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Two Questions for Better Battlefields

Of all the ideas that were never meant to be, my “Spicing up the Battlemat” series is among those I most regret not following through with. If you’re not familiar with those posts, don’t feel bad, because they’re fuckin’ old. Not just “Back when I used to write about Pathfinder” old. They’re, like, “literally the first post on this blog” old. There are children who were born after I abandoned that series, who are now old enough to attend school.

The premise of the series is solid: combat in D&D is more interesting when the players have environmental factors to play with. Like chasms to push their foes into, chandeliers to swing on, etc. To better facilitate the inclusion of such factors, each post focused on a given biome, and what interesting environmental features might exist there. I even included all those maddening Pathfinder mechanics in an effort to make it quick to run at the table.

Anyway, earlier this year while I was working on Bubblegum Berzerk, my coauthor and I had a minor disagreement about the way rooms should be described. The details of that argument are boring and irrelevant, but by the end of it I had reached two conclusions:

  1. He was totally right, and I was totally wrong.
  2. The problem I set out to solve with “Spicing Up the Battlemat” is still a problem in my games, and in many other OSR games I’ve played in.

Don’t get me wrong, the OSR engine is much better at handling interesting environments than Pathfinder is. The “rulings, not rules” philosophy is basically meant to cover this exact sort of thing. OSR games don’t need somebody to help them determine exactly what the composition of local trees is. BUT, allowing players the agency to tinker with their environment is only a job half done. The referee also needs to give the players something to tinker with.

If the referee says “Goblins pop out from behind the trees and move to attack,” it creates a mental space for the players that looks like this:



We know we’re in a forest, but that’s just set dressing for a straightforward combat on a flat plane.

Initiative roll,

attack roll,

attack roll,

attack roll,

damage roll,


With barely any extra mental effort, however, the referee can say “Goblins pop out from behind the trees and move to attack. The trees here are thick, with low hanging branches. There’s a shallow creek a dozen feet to the East.”

Suddenly the players are in a much more diverse environment. Just those two details give them something to think about. And that, in turn, will get them asking questions.

“Are there birds in the trees?”

“Is the creek bank a gentle slope, or is there a drop?”

“Are there roots sticking out of the ground anywhere?”

However you answer these questions–yes, no, or maybe–will impact how the players choose to fight. All you’ve gotta do is get those two details in there at the start.

To aide myself in doing this better, I could write a table. That’s certainly in my wheelhouse, but it wouldn’t actually be very helpful. I’m not going to keep a bunch of tables on hand, and roll them at the start of every random encounter. Instead, I’ve distilled the problem down to two questions: “What is the dominant feature of the environment like?” and “What else is here?”

What is the dominant feature of the environment like?

The dominant feature of most environments should be obvious. If you’re in a forest, the dominant feature is trees. In a desert, it’s probably sand, or maybe rocks. In swamps, you’ve got fetid water. Whatever the dominant feature is, you should be able to come up with some unusual detail.

Trees are an easy example. They can be sparse, or dense. They can be covered in vines, or moss, have rough bark, or be dripping with sap. They can have low hanging branches, or none at all. They can be rotten, or growing at a strange angle. They can have large leaves, or animal nests, or any number of other features.

Likewise, sand can be loose, or packed tightly, or it can rise and fall in dunes of large or small size. Sand  can be still, or blowing into your face, or blowing at your back.

What else is here?

Forests are not just a bunch of trees. The dominant feature of an environment is never going to be all there is, there’s always going to be something else there to play with. Rocks show up pretty much in every environment, for example, and they can be any size, from pebbles that create unsure footing, to stones ready to be used as improvised bludgeons, to boulders ready to be climbed on.




In a forest, there might be bushes or water features. In a plain, there might be tumbleweeds or mima mounds or sinkholes, in a desert there could be a copse of cacti, or some vultures circling overhead. Elevation works in pretty much any environment: the land rising and falling in gentle slopes or steep cliffs.

You don’t need me to write an exhaustive list here. You’ve been outside. When you picture a forest, of course there are trees, but…what else?

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.

d100 Magic Words: Body Parts & Simple Actions

Trampier - A Wizard casting a Web spellTwo more d100 lists of Magic Words! If you’re not familiar with what’s happening here, check out the posts in the Magic Word category, probably starting with the basic system outline.

“Body Parts” is pretty self explanatory. It’s a list of words that name parts of the bodies of living creatures. “Simple Actions” is stuff you can do with just your body, or at most very minimal tools.

If anybody else is actually using the system, by the by, I’d be fascinated to know what magic words are active in your game, and what spells your players have crafted. Email me!

d100 Body Parts

  1. Antennae
  2. Antler
  3. Appendage
  4. Appendix
  5. Arm
  6. Artery
  7. Back
  8. Beak
  9. Beard
  10. Belly
  11. Bladder
  12. Blood
  13. Bone
  14. Brain
  15. Breast
  16. Carapace
  17. Claw
  18. Cloaca
  19. Digestion
  20. Ear
  21. Egg
  22. Elbow
  23. Exoskeleton
  24. Eye
  25. Fang
  26. Fat
  27. Feather
  28. Fin
  29. Finger
  30. Fist
  31. Flesh
  32. Foot
  33. Fur
  34. Gentiles
  35. Gill
  36. Gland
  37. Hair
  38. Hand
  39. Heart
  40. Heel
  41. Hips
  42. Hoof
  43. Horn
  44. Intestine
  45. Iris
  46. Jaw
  47. Joint
  48. Knee
  49. Knuckle
  50. Leg
  51. Lips
  52. Liver
  53. Lung
  54. Mane
  55. Mouth
  56. Mucus
  57. Muscle
  58. Nails
  59. Navel
  60. Neck
  61. Nerve
  62. Nipple
  63. Nose
  64. Organ
  65. Orifice
  66. Palm
  67. Phallus
  68. Pheromones
  69. Pores
  70. Proboscis
  71. Quill
  72. Rectum
  73. Rib
  74. Scale
  75. Shell
  76. Skeleton
  77. Skin
  78. Skull
  79. Soul
  80. Sphincter
  81. Spine
  82. Sting
  83. Sucker
  84. Sweat
  85. Tail
  86. Talon
  87. Teeth
  88. Tendril
  89. Tentacle
  90. Throat
  91. Toe
  92. Tongue
  93. Tusk
  94. Uterus
  95. Vagina
  96. Vein
  97. Web
  98. Whisker
  99. Wing
  100. Wrist

d100 Simple Actions

  1. Ask
  2. Attack
  3. Awaken
  4. Belch
  5. Bellow
  6. Bite
  7. Blink
  8. Blow
  9. Breathe
  10. Build
  11. Carry
  12. Clap
  13. Comb
  14. Come
  15. Contemplate
  16. Cough
  17. Crawl
  18. Crouch
  19. Cry
  20. Dance
  21. Defend
  22. Dig
  23. Draw
  24. Drink
  25. Eat
  26. Excrete
  27. Exercise
  28. Fart
  29. Flap
  30. Flee
  31. Flex
  32. Flick
  33. Frown
  34. Give
  35. Glare
  36. Go
  37. Grind
  38. Grip
  39. Hear
  40. Hold
  41. Hug
  42. Jump
  43. Kick
  44. Kiss
  45. Laugh
  46. Lean
  47. Leap
  48. Learn
  49. Lick
  50. Lift
  51. Look
  52. Make
  53. Move
  54. Pat
  55. Play
  56. Point
  57. Pound
  58. Pull
  59. Punch
  60. Push
  61. Reach
  62. Read
  63. Recoil
  64. Release
  65. Rub
  66. Run
  67. Say
  68. Scratch
  69. Shake
  70. Sit
  71. Slap
  72. Sleep
  73. Slither
  74. Smile
  75. Snap
  76. Sneeze
  77. Speak
  78. Spin
  79. Spit
  80. Squeeze
  81. Stack
  82. Stand
  83. Stare
  84. Step
  85. Stomp
  86. Strain
  87. Stretch
  88. Strike
  89. Stroke
  90. Swallow
  91. Swing
  92. Tap
  93. Tear
  94. Think
  95. Touch
  96. Use
  97. Walk
  98. Wave
  99. Wiggle
  100. Write
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