The Boardgame/RPG Hybrid

I’ve never liked one-shots. You so rarely get anything like a satisfying experience when you’re only playing a single session, and the lack of any long-term goals or consequences makes what experience there is feel lifeless. To me, the long term results of my actions are essential to my investment. Ergo, I tend to play in lengthier campaigns, or not at all.

This is a big part of the reason I’ve never been interested in the convention scene. I’ve attended one convention in my whole life, and don’t feel any desire to seek out another anytime soon. Online conventions, like ConTessa, are cool in theory, but since it’s all one-shots, it just doesn’t appeal to me.

Sometimes, though, because I’m a Nice Guy ™, I’ll endure a one-shot if a friend needs players. It’s good to support your friends, and so I do that, because I’m a good person. And so, last year, when a friend invited me to both of the two Anti-GenCon games he was running, I agreed to play.  One was going to be straight up D&D, and the other was a homebrew system he’d worked out based on the old Doom games. I signed up for both, fully expecting to be bored.

The first game, the D&D one, wound up like every other one-shot I’ve played in. It was dull, and forgettable. That’s  not a condemnation of my friend, it’s just an inescapable reality of how I react to the format. The second game, the homebrew, was whole different animal. It was fun. More than fun, playing it was the highlight of my week.

We were barely a half hour into play, and I was already excitedly making notes about little ways the game could be improved. In the back of my mind, I was wondering if my friend would be okay with me stealing his idea to write a game of my own. After the session ended, he and I talked for quite a while about how it went, and what could be done with the system. Since then, we’ve been working together to turn his 6 pages of homebrew into a complete game.

Spoiler alert: this post ends with me shilling a product to you. But, before we get to the boring advertising bullshit that I will hate myself for writing, I want to discuss what I think makes the game work. The spark of fun that was there even when the game with just 6 pages long, and made me enjoy a form of play I’d never enjoyed before.

Dungeons & Dragons, and its many variants, are built around the idea of a campaign. There’s nothing stopping you from playing one-shots. One-shots are a time honored tradition, as ancient as the game itself, but all of the game’s incentives are focused on long term play.  Why plunder the dungeon for gold, if you’ll never get to spend it? Why gain experience if you’ll never level up? Why shouldn’t you play recklessly and get yourself killed? It’s not as though you’ll ever get to play this character again anyway.

Perhaps I’d enjoy one-shots and convention games more if my character was persistent between them. Sorta like  how Flailsnails works. But, that’s beside the point.

Bubblegum Berzerk, which is the name we’ve settled on for our game, is built around the one-shot. There’s nothing stopping you from playing an extended campaign, but all of the game’s incentives are based on short-term play. Much of the moment-to-moment fun results from players making diegetic jokes, which the game rewards them for.  Instead of overcoming complex challenges and being rewarded for success, the challenges themselves are a reward in the form of a fulfilled power fantasy. Through play, players earn points, and when the game ends, those points determine who is the winner.

That’s why, very early in the game’s development, I started pushing the idea of the RPG / Board Game hybrid. The PCs are not characters, so much as they are playing pieces. Something taken out and played with, then put back into the box until next time you want to play. And when you do, it doesn’t matter if you play the same character again, or a new one. There’s no difference between those two concepts.

To boil the game down to basics: the players are a team of disposable action heroes. They’re trained from birth / cybernetically enhanced / warped through gene therapy / whatever other explanation for superhuman badassitude you can think of. They run around a map, and roll a d10 anytime they want to do something. If they wanna do something “kickass,” they gotta roll high, if they wanna do anything else, they gotta roll low. How high and how low change over the course of the game, so that it generally gets easier to do badass stuff, but more difficult to do basic stuff.

Most of the game is spent in a cycle of Running Around the Map -> Fighting Assholes -> Opening up new options -> repeat. It’s a simple cycle, within which the players are encouraged to be creative with Alpha Points, the game’s “score.” While the player with the most Alpha Points technically “wins,” the points and the winning are explicitly dumb useless goals. The only value the points have is whatever value the players imbue them with.

Alpha Points are earned in various ways, but the most notable to me is that players can get them by saying killer one-liners, or performing some super badass action that impresses the referee. To paraphrase something Zak Smith once said: normally, being funny is risky, because maybe nobody will laugh and then you’ll feel bad. This game is fun because it takes that stress away. You can try to be funny all you want, and if anything you say doesn’t get a laugh, it’s okay, because you were just playing the game. Making the attempt was expected of you.

At the time, Zak was talking about Cards Against Humanity, which is kinda fitting. I think there’s a sort of bizarre overlap between that game and Bubblegum Berserk. Not really a mechanical one, but I think the fun of the game comes from a similar place.

If I had set out to come up with a cool idea for a new game, this never would have been it. But I didn’t set out to come up with this idea. Instead, I just had a really fun experience, then tried to preserve and communicate that experience, so it could be shared by other people. Which, in retrospect, may be why I actually enjoy playing the game a lot more than running it: because my goal the whole time was to recreate the fun I had while playing.

As of now, writing is done on the game, art and proofreading are progressing at a good pace, and layout hopefully shouldn’t take too much longer after those things are done. I’m sure that once it’s out, I’ll be posting all of the place about it, annoying people, and making myself sick at how much of a sell out I’ve become. Sorry in advance for that.

But when I do it, you should totally spend some of your monies on the game. I sincerely think you’ll have a real good time playing it.

Trick or Treating with NPCs

On Halloween, the players may approach any NPC in the game and ask “Trick, or Treat?” The referee should then roll on the table below to determine how the NPC responds.

Also, if you call Halloween “The Day of Ghosts” or “Spook Night” or any other uniquely fantastified non-name, you are a fuckin’ goober. Holidays aren’t copyrighted, why do people keep coming up with legally distinct versions of holiday names? It is dumb.

The Trick or Treater…

  1. Gets a big bag of rocks.
  2. Gets a big bag of candy!
  3. Is afflicted with intense flatulence for the next few hours.
  4. Will be an instant expert with the next musical instrument they get their hands on.
  5. Is startled by a monster from the random encounter table, which pops out to spook them.
  6. Will be able to breathe underwater for the next few hours.
  7. Will only be able to breathe underwater for the next few hours.
  8. Gets a bar of chocolate called “Save-U-Latr”. Eating it grants a +4 bonus to your next saving throw.
  9. Gets a bar of chocolate called “Save-U-Latr”. Eating it grants a -4 penalty on your next saving throw.
  10. Gains a +1 to their chance to get a random surprise round, until the next time they get a random surprise round.
  11. Will get their bones broken the next time they’re struck in combat.
  12. Will only take the minimum amount of possible damage from the next attack they are struck by.
  13. Gets a Jack-O-Lantern stuck on their head. They can’t get it off until it starts to rot and get soft and squishy.
  14. Has their clothes illusion’d, so they appear to be wearing a very spooky costume.
  15. Is left in the care of a young child, which they must care for, or be arrested for criminal neglect.
  16. Has their face painted in a colorful and fun way.
  17. Is afflicted with an allergy to Dungeon Dust, which causes them to sneeze any time they’re in ancient places.
  18. Receives a balloon animal of their choosing from the NPC.
  19. Gets a spanking for some naughty thing the NPC saw them do. It is not the fun kind of spanking.
  20. Is temporarily gifted with 5lb telekinesis.
  21. Is recognized by someone nearby they owe a debt to, who wants them to pay up immediately and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
  22. Is absolutely perfect at climbing trees, until the following evening.
  23. Is given the opportunity to weed the NPC’s garden, chop their firewood, and run a few errands in town for them. No takesie-backsies on Trick or Treats. Or else.
  24. GETS A PONY!
  25. Gets a case of the hiccups that just won’t quit. Each time they hiccup, little bubbles come out of their mouth. When they pop, they say the thoughts that the character never would have said out-loud.
  26. Learns that they are unconditionally loved by someone in their life. And really, isn’t that the greatest treat of all?
  27. Is cursed with a terrible haircut.
  28. Is given a bag of magic seeds, which will grow into full grown crops in a single week, no matter the weather or the quality of the soil.
  29. Is cursed, so that every chair they sit in for the next year will have a whoopie cushion on it. Even if they pause to remove the cushion, it will simply reappear on the chair when they do finally sit.
  30. Will almost immediately be approached and greeted by someone they’ve always wanted to meet, but probably never would have had the opportunity to.
  31. Has all of their teeth rot and fall out within the next few weeks.
  32. Gets tickets to the carnival, an event more fun than it has any right to be. You’re seriously in for a pretty dang good time.
  33. Starts to experience severe back pains, which reduces their encumbrance.
  34. Is graced with an official title. It has little material benefit, but will be recognized and respected by everyone within the culture in which it was given.
  35. Will be pooped on by birds. A lot. For a very long time. This character is suddenly a favored target.
  36. A candied apple, which heals 2d8 hit points. Any hit points rolled above the maximum are gained as temporary hit points.
  37. Has a face which, everyone will agree, is a very scary mask. Because they are ugly.
  38. Will be transformed into a kid.
  39. Is now in trouble with the authorities! The NPC called for them immediately. Trick or Treating is only for children, and any adult caught doing it is obviously some kind of deviant.
  40. Will experience a My Little Pony style lesson moment, about the importance of friendship.
  41. Gets a potato.
  42. Meets a rat named Bently, who wants to be their friend.
  43. Is given a coupon book for the goods and services local to the town. The coupons are all very confusingly worded, and have obtuse requirements that make them a huge pain in the ass to use. Some are expired.
  44. Receives a magic hat, which makes them an expert at ice sculpture.
  45. Is cursed so that, any time they walk through a town, they will be struck by falling garbage and emptied chamber pots from the windows above them.
  46. Gets an excellent toy doll, with articulated joints. It’s the best toy ever.
  47. Learns all the gossip their companions have been saying about them behind their back. The referee is free to make up whatever they want, so long as it’s likely to hurt the Trick or Treater’s feelings.
  48. Receives a book on the subject of local myths and legends. (After reading it, the player is free to ask the referee 4 questions on the subject, and have them answered with complete honesty).
  49. Must make a mandatory visit to the dentist.
  50. Is given a temporary tattoo, which glows with cool runes and shit.
  51. Will probably be surprised when the NPC disappears into a puff of smoke.
  52. Gets a good wash from the NPC. They really get in there with a brush and make you smell nice.
  53. Will be pelted with rotten eggs.
  54. Is blessed, such that the next monster they meet will be friendly.
  55. Gets scolded by the NPC for wearing such low visibility clothing on such a dangerous night. Is forced to wear a reflective vest which will ruin any attempt at stealth.
  56. Is given a glass of unpleasant-tasting vegetable juice. It’s not fun to consume, but once you’ve got it down, you feel completely reinvigorated. You don’t need to sleep again for 2 days, and won’t take any penalties at all from doing so.
  57. Will be transformed into a goblin for the next 48 hours.
  58. Receives a paper mache mask, which is shockingly convincing as the face of some other creature, but is very fragile and will break easily.
  59. Has their gender swapped.
  60. Discovers that undead creatures are friendly to them, until the next time they harm one.
  61. Has all of their meaty-bits turn transparent, so that they appear to be a walking skeleton. I call them Skello-persons, which is legally distinct from any similar, Carcosan entities.
  62. Will be overjoyed when that one really weird, fucked-up sex thing that they’re into becomes completely commonplace until the next full moon. Everybody will be talking about it, and be eager to do it. Later it will be regarded as a fad.
  63. Knows that their mother is mad at them. They don’t know why, but she is, and she might yell at them at any moment.
  64. Is blessed, such that people they meet regard their opinion of high importance, and will be very interested to know the character’s thoughts on just about any subject. This effect gradually fades over the course of a week.
  65. Will be chased by a pack of ravenous dogs. (10 per level of the character)
  66. Will be chased by a pack of adorable puppies (3 per level of the character)
  67. Drugs lose all of their effects for this character. They become forcibly sober, because nothing can get them buzzed.
  68. Just once, if they jump out of a glass window, they can land wherever they want, and can roll just right so that they only take 2hp of damage. 1 from the glass, and 1 from the fall.
  69. A cloud of rain forms over the character’s head, and will follow them around wherever they go.
  70. The next time they would die, it was all a dream. They wake up in their bed.
  71. All foods affect the character’s mind as if they were drugs, causing them to exist in a constant haze.
  72. Must choose an animal. All instances of that animal, all over the world, can now fly. If they could already fly, then now they can swim. If they could already fly and swim, then what the fuck, they can teleport.
  73. Birds can talk now, but they only speak to the Trick or Treater, and all they ever do is talk shit.
  74. The next harmful spell the Trick or Treater would be affected by is warped, so that the Trick or Treater is instead granted Protection from Evil.
  75. Their nose gets all big and warty.
  76. Becomes significantly more attractive. Two or three points up on a ten point scale, at the very least.
  77. The next time they would run, they run as if they were underwater.
  78. The NPC tells them that their next attack will be “a little more effective than normal.” Their next attack will be an auto-hit, auto-kill, no matter what their target is. Under no circumstances should the player be aware of the full potency of this treat.
  79. Every coin in the Trick or Treater’s possession goes down by one denomination. Gold becomes silver, silver becomes copper, copper becomes stone, etc.
  80. The next time you sleep, you dream of reading that book you’ve been meaning to read. When you wake up, you have all the knowledge of the book, as if you had read it.
  81. Gets their shoes tied together.
  82. Is empowered with the skills of an expert tapdancer.
  83. Is cursed, so that their weapon becomes stuck in its scabbard during the next combat.
  84. Is blessed, such that everything the Trick or Treater eats tastes like candy.
  85. Hands become so sticky that anything they touch becomes stuck to them until some water is poured over their hands.
  86. Receives a really comfortable pair of shoes, which will make all of their traveling around much more comfortable. There’s no mechanical benefit, but dang, it’s just a way nicer way to adventure, ya know?
  87. From now on, whenever they sleep, their dreams will appear floating above their heads for anyone nearby to watch.
  88. For the next few days, all reaction rolls are made at a +1. Everyone is just being kinda cool to you, yo. It’s the harvest season, and people are just kinda chill, ya know?
  89. A serial killer has decided that you need to be their next victim. They’re stalking you now, and they’ll come for you next time you’re alone.
  90. The NPC casually hands over some item or piece of information which significantly advances the players along some quest they were already invested in. It doesn’t solve the whole thing for them, or anything, but it will sure make their lives a whole lot easier.
  91. Your butt falls off. There is no longer any way for you to sit, or to fart, or to poop, or to enjoy the pleasures of anal stimulation.
  92. The NPC relates some information regarding a small inheritance the Trick or Treater is entitled to. All they need to do is go claim it from the executor of their great aunt’s estate.
  93. The NPC calls out for help, claiming that the Trick or Treater attacked them with great violence.
  94. The NPC passes along info regarding a friendly water Nymph, who is currently fed up with other nature spirits and wants to make some human friends.
  95. A bag of tasty tasty popcorn, a kernel of which gets stuck in your teeth, and will remain lodged there FOREVER, giving you uncomfortable mouth pressures.
  96. The NPC offers to do your laundry. They’ll do a really good job of it, too. It’ll all feel very soft and warm when they’re done.
  97. Dogs no longer trust the Trick or Treater, which is bad, because people always put an undue amount of faith in whether or not a dog likes a person.
  98. The NPC offers comfortable accommodations for the night, complete with soft beds, privacy, and meals.
  99. The NPC offers to perform oral sex. They are really, really, painfully bad at it.
  100. The Trick or Treater is entitled to one Wish.

Neve Canri

ErinSassinationThis post is entirely self indulgent. Any enjoyment you get out of it will be purely incidental.

Fiction

If I am the referee, then Neve Canri exists in the game world. Whether her machinations are visible to the players, or her attention is focused on some far off corner of the cosmos, she is there.

Neve Canri is a God. Various worshipers claim she is the patron of various things: secrets, lies, conspiracies, undeath. But these are human attempts to understand the divine. Neve Canri is the patron only of her own unknowable will.

On a divine scale, Neve Canri is young. But her ceaseless campaigning has left only a few gods that remember a time before her. The rest are mere infant godlings by comparison, having risen to fill the vacuums she created.

She typically appears as a dark haired woman wearing an elegant gown. There are diamonds where her eyes ought to be, and her withered hands that are little more than skin and bone.

She resides in the Citadel of the Seed, a tower hidden amongst the mountain ranges of the abyss. Each of the tower’s 16 levels appears to be a whole world, with the pathway upwards hidden somewhere in its landscape. At the center of the top level is a great mountain, at the peak of which is the granite throne from which Neve Canri rules.

Orcus is dead. All undead creatures serve Neve Canri.

The Background

Neve Canri began life circa 2008 as an NPC I largely improvised on the spot when a game session lasted well beyond the material I had prepared. I was a different kind of referee back then. The kind who planned out storylines in advance, loved D&D 3.5, and had never killed a character at his table.

I still have all my notes for that first session of what I later called the “Ascendant Crusade Campaign.” I’d recently grown close with some new friends through World of Warcraft, and I wanted to introduce them to the hobby. The first line of my notes is “Start: Almost cartoonishly generic.” This is followed by what I think is supposed to be boxed text. Like I said, a different kind of referee.

FirstPageOfNotesThe structure of the adventure was, indeed, generic. The players would begin in town A, and there was a caravan going to town B. They’d first be presented with the opportunity to join a group of bandits planning to ambush the caravan. If they turned down the job,  they’d be approached by the governor with a counter offer to protect it.

I actually wrote notes for three different paths the players could take through the adventure, and felt quite proud of myself for the level of agency I was providing. As an amusing aside: the players immediately split the party. The halfling rogue went off with the bandits, while the rest joined up with the caravan as guards. It was all sorts of amusing, but that’s neither here nor there.

More to the point, these were the halcyon days when D&D lasted for as long as everyone felt like playing. The group was still going strong, even as they approached the end of my prepared notes. So I began weaving rumors of cult activity in the town they’d just arrived in. Some additional adventuring revealed a hidden cavern beneath the city, and what appeared to be a human sacrifice in progress. A young woman lay on an altar, with chanting cultists and burning braziers around her. Her name was Erin Wallcraft.

I don’t remember exactly how much about Erin was improvised on the spot. I seem to recall it had always been my plan to have a rival adventuring party in this campaign. I might have even outlined who the characters in that rival party would be. But, I certainly didn’t plan for the whole conspiracy which grew out of this improvised moment.

See, Erin wasn’t being sacrificed. She was, in fact, a very important member of the cult, and a fellow worshiper of their god: Vecna, lord of magic, undeath, and secrets.  Under Erin’s orders, the cultists were performing a ritual to transform her into an undead creature. A ritual the players interrupted on the assumption that they were rescuing her. But Erin was pretty good at rolling with the punches, so she happily thanked the PCs for her ‘rescue.’

I was careful to note that Erin got up off the altar on her own, because of course, she hadn’t been restrained. Further, when Erin told the party that she needed to go “free” her companions, I described her running ahead of the group. She opened the door (without unlocking it), and said something to the effect of “Hey guys, these adventurers right here just rescued us from the evil death cult that was trying to kill me! Yaay!” When the players saw these supposed prisoners, I mentioned that they were all fully armed and armored.

I often think back on my younger days as a referee with some shame. To this day, though, I’m proud of how much agency the players had here. I dropped hints like crazy that Erin and her friends were lying, but the players were oblivious. It made the many betrayals that followed so much sweeter.

Erin’s adventuring party wove their way in and out of the campaign from that point onward. They showed up in roughly every 3rd adventure.  My original intent was for them to be the PCs’ rivals, but my players really liked them. The two parties became very buddy-buddy with one another, and the players would actually get excited when they ran into Erin & Co. The single longest game session I’ve ever played was 15 hours straight of of the PCs assisting Erin in recovering “her teacher’s journals” from a trap-filled dungeon. “Her teacher’s journals,” of course, being code for “The copy of Ordinary Necromancy penned in Vecna’s own hand.” Failed spot checks allowed her to slip the book under her robe and claim someone else must have raided the dungeon before them.

Between game sessions I was developing Erin and her party voraciously. Something about these characters took hold of me. I planned out their whole story, backwards and forward. I started drawing them a lot. I’ve never drawn so much in my life as I did when I was trying to pin down these NPCs.  I even outlined two sequel campaigns that would pick up after Erin conquered the world. In the first, the PCs would start as low-level mooks in Erin’s army, as it marched into the Abyss to overthrow Graz’zt and place one of her party members on his throne. And after that campaign ended, I’d jump forward a thousand years so the players could be the peasant children that were destined to defeat Erin once and for all. I had a bit of that frustrated novelist syndrome, for sure.

ErinLounging

Unfortunately, life began to pull everyone in different directions. Like so many other D&D games, The Ascendent Crusade petered out. The final session (played with only 2 of the original group), was meant to be the first of a new phase of the campaign. The players encountered Erin’s group. They were fording a river with a coffin, and Erin wasn’t with them. They told the PCs that they had encountered someone called “The Whispered Empress,” and that this mysterious figure had killed Erin. They were on their way to bury her now, after which they were planning to retire from adventuring for good.

What had really happened is that Erin had become a vampire, slain & replaced the High Priest of Vecna, and re-dubbed herself “The Whispered Empress” in preparation for her coming war of conquest. This encounter was one final clue for the party, albeit a subtle one. Vampires cannot cross running water under their own power.

It has always bothered me that I never got to finish Erin’s story. The very fact that I thought of that game as “Erin’s Story” speaks to my frustrated novelist syndrome, but by all accounts the players were enjoying themselves. One actually told me they wished I still ran more narrative-driven games. No harm no foul, I suppose?

Years after the campaign ended, I did have the pleasure of revealing to one of the players that Erin had been evil the whole time. I told her  my plan had been for the campaign to end when the players finally met The Whispered Empress, and it turned out to be their old friend Erin. She would have offered them positions of power within her empire, and killed them (or tried to) if they refused. That player’s complete surprise at this revelation was satisfying to me.

Erin’s adventuring party inspired me to do some of my first really serious D&D writing. Like the clumsy addiction system I put together for Erin’s drug habit, or the Arcane Surgeon class I drafted when I decided Erin’s party needed an irreligious healer. Notably, many of the very first posts on Papers & Pencils were my attempt to tell Erin’s story through The Girl and the Granite Throne. But that never really worked out either. Such is life.

WarmistressErinAtPlay

All of which finally brings us around to Erin’s transformation into Neve Canri. It was October 2012, and my younger brother Ronnie came to me and asked me to run a D&D game for him. He had never played D&D at that point, and I was happy to put together a campaign. I recruited my ladyfriend (one of the original Ascendant Crusade players), and Ronnie recruited one of his friends, and we had a quorum. I hacked together a quick custom ruleset that I called D&D&LB. Dungeons & Dragons & Little Brothers.

I set the game in the distant future of the Ascendant Crusade world. One where everything I planned had taken place, and then faded into obscure legend. Erin had conquered the world, placed one of her allies on a demon lord’s throne, and reigned for a thousand years before the world was freed from her iron-fisted grip by a band of plucky upstart heroes.

As a little treat for my ladyfriend, the whole world was designed to be vaguely recognizable. I was really just curious if she’d pick up on it. Most of the names for places and things were altered to sound like they’d gone through a thousand years of playing ‘telephone.’ So the town of Heathrop (He-Thrup) became Haetrop (Hay-Trope). Stuff like that.

It was as I was answering Jeff’s 20 questions that I decided to take it one step further. “Who are your campaign’s gods?” Why not Erin? But “Erin” is a silly name for a god. So somehow I came up with the name “Neve Canri.” I honestly couldn’t tell you how I got it. There’s a better than even chance that I just played around with syllables until I found a jumble of them that sounded good in my ear. And it still does. It’s a fuckin’ awesome name for a god, if I do say so myself.

I didn’t plan for Neve Canri to play any special role in the campaign. There were two good gods, and two evil gods, and she was just one of the latter. I suppose, though, it was inevitable that she started to show up more and more. I had such a strong sense of her character compared to the other three gods. Plus, the megadungeon the players were exploring was specifically the remnants of one of Erin’s fortresses. It was only natural the players tended to find a lot of cultists and artifacts dedicated to her.

Late in the campaign my brother’s Hireling died. He was bummed. He looked at me and declared that his character would call out to Neve Canri. He offered his soul in exchange for his Hireling’s life. I wasn’t really prepared for that, but the exchange seemed reasonable enough. I agreed. His hireling returned to life with full hit points, and his PC’s eyes turned into diamonds. I told him he would be expected to act always in the best interests of Neve Canri. And he did, for about ten minutes.

Maybe two sessions after that, the players slew a dragon. This was exciting not only because of the horde of treasure they earned, but also because that game allowed PCs to consume bits of dragon to empower themselves. Or maybe die, if they failed a save. My brother chose to eat the dragon’s eyes, which I warned would be a betrayal of Neve Canri. He did it anyway. A pair of dragon eyes forced the diamonds out of his sockets. He gained dragon eyes, and his resurrected hireling immediately exploded in a rain of gore.

During the last few sessions of the campaign, Neve Canri sabotaged the party at every turn. Undead would pop out of nowhere to attack at the worst possible moment. A doppleganger of my brother was created with the express purpose of assassinating and replacing him. The final session of the game was a flash-forward to 10 years in the future, where the PCs were all super high level and badass. They ventured into Neve Canri’s own realm to destroy her, which they utterly failed at. It was a good time.

It was in the aftermath of that campaign that I decided I wanted to keep Neve Canri around as a meta connection between my game worlds. She’s hardly the most original or interesting god. Honestly she’s pretty much a ripoff of Vecna that I’ve tried to contort into something vaguely resembling an original creation. But after spending 10 years with this NPC, she feels like a more substantive deity to me. Her ridiculous backstory actually happened, more or less. And while “her” story is over, I find that her continued presence pushes me to come up with schemes that are worthy of her.

So if we ever play together, remember: Neve Canri is watching.

ErinNWhisperblade

NES OSR Bestiary 3: Castlevania

If you find this idea appealing in the slightest, you should totally check out Reynaldo Madrinan’s blog Bum Rush the Titan. He’s done a lot of work OSR-ifying Castlevania under the Barovania tag.

Most of a Ghost: Typically, a ghost is an incorporeal manifestation of an individual who has died. While such ghosts may or may not have a full recollection of their lives and knowledge of their present state, they are none the less the spiritual residue of a once-living creature.

A “Most of a Ghost” is less than that. They’re usually created on accident by a careless or distracted necromancer, like skin forming on a pot of soup. Superficially, they’re similar to a ghost in that they’re incorporeal creatures shaped in a more or less human fashion. However, they are not a manifestation of any individual, but rather, a collection of scraps from dozens of individuals, mixed with necrotic energies and other mumbo-jumbo. They’re about as real as Velveeta cheese.

Being both incorporeal and unintelligent, Most of a Ghosts are pretty useless. The best you can usually do with them is have them wander around an area like undead scarecrows, warding superstitious peasants away from your manse.

Fuckface Fish: Sometimes, fishermen jack off using a fish’s mouth.

Hey, don’t look at me. Fishermen are gross.

Anyway, these are the births that result from this act of bestiality. Fish-kind’s revenge against the lusts of man. Fuckface Fish are as large as a man, but have delicate bones and hollow organs which allow them to slip effortlessly through spaces that are seemingly impossibly small. They make their way through water pipes to take up residence in our cisterns, wells, and toilets. When they hear the movements of people nearby, they leap out to attack.

Their goal is to eat human dicks, which are their only source of nourishment, and they will happily beat a person to death if that’s what it takes to access our tasty tasty underpants sausage.

If the target is willing to prove that they have a vagina, the Fuckface Fish will gladly leave them alone.

Sisterhood of the Sine Wave: There exists a mystery cult of women mathematicians, which holds that the Sine Wave is not only a beautiful expression of mathematical perfection, but also, that it is the fundamental bedrock of all truth and beauty in the universe. (They are violently opposed to their counterparts in the Cult of the Cosine, but that is neither here nor there).

Like any mystery cult, they have their little rituals and chants, mostly designed to be spiritually fulfilling rather than efficacious or correct.  Of particular note, however, are their burial rituals, wherein the head is removed, and anointed with sacred equations. It is then released into the air, to bob up and down with constant forward motion, setting the deceased mind into an eternal contemplation of the beauty of the Sine Wave.

These anointed heads are the very definition of an unstoppable force. As such, the Sisterhood takes great pains with their equations, to set each head in motion on a path which can be followed, unobstructed, for all time. If anything does get in the way of the head’s path, the head will smash through it. This would obviously be injurious to any person who got in the way, but worse yet, could be a true catastrophe if the head were to gradually angle its way downward to plow through the earth.

Really Annoying Cat Monsters: Also known as RAC’Ms, will sit completely statue-still until approached by something with enough meat on its bones to look tasty to them.

Despite their stillness, no one would ever confuse these creatures for inanimate objects. It is completely obvious to anyone who looks at them that they’re just waiting for the right moment to spring to life and attack. Yet, despite this complete obviousness it is remarkably difficult to steel one’s self against the inevitable pounce. It always happens during some brief lull in your attentiveness, and they always leap in a slightly different direction than you think they will.

Monkey Kid: Sometimes, human children are born as Monkey kids. Like any birth defect in this primitive time, it is a condition regarded with horror and fear. The child is left out in the wilderness to be eaten by wild beasts, and the parents will be lucky if they are not forever shamed by the community for bringing a tiny monster into the world.

Monkey Kids have small brains, weak spines, and overdeveloped feet. They leap and bounce on all four limbs as they move around, and before Auschuzak, those who survived their infancy lived to a maximum age of about 15 years.

But Auschuzak, Devil Prince of the Yellow Expanse, took a liking to the wretched little things, and adopted their whole race as his children. He extended their lives to that of a normal human, deigned that they could only be percieved by those who already knew they were there, and blessed them with a a purpose.

Once a Monkey Kid reaches maturity (about 4 years old), it will begin to look for a human to latch itself onto. Any human will do, really. Once a suitable target is found, the Monkey Kid will leap onto their back, sink its teeth into their Unhappiness Glands, and begin to feed off their suffering.

The command of Auschuzak prevents the victim from noticing the weight of the creature living on their back, though they may notice how much less pleasant their life has suddenly become.

Twoskulls: A pair of Dragon skulls, one on top of the other. Both are capable of breathing fire, but neither is particularly inclined to do so unless there is some specific reason for it. They’re honestly pretty bored, being largely immobile aside from the ability to spin around, and they much prefer to try and get a bit of good conversation out of intruders.

The top skull is the more talkative of the two. It refuses to acknowledge that the bottom skull exists, referring to the bones beneath it merely as its own “body.” Bodies, of course, don’t have anything of their own to think or to say, and thus, it refuses to acknowledge the bottom skull. The top is arrogant and condescending, but generally pretty friendly.

By contrast, the bottom skull is an unhappy grumbler. It controls the movement, but has a huge inferiority complex about its position rubbing up against the floor. It’s well aware of (and hateful towards) the top skull, and appreciates any gestures of respect show to it.

Firebrain: An oblong skull which flies all around at the speed of sound, and is on fire. They jibber constantly, oscillating between low-voiced, incomprehensible grumbles, to equally incomprehensible screeching. Firebrains are angry, that much is clear. What they’re actually angry about is much less clear.

The real trick of dealing with a Firebrain is figuring out what is bothering it at the moment, using only the few words you can pick out of its speech, and whatever other context clues you can divine from the environment. If a person can appear to empathize with the Firebrain’s plight, they’ll be left alone as a similarly aggrieved comrade.

However, if a passer-by seems apathetic towards the Firebrain’s anger, they’ll be (unsurprisingly), set on fire.

NES OSR Bestiary 2: Ninja Gaiden 2

I realize it might seem odd to jump straight to Ninja Gaiden 2. What about Ninja Gaiden 1? Well, the first game was good, but I didn’t grow up with it. I didn’t even play it for the first time until I was an adult. For whatever reason, I only got NG2 as a hand-me-down from my uncle, and I spent countless summer hours holed up in the cool basement, playing this game on the old color TV my parents had left down there. The one with woodgrain siding, that you turned on by twisting a knob.

Plus, Ninja Gaiden 2 is just the objectively superior game.

CroMagMan
In the early 2000s, the Geico car insurance company engaged in a little ill-fated bio-advertising. They tried to engineer a small army of their “cave men,” for use in sales events. They did not take into account just how violent their creations would be.

CroMagMen are the ubiquitous mercenary tough-guys of the future. They’ll take on any job, just so long as you don’t mind how violent they get while they’re doing it.

When dealing with a CroMagMan, expect them to ask at least a few questions about your car insurance.

BeetleBoi
When a barrel full of beetles is boiled in the blood of of a boy, a BeetleBoi is born. The process only takes a few hours, until the blood has been reduced to a thick sludge, and the horrid little creature can be safely fished out.

They’re hunched creatures, standing about waist-high to a full grown adult, and covered in a glistening black shell. Their forearms are just long sharp exoskeletal blades, which they tap along the ground in front of them, making a click-click-click sound as they approach.

BeetleBois are blind. They don’t have particularly good hearing, or much of a sense of smell either. They get around by tapping their forearms. They do have one strong sense, though. They know where the nearest sources of blood are, and will move quickly to tear open and consume any bloodbags they perceive.

Vommo
Nobody loves Vommo. Even Vommo’s mother left him in a dumpster when he was 6 months old, because she couldn’t take the smell of him anymore. It is not Vommo’s fault that he sweats vomit out of his pores.

A lifetime of solitude on the streets has robbed Vommo of whatever mental faculties he may have been born with. He’s a sort of pathetic, foul-smelling simpleton. He deserves nothing but compassion, though you should try never to be alone with him. If he thinks no one will protect you, he’ll wrap you in a big bear hug and force you to smell him. It’s an obsession; half cry for attention, half fetishistic sex act. More than one person has been crushed to death by Vommo’s mighty hug.

Gota Getchums
A failed attempt at genetic resequencing left Gota both highly suggestible, and intensely, passionately, insatiably violent. Gota doesn’t have any sexual organs left anymore, and the “squish” sound your brain makes when he smashes your head in with a club is the most satisfaction he gets out of life.

He prefers to rush in and get his kills quickly, because as soon as people start talking, he gets confused. Gota will more or less obey any command or request uttered in his presence. He literally confuses any such statements with being his own thoughts, and it takes him a few moments for his own identity to reassert itself.

Überthought
A group of amoral (and frankly, stupid) scientists thought they might be able to make a lot of money if they found a way to combine different creatures into the perfect murder-soldier. The Überthought was the furthest they got before they ran out of funding.

It’s a man, with the head of a jackal, the hands of a Hook Horror, and the spine of a Dire Armadillo. It’s an insanely wasteful concoction, considering that at least one of those animals had to be genetically engineered before it could be harvested for parts.

Compliment Fisher
This resolutely cheerful chap somehow finds a way to take just about everything as a compliment. If you attack it, it takes pride in being considered enough of a threat to warrant violence from you. If you insult it, it knows you’re only doing so because it managed to make you feel something. The damn thing is infuriatingly cheerful, and honestly there’s no reason for you to hate it or want to hurt it, but fuck if that kind of relentless optimism doesn’t grate on the nerves.

The easiest way to kill a compliment fisher is to feed it as many sincere compliments as you can manage. The more you stroke its ego, the larger its head will become. Eventually, its neck won’t be able to support the weight any longer, and the creature will crumple under its own weight.

No-Grandma Jones
Ya know how your grandma was always complained that you were just “skin and bones” right before she started feeding you like some kind of creepy fat fetishist? Well No-Grandma Jones is literally that. Skin, bones, and nothing else.

Every one of his movements is uncomfortably fast. He is obsessively competitive as well. If he sees you do just about anything, he’ll make sure to let you know that he can do it better. He frequently challenges people to duels, or to place bets, over just about anything conceivable. If no better options present themselves, he’ll just challenge you to a duel.

No-G is a gracious winner, but gods help you if you win.

Muscleboys and Musclegirls of the Cult of the Horned Serpent
Remember in the 1982 Conan the Barbarian (unquestionably the best film of all time),  where the king refers to Thulza-Doom’s cult as “Just another snake cult?” This is another one of them.

The Muscleboys and Musclegirls are stolen from their parents at birth, and raised with only two principals. The first is strength. They lift wheels and push weights for hours every day, building their bodies up into rock-solid death machines. The second is oral sex.

Specifically, the Muscleboys and Musclegirls have oral sex performed on them frequently by the cult’s most attractive priestesses and priestos. Furthermore, they’re told that this pleasure is a secret ritual, not known to anyone outside of the cult. A gift from their snake god, to its loyal followers.

Unsurprisingly, this makes the Muscleboys and Musclegirls very loyal, and very willing to murder anyone who threatens their beloved blowjobs and cunnilingi.

Little Rethorbs
Whenever a teenager dies, if they had a younger sibling who is now the oldest child, then something of that sibling dies as well. Their essential “younger sibling-ness” is lost to the ether, flows into the earth or out into space, or, on occasion, forms into a Little Rethorb.

Little Rethorbs think you’re really cool, and just want attention. Once they latch on to a person, they will hop around, being loud, jibbering constantly, and getting in the way until they are killed.

If humored for an extended period, they will gradually calm down, and may even become useful. After about a year, they might learn not to be so noisy, or to speak so constantly. After three or four years, they might even become helpful companions.

But, for real, what kind of adventurer would tolerate that shit for that long? They’re just gonna stab it and move on.

Senoj Darb
An insufferable snob with a fish-like head, no eyes, and dozens of snake-like bodies. Senoj is a critic of absolutely everything it encounters, and somehow manages to find everything wanting. Your swordfighting style is too plebeian, your singing is off key, your paintings are bourgeois.  Anything without 6 layers of irony to it is hack.

Normally this would just be annoying, save for the fact that Senoj is able to summon Spheres of Annihilation to destroy whatever it deems unworthy.

NES OSR Bestiary 1: Dragon Warrior

The amount of time I’m able to devote to writing has been dramatically cut back for the next few months. More or less this is actually good news for me, but it does make keeping up with the blog bit more difficult. So, I thought this might be a good time for a nice simple little series.

Like many people my age, the NES was a pivotal part of my childhood. It shaped my perceptions of concepts like fantasy, adventure, and good game design. The bare-bones nature of everything from the graphics to the narrative to the sound left a lot of room for my imagination to stretch itself as it filled in the blanks. So, I figured it might be fun to pick four of those games that are particularly meaningful to me, and turn some of their enemies into OSR monsters.

Of course, there’s a certain innocence to many of these, which presents a bit of a creative challenge. By “innocent,” I don’t mean that they’re kid-friendly, I mean that they were created in a time before many of the foundational monster types had become too cliche to bear. In an NES game, skeletons, bats, and dragons were all still novel ideas, if only because the medium itself was novel.

Fortunately, I’m not boring enough to try and write faithful adaptations of these monsters. I’m just going to get weird, drawing on my own childhood interpretations of what these sprites represented, and filling in the rest with whatever oddity I can come up with.

Bouncery Boos
Teardrop-shaped creatures, with smiling faces and rubbery skin. They are extremely talkative, and very friendly. Many people “de-claw” them using a set of heavy garden shears, and keep them around as a sort of pet.

Friendly as they may be, though, they really want to bathe in your blood. See, anytime they douse themselves in blood, they grow bigger, and it feels really good to grow bigger. Really REALLY good. They love bouncing just right so that the spike on their head plunges deep into some friendly person. Then the warm goo flows out. It flows all over them, and they can feel little explosions of pleasure inside them as they absorb the blood and their bodies swell larger.

Drakee
A draconic period. Each month, when a female dragon menstruates, a flock of unfertilized Drakees are expelled from her body.

Drakees are angry little creatures, who feel they’ve been denied their right to be dragons. For many years, draconic mothers had to be extra protective of their young, because Drakees liked to murder baby dragons out of jealousy. Eventually, the dragons spread a rumor that if a Drakee killed 10,000 humans, they would become a dragon themselves.

The rumor effectively focused the Drakee’s rage away from dragon youth, and onto humans. If any Drakee gets too close to the 10,000 mark, an elder dragon will quietly have them killed, to prevent the conspiracy from being revealed.

Spell Bundle
Careless magic users sometimes allow spells to slip out of their minds, uncast. Maybe it’s been a long day, and you just never needed that Fireball, so you go to sleep. When you wake up the next morning, your mind is empty, and ready to be filled with new spells.

These lost spells wander the ether at random, eventually meeting up with other forgotten spells. A school forms, growing larger and larger as new spells latch on to it, until the whole group coalesces into the form of a robed figure. The only goal of the Spell Bundle is to find some appropriate circumstance in which each of its many tangled spells can be cast, until there’s nothing left, and the robed figure dissipates away into nothingness.

Walking Wall
A favorite construct of powerful wizards. First, they need some structure made of bricks, such as a wall, a bridge, or a tower. Once enchanted, this structure can rearrange itself into a large humanoid shape.

Walking Walls travel with the wizard, serving as guardians. Whenever then need arises, a command word will cause them to rearrange their bodies back into structures. The specifics of the form they return to can be tweaked, but they cannot become a different sort of structure. So, for example, a creature made from a straight length of wall can become a circular wall, but cannot become a tower.

Exiled Seabrain
In water, Seabrains are polite and peaceful intellectuals. However, when one of their kind has committed a particularly hateful crime, they are banished to the surface world, and condemned never to enter any body of water again. This seems like an unenforceable edit, and yet no exile ever seems to disobey it.

Deprived of their natural environment, Seabrains become obsessed with the water inside living creatures. They go on an apologetic rampage, tearing apart any creature within range of their powerful psychic abilities. They continue on in this way until they are killed, or until they finally die of exposure away from the water. An Exile can sometimes live for months before finally succumbing.

Boner
These particular skeletons come from the corpses of self-hating fat people. After a lifetime of being blamed for the person’s insecurities (“big boned,”) these bones have come to find flesh and meat deeply offensive. They particularly hate fat people, but really anything with skin is disgusting to them, and must be purged. They are almost religious in this zealotry.

Phloato
A bulbous creature, which can inflate its body with helium, and float on the wind like a balloon. Despite being composed of mostly empty space, Phloatos are somewhat intelligent, and even capable of human speech. They’re insufferable to talk to, though. They think absolutely everything is boring, and make snide comments about anyone who expresses sincere emotions.

A Phloato’s tendrils are dangerously radioactive. Avoid letting them touch you.

Heralds of the Next Empire
These bear-sized, scorpion-like creatures have traveled from an alternate version of our world. They are the heralds of an empire which will someday extend its boarders into our reality. This is not a question of “if,” only of “when,” and the heralds are here to ensure the transition is smooth.

They do not speak, and are not particularly violent. They merely travel our world, plunging their stingers into everyone they meet. If they encounter no trouble doing this, then they will move on. If their stinger is deflected, they’ll use their powerful claws to hold the victim down. If the victim puts up too much of a fight, it might be better just to tear them apart rather than deal with it.

If a person survives being stung, then within the next few days they will realize they now speak a new language. The language isn’t spoken natively anywhere in our world. Only those who have been stung understand it.

Laughy Jims & Jills
Likes to say shitty things to people, and always defends themselves by claiming it was “just a joke,” or insisting that the offended party needs to “get a sense of humor.” Laughy Jims and Laughy Jills are notorious for being able to dish it out, but absolutely can’t take it. If you say anything to bruise their fragile ego, they will immediately become belligerent, and possibly even violent.

The creature attacks using its body as a club. They’re honestly pretty bad at fighting, and will often just get in a few hits, then fly out of range and declare victory. If you can’t reach them, it must mean that they win, you pathetic, ground-bound loser.

 

 

 

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