pretty clear: you’ve reached the end of this road. Go do something else.

3. Infinite Play

By now, a pattern is emerging that a lot of what is good about tabletop RPGs is the various ways in which they are infinite. This one, infinite play, is what prompted me to go from being casually interested in D&D, to being in love with the medium.

One of the worst things about falling in love with any fictional world is that someday, you’ll need to leave it. I can go back and play my favorite video games over and over again, but there will never be any new areas to explore, or enemies to defeat.

With tabletop games, all you need is one set of rules, and one set of dice, and you’re set to play for the rest of your life. You may choose to stop playing a specific campaign, move on to a different game system or a different group, but the possibility that you could go back for more will always exist.

4. Complex Lateral Thinking Puzzles

Some video games do a great job of creating good complex lateral thinking puzzles. But, because they lack tactical infinity, the solutions to those puzzles must always be intentional. The designer must go to great effort to carefully inform the players of the tools they have for solving the puzzle, and must ensure themselves that those tools are sufficient for solving it.

In a tabletop game, the referee is often not even aware that they’ve created a complex lateral thinking puzzle. But they put the locked treasure vault next to the anti-gravity room, which is itself only two stories down from where the troll is sleeping. And the players have a paperclip, a spool of dental floss, and an iguana in their inventory. And somehow, putting all those things together, they figure out how to get into the treasure vault without trekking across the world to find the key.

That’s beautiful to me.

Women playing D&D5. D&D is a Party

D&D is an inherently social activity. Sometimes this is is a boon, sometimes a bane, but one way or another it’s always going to be true.

“But wait” I write, anticipating a likely objection so I can preemptively respond to it. “Many video games are multiplayer, and ergo social activities. This is hardly unique to D&D.” And of course, that is true. I myself have spent an immense amount of time bonding with friends in World of Warcraft. D&D is just better at it.

Even in the most social of social video games, everyone is looking at the game. The focus of their discussion will usually be on overcoming the challenges created for them by a person they will never meet. In D&D, everyone is looking at each other, talking about their own ideas.

Maybe that seems like a trite, or shallow difference. But, to me, it is important.

6. Investing Your Character with True Personality

When you disagree with 95% of what a person says, it’s easy for that 5% of overlap between your views to get lost in the rhetoric. I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink explaining why I find a thespian approach to games boring. But my distaste for prewritten backstories, and anyone who uses the word “spotlight” doesn’t mean I hate role playing. I just view it as a nice sauce, rather than the whole meal.

Vidya attempts to approximate this in different ways. Sometimes the protagonist is silent, so players can project their own thoughts and emotions on to them. Other games create dialogue trees, and multiple paths which give the player some character-driven choice about how they approach a problem. But in the end, unless the player wants to skip out on game content, they’ve always gotta do what the game wants them to do.

In a tabletop game, I can make a firm decision about who my character is, and stick to it. If I decide to be a good guy, then the game can never force me into a situation where my only choice is to go against my character, or skip part of the game.

Character Death7. Failure is Actually Meaningful

When you lose at a video game, the only thing to do is go back and try again. You play through the same bits over and over until you succeed. Maybe the game is randomized so the bit you replay is never quite the same. Maybe there are failures states which allow the game to continue, such as losing a party member. But, one way or another, the ultimate failure state always requires you to play through some part of the game over again.

In tabletop RPGs, there’s no such thing as starting the same game over again. When you die, a new character comes into the world, and must deal with the consequences of the previous character’s actions. All their successes and failures.

8. Zero Barriers to Entry for Designing Games

Obviously, there will always be a difference between a good game designer and a bad one. (I’ll make no claims about which group I fall into). But all it takes to get started is to come up with an adventure, and run it at your table. Boom: you’re a game designer.

If you’ve got a cool idea for a video game, even if it’s something small, you need to develop skills with coding, and art, and music. If you don’t know how to do any of those things, you’ll need money to pay someone to do them for you, or you’ll need to find someone you’re comfortable sharing creative control with. You need all of those things before you can even begin to develop good game design skills.

The barrier for getting your stuff published is only slightly higher than the barrier for making it in the first place. So, of course, there’s a lot of childish garbage out there, but there’s also a lot of phenomenal stuff that may never have made it to production otherwise. Stuff like Stay Frosty, Crypts of Indormancy, Hex Kit, The Sleeping Place of Feathered Swine, or The Tower of the Weretoads. Just stay away from anything published by the Mongrel Banquet Club. They’re a disgusting little band of degenerate filthmongers.

Kids Playing Vidya

None of this is to say that video games are bad for their limitations. A book is not bad because it lacks a soundtrack. A painting is not bad because it lacks motion. Different mediums have different strengths, and that’s really what this is about.

Video games are not an improvement on RPGs. They are different beasts that share some DNA. It’s possible to compare and contrast them with each other, just like you can compare and contrast books and movies. But both are capable of doing things the other will never be able to achieve.

Thhhhbhbhbhbhhbhbht.

How I Construct Dragons

Erol Otus DragonLast week, I intended to write an explanation of how I run dragons in my games. I started the post with a little preamble about what I think the current state of dragons is, and what I don’t like about it. Somewhere around the 900 word mark, I realized my preamble had become an impassioned essay all its own. So I opted to split the post into two parts: the angry rant, and the sober rules discussion.

Welcome to the boring half of that split.

Most encounter tables I use have 2d6 possible encounters on them. On on every one of those tables, a result of 2 means the party has encountered a dragon. Because dragons are like any other kind of vermin: they can survive just about everywhere, and you’re never really going to get rid of them entirely.

The formula for a dragon has 8 parts. There’s description, hoard, toll, statline, breath, spells, minions, and specials.

The Description is a few sentences (3 or 4 max) which can be read at the table to give the referee a snapshot of who and what this dragon is. Usually I try to include a little physical description, and some details about personality.

For physical descriptions, I assume anyone reading has a basic sense of what a dragon looks like, so I limit myself to describing deviations from that norm. More relevant than appearance is personality. What drives this dragon? Do they have a particular love, hate, or desire? Give the referee something to work from while the dragon is conversing with the PCs.

(I say “the referee” as if anybody but me has read these. I do plan to publish my dragons someday, but so far they’re just my personal game aides).

As a sample, here’s the description for Grogund the Mammal:

Shaggy grey fur, a long snout, and deer antlers. She is doubly cruel to humans to mask her own insecurities about being a non-reptilian dragon.

Each dragon’s Hoard is unique. They’re not all sitting on heaps of gold. Why should they? What special significance should gold have to them? It’s not like they’re ever going to spend it, or that they need it to survive. The way dragons assign value to objects is based on a logic completely removed from human economics. Indeed, what a dragon values may seem like trash to us.

Of course, like any narcissist, dragons seek the adoration of others. Not just for their raw power, but for their fine taste. So, often, dragons do hoard objects others would consider to be of great value. But even then, it’s not necessarily going to be gold. Grogund, for example, hoards fine rugs. She rests upon a nice soft heap, and has plenty of minions meticulously cleaning her rugs day and night to keep them in beautiful condition.

The Toll of dragon is the cost of having a nonviolent encounter with them. They expect tribute, and will punish anyone who thinks themselves too good to offer it. Generally speaking, a toll will be something the dragon could add to its hoard. So, for Grogund, anyone who meets her must offer a rug, or meet their doom.

It is a quirk of the draconic psyche that that must accept an appropriate toll if it is offered. A mildewed old bathroom rug would be an insult to Grogund, but she would accept it none the less, and allow those who offered it to pass her unmolested. Of course, insulting a dragon may be fun, but it carries its own consequences.

Remember, that if a dragon leaps out in a surprise attack, you may not have time to offer them a toll before they eat you.

Note also that paying a dragon’s toll only entitles a person to turn around and walk away. If the dragon is pleased with the toll, they may be willing to converse, but they will still spring to attack if the toll payer offers any insult or encroachment.

The Statline for dragons is just a basic statline. Armor Rating, Movement, Hit Dice, Attack, and Morale. Normally I wouldn’t bother talking about this part too much, because it’s pretty boring and you already know how to do it. But, for dragons, I do have a very particular set of guidelines for how I put the basic stats together.

Armor Rating tends towards the mid-to-high end. Between 15 and 19 most of the time. Morale tends towards the low end, with 5-8 being average. Dragons are tough to hurt, but cowardly if they feel at all disadvantaged.

Weaker dragons will have around 7 Hit Dice, with the average being around 10 or 11, and tougher dragons having 16 or 17. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t throw together some 30hd dragons for higher level players, but there’s also value in letting players outpace dragons if they reach such loftily high levels. Dragons being scary should not be an inviolate, sacrosanct part of the game. If the players become badass enough, it’s okay for dragons to become less threatening. They can be replaced by other horrors.

ProJared Final Fantasy 1 NES 4 Four FrostD IceD Dragon

For Movement, I just pull directly from AD&D. Dragons are typically fairly slow on the ground, with a speed of 90′ (30′). Of course, they often have flying, or some other type of unusual movement speed (swimming, burrowing, climbing, etc) with which they are much faster. 240′ (80′) is my baseline for their second type of movment.

The two types of movement at different speeds are useful. On the one hand it makes it much easier for players to flee when the dragon is stuck on foot. Most adventurers are going to be able to outrun a dragon in the corridors of a dungeon. However, if the players make the mistake of going into an open area, where the dragon can use its secondary movement, they’ve got no chance. You’ve gotta have mad runaway strats, son.

Finally, most dragons have 3 basic physical Attacks. Two claws that each deal a single die of damage, and a bite which deals multiple dice of damage. That’s the baseline, but there’s a lot of room for variation here. Some dragons have more than the usual number of claws, and so more attacks. Some have powerful tail swipes or horn gores that are more worthy of mention than their bite. The baseline only exists for those instances where no better ideas present themselves.

The Breath of a dragon is its signature. I try to be as creative with these as I can. I have my fair share of fire breathers, of course. To some extent, such traditions have to be maintained, so that deviations from them will continue to be notable. But most of my dragons tend to breath things like boiling oil, a flurry of angry pecking birds, or a suicidal sense of self loathing. Be as weird as you can be.

If a dragon’s breath deals damage, that damage is equal to the dragon’s current hit points. (So, the closer the dragon is to death, the less effective its breath is).

Traditionally, some dragons in D&D have Spells. I prefer to avoid any spells that deal direct damage, since their breath and claws and bite are already such reliable sources for damage. Rather, I like to give dragons spells which buff, debuff, ensnare, control, or alter the environment. Something that adds a new dimension to the threat they pose.

I should note that these days, when I’m giving a monster or an NPC spells, I typically don’t bother describing those spells’ effects beforehand. Usually I just put in a spell name, and maybe add a brief description if I have a good idea I want to remember at the table. Then, if the spell actually comes up in play, that’s when I’ll decide what the powers and limitations of the spell are.

I realize this may seem damaging to agency, and I admit that in some ways it is. But so long as the rules of the spell don’t change once they’ve been decided upon, I think it’s a fairly small sacrifice to make to prevent spells from becoming an overly burdensome part of monster creation.

Minions exist to feed a dragon’s need for adoration. Not every dragon will have them. Some are too moody or misanthropic to keep anyone around them for too long. Others, though, will revel in surrounding themselves with sycophants, slaves, and worshipers. These may perform any number of services for the dragon, but ultimately their true purpose is always to feed the dragon’s ego.

There’s no limit on what form the minions may take. Some dragons may prefer to have only one or two highly capable body-servants. Creatures who can become intimately familiar with the dragon’s habits, and respond to their desires before they’re even expressed. Others may have more extravagant preferences, dragging a cult of worshipers, or a harem of consorts behind them.

Last of all, I try to give every dragon at least one notable Special thing. These can be powers which make the dragon harder to deal with. They can be weaknesses, which make the dragon vulnerable if known. Other times, the special trait is just some incidental thing. Something unlikely to come up in play, but potentially interesting if it does.

So while one dragon’s special might be an immunity to fire, another dragon may take extra damage from fire, while a third perhaps has multiple personalities which they switch between every time they see fire. As with everything else, the sky’s the limit.

Now, generally speaking, I don’t bother paying the Joesky Tax. But last week was particularly gratuitous, and I’ve literally got hundreds of dragons written up that probably aren’t going to be published anytime soon. So here’s 5 of them, all created using the guidelines discussed in this post. Iguanamouth Hoard of Sex ToysXulamara the Serpent Slave

A mammalian dragon with a serpentine body, white fur, eight long cloven legs, and a pair of twisting horns. Fire licks from her mouth with every word she speaks. She has no wings, but a pair of flat-toothed serpents grow from her shoulders. She is simple minded, and territorial.
Hoards: Various dyes, some of which are able to do seemingly impossible things, like dye elaborate patterns directly into cloth.
Armor 19, Move 120′(40′), 9HD, 2 Snakes 2d6, Bite 3d8, Morale 7
Snake Attack: The two snakes attack by spitting acid, which has a range of 30′.
Breath: A wall of fire, 100′ long and 10′ tall. Remains in place for 24 hours before burning out.
Special: Immune to normal missiles.
Special: Xulamara is cursed to remain forever ignorant of the snakes growing from his back. If he is told about them, or even shown a reflection of them, he will deny that they exist. The snakes whisper into his ears constantly, tricking him into doing whatever they want.

Gressen the Shedded

A translucent white creature; the shed skin of another dragon somehow animated to life and intelligence. Able to move and act as her own person. Gressen was originally shed from a male dragon, but chose a female aspect for herself. She has a tendency to sarcastically goad people into attacking her. (“Go on, I’m clearly just a waif of a thing. It’ll be easy to slay me and take my treasure. Just try it!”) In truth, she is terrified of how fragile her body is.
Hoards: Spell books.
Armor 20, Move 90′(30′)/Fly 240′(80′), 4HD, 2 Claw 1d3, Bite 2d6, Morale 5
Breath:
Cone of cold.
Spells: Enbrittle Skin, Gust of Wind, Baleful Polymorph, Charm Monster, Sow Discord, Geas, Illusory Disguise, Magic Web (An invisible web that ‘catches’ spells, so they can be studied later), Detect Lies, Maze, Invisibility, Magic Armor
Special: Any wind-based attacks used against her deal double damage, and may blow her away.

Jakasset the Silver Teeth

Jakassat wears  golden rings on her talons and tail, a bejeweled necklace, and a diadem on her brow. One of these pieces of jewelry works a magical gender changing effect on her, and all the rest are worn to keep the significance of that one item a secret. Jakasset has also replaced all of her teeth with little silver daggers. She is a contemplative creature, with an unusually short temper, even for a dragon.
Hoards: Polearms of various types.
Armor 17, Move 90′(30′)/Fly 240′(80′), 8HD, 2 Claw 1d6, Bite 3d10, Morale 6
Breath: A hail of spinning knives. These remain on the ground in heaps, and can be used for about 24 hours before they rot away.
Spells: Sleep, Water From the Earth, Teleport, Stone To Mud
Minions: A murder of 6d6 crows which fly around above her, and obey her orders to the best of their crow-abilities.
Special: One of the rings on her tail protects her from all elemental based damage. Special: One of her tail rings protects her from all elemental based damage

Special: Jakasset is highly respected among dragon kind, for some unknown deed that dragons refuse to discuss with outsiders.

Arasemnin

A bluescale with 53 large white horns running down her back, from head to tail tip. Her body is slender and lithe, with muscles that twitch as if always ready to pounce. She is the daughter of Uruk’An, and was exiled from her father’s territory years ago for defying him. She spends hours of every day imagining elaborate ways of getting revenge on the old fool.
Hoards: Tapestries depicting historical events.
Armor 19, Move 90′(30′)/Fly 240′(80′), 2 Claw 1d6, Bite 3d8, Morale 6
Breath: Cone of fire.
Spells: Bear’s Strength, Sphere of Insubstantiality, Animate Object, Imbue Hatred
Special: Her horns act as grounding against spells. Each horn can absorb one spell cast against her per day. After she is killed, the horns retain their function. If cut off, they can each be used once before becoming useless.

Uruk’An

An elderly blusescale, with a cascade of soft white horns growing from his chin. Uruk’An is father to 12 other dragons–unusually prolific, even for such an elderly and distinguished patriarch. Uruk’An belives in law, and has scribed 3 tomes of law which anyone in his domains must obey, or face is wrath. Most of his laws are common sense (at least, from a dragon’s perspective), but there are some strange ones. Most notalby, there is an extensive code governing acceptable clothing for halflings, and several statues regarding the proper rate of breathing for various activities.
Hoards: Lawbooks.
Armor 20, Move 60′(20′)/Fly 210′(70′), 2 Claw 1d10, Bite 4d8, Morale 8
Breath: Cone of fire.
Spells: Wall of Spears, Detect Lies, Farsight, Dispell Illusions, Anti-Magic Field, Ring of Law, Hold Person, Dimension Door, Break Weapons, Rust, Imprison, Speak with Animals, Mend Wound, Passwall,  Shrink Person
Minions: 2d6 bluescaled lizard folk. 3 dragon whelps that each have 4 hit dice, and don’t have any breath yet.
Special: When Uruk’An dies, he will leave an egg behind, with himself inside. He will be reborn out of his own death. Even he does not know this will happen.

Your Dragons Suck

D&D Dragon Toy TiamaatBack in 2012, when I had only just started to immerse myself in the OSR, I was playing in Courtney Campbell‘s Numenalla. Because of timezone fuckery, the game started at the ungodly hour of 5am for me. On a Saturday. It was always a struggle to show up, and when I did I was groggy as all get-out. But, Courtney was one of my OSR heroes at the time, and it was worth it to rub elbows with him. Plus the game was pretty damn fun.

Usually the sessions were packed, but on this particular morning, none of the regulars showed up. Aside from Courtney and I, it was just some dude I barely recognized, and a woman I’d never met before. It was a small group, but enough for a quorum, so we delved into the halls looking for a bit of adventure.

Being groggy as I was, and playing a healer to boot, I had become accustomed to letting other players take the lead in our adventures. So this dude I barely knew wound up taking the reins of the party, and leading us around the dungeon. As it turns out, he was kind of a twat.

At one point, when presented with a hall full of doors, he kicked them all open. Not one at a time, just kick, kick, kick, kick, kick. Don’t bother telling him what’s inside the rooms he’s just revealed, that would slow down the process of moving to the next door and also kicking it open. Unsurprisingly, this strategy exposed us to some serious danger. Namely, a dragon.

As soon as I heard that, I wanted to run. Most of my experience up to that point was with D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder. My context for dragons was that they were these immense creatures of unfathomable destructive ability. A challenge meant for a full group of 15th level characters. But the twat wasn’t in any mood to slow down, so he attacked. And, being the loyal dumbass that I am, I refused to leave a party member alone to die.

Then a funny thing happened: we killed it. We slew the dragon.

Not without cost, mind you. The twat got himself killed, and the rest of us were pretty banged up. But the dragon was dead, and for the most part we were alive. That’s how I was introduced to oldschool dragons, and it has stuck with me ever since. The idea of dragon designed to be fearsome and terrible, but also to be conceivably so. A creature that can be an ever-lurking threat, without being a guaranteed TPK.

In other words, a dragon that looks like this:

Rather than like this:

“But wait!” I imagine you saying, because I’m a hack writer who relies on cliches. “Most editions of D&D have a whole range of dragon sizes, some of which are small enough to challenge a low level party without being a guaranteed TPK.

And you are correct, imaginary strawman. But what do they call those dragons? Wyrmlings, Very Young, Young, Juveniles. They’ve got these diminutive fuckin’ names that make them feel like a joke when you encounter them. Nobody tells stories about the cool time they killed a Very Young Dragon at level 3. And anyway, this is about much more than the number of hit dice a creature has. It’s about keeping the game on a relatable scale.

That one encounter in he Halls of Numenhalla changed my whole perspective. Truth be told, I’d long hated dragons at this point. I thought they were a goofy cliche. Something that might have been cool once, but which had been overplayed so often in fantasy games that it was cringe-inducing to see them used. Plus, they never really made any sense to me. They’re these friggin’ apocalypse machines that desire nothing so much as wealth and adoration–both of which they could easily take for themselves. But they don’t go out and get them because they’re…lazy.

If they wanted to, a modern fantasy dragon could rule any world it exists in. But most people don’t want their campaign setting to be ruled by the iron-scaled fist of a draconic dictator. So, instead, dragons spend most of their time sleeping on piles of wealth. It’s bourgeois, yeah, but it’s hardly an act worthy of the pride-of-place dragons hold in the annals of fantasy villainy.

Once the scale is dramatically reduced, though, all that nonsense falls away. Dragons want wealth, and they’re powerful enough to take a lot of wealth, but not all of it. They can’t just knock over castle walls with a sweep of their claws. Indeed, if they cause too much of a ruckus, knights will be sent out to kill them. And since they aren’t towering behemoths capable of squishing knights into paste, that’s a serious threat they need to worry about.

It also helps if you assume all dragons are just walking bundles of mental disorder. Traditionally they’re already portrayed as narcissists. Build on that. Narcissism doesn’t just mean that a person likes praise; it means that a person is incapable of understanding that some things are not all about them. They believe that everything good is somehow a result of their desires, and that everything bad exists only to make them suffer. If dragons are not the god kings of all monsters, then they can be pathetic.

Dragons are also noted for their hoards of treasure. They sleep upon mountains of items they’ve collected and cherish, despite having no use for those items. I’m sure I’m not the first person to point out that hoarding is symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder. Dragons should have rituals and rules which completely govern their lives and the way they interact with others. They should be carefully avoiding the cracks in the dungeon floor, or closing every door they pass through 7 times before moving on. They don’t breathe fire every 3rd round because their breath needs time to recharge, they’re doing it because they have a mental illness.

The best monsters have always been more defined by their flaws than by their strengths. This conception of dragons, as deeply flawed and broken creatures who none the less wield immense power, has transformed them into one of my favorite monsters. It’s why I include dragons on every single encounter table I use.

Which is appropriate, right? They’re literally half of the game’s name. Yet in my experience, I see way fewer dragons than I do dungeons, and that’s a shame.

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