Magically Generating New Adventures

Pile of Random Magic The Gathering CardsWhen I was 12 I finally got the opportunity to begin learning how to program on a second-hand computer my uncle was throwing out. For reasons I’m not entirely certain of, programming didn’t remain a major pursuit of mine. The time I spent fervently perfecting my simple programs did teach me a lot, though. Among other things, I learned to appreciate the beauty of randomness. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I enjoy a hobby where life and death often hang on a roll the dice.

In recent years I’ve become more interested in using randomness to aid in my creative process as a GM. I’ve worked on creating systems for randomly generating a variety of gaming elements, from dungeons, to species, to entire campaign arcs. One of my proudest achievements was my random NPC generator. It was one of the most ambitious programming projects I ever undertook, and I made a lot of progress with it. Unfortunately, my ability to construct the system was far more advanced than my ability to code the system, and the project has largely fallen by the wayside.

In this post, however, I’d like to talk about one of the simplest, most elegant and most entertaining systems of random generation I’ve come up with. I use it for adventure generation, but I imagine it could be adapted to be used for any length of narrative, up to entire campaign arcs.

The idea came to me one afternoon after an extended game of Magic: The Gathering with some friends. Most of my friends find the game much more entertaining than I do, so I was sitting out for a round. While they played, I browsed through the four boxes of cards I’ve accumulated, just enjoying the artwork. I came across one particularly devilish monster (I don’t recall which) and thought it would be great to throw against my players in an upcoming session of D&D.

Then my eyes snapped open wide as I realized that Magic and D&D take place in environments so similar that every magic card is a potential element in a D&D game. I quickly grabbed a piece of paper and worked out the system which, even then, seemed so simple as to hardly need codifying.

1) Either: predetermine the game elements the cards will represent, or decide to establish those elements after the cards are drawn.

2) Either: separate the cards into categories (artifact, creature, land, sorcery…), or decide to draw them from one huge pile.

3) Determine the number of cards you will draw. (and, possibly, from which piles you will draw them.)

4) Draw the number of cards you decided on in step 3, according to the conditions established in steps 1 and 2. Use any element found on the card (art, game effects, flavor text, or even just the card’s name) as a seed from which to develop the game.

To just write it out like that doesn’t seem very clear, so below are a few examples of this. For the first draw, I used the “Random Card” function on Gatherer. I won’t predetermine which cards correlate with which game elements, nor will I separate the cards into categories. I will draw four cards.

Magic The Gathering: Great Sable Stag ElkMagic The Gathering: Flashfreeze Old ManMagic The Gathering: Mentor of the Meek Swordsmanship TrainerMagic The Gathering: Hellkite Hatchling Red Dragon

The first thing that strikes me about these cards is the power and majesty of the Great Sable Stag. It seems a paragon of nature. This is in contrast to the Hellkite hatchling, which looks like a pretty evil dragon. Flashfreeze has some nice art of a sagacious old man on it, but I think I’d like to make this card into a kind of freezing trap which shows up in the game. Mentor of the Meek is kinda throwing me for a loop, but I’ve found that things work out best if I don’t discard cards which are difficult to fit into the idea. Maybe I can maybe work him in as the questgiver.

After some additional mulling, this is what I’ve come up with:

In a town on the outskirts of society, near an immense and unexplored forest, there are no inns for the players to stay in. Here, there is a strong presence of temples which offer free hospitality to travelers. While staying in one such very crowded temple, the PCs find themselves sitting at a table with a group of elderly pilgrims equal in number to the party. After some brief role play has allowed the players to familiarize themselves with their table companions, the server brings food. Unfortunately, the temple is overcrowded, and only has enough food for half the people at the table.

This is a test. If the PCs share the food, or offer it to the elderly pilgrims, they are approached by a young monk wearing light leather clothing, and a sword strapped to his side. He asks if he can speak with them, and takes them to a small side room with chairs, a table, and food for the players. They have impressed him with their generosity, and he would like to ask a favor of them. In the deep forest is a creature called the Playton Stag. It is a beautiful, and terrible, creature. All other stags in the world are a reflection of this one great animal.

Recently, a nearby Ancient Red Dragon named Ashrain gave birth to a whelping, and is teaching him to hunt in the great woods. Normally this would be of little concern, but the temple’s seers have foretold that Ashrain intends to continue hunting until her whelp can devour the Playton Stag.

To prevent this, the monk would like the party to capture the Playton Stag, and bring it back to the city where the monks can hide it until Ashrain grows bored of her grisly sport.

There is one snag, however. Any creature which touches the Playton Stag is instantly affected by a Time Stop spell, lasting one hour. The players must somehow return the creature to the town without ever touching it, lest they be easy prey for the creatures of the forest, or the dragons.

There are two things about this which I would like to point out. First, despite pulling 3 creature cards and a spell card, the game outline I worked up is not combat based. In fact, the primary goal of the adventure is more akin to solving a puzzle than anything else. Second, and most important, this is not an adventure I would have come up with on my own. It’s not my style, which means that the system is doing exactly what I want it to do: making me think differently. Forcing me to break my own patterns by forcing me to try to find patterns in randomness.

I think the concept is pretty clear at this point, but I’ll provide one more example to demonstrate the alternatives available in steps 1 and 2 of the process. This time I’ll be drawing from my own collection. I will predetermine the elements the cards will represent, but I will not sort the cards into categories.

The first card will be what the heroes are after on this adventure.
The second and third cards will be the challenges they must face.
The fourth card will be the unexpected help along the way.
The fifth card will be what sent them on their journey.
The sixth card will be what special treasure they have an opportunity to find.

I will now draw from my collection, and post the cards below in the order I drew them.

Magic The Gathering: Tempest Owl Blue Owl WaterfallMagic The Gathering: Spin Engine Artifact ConstructMagic The Gathering: Amrou Scout Kithkin Rebel Scout Woman AdventurerMagic The Gathering: Greater Basilisk Green Reptile Monster Magic The Gathering: Chandra's Spitfire Woman Of Fire SerpentMagic The Gathering: Tireless Missionaries Human Clerics Incense Procession

Now, you might look at this and see it as an unfortunate draw. What the players are after appears to be nothing more than a mundane owl, their unexpected help comes from a mindless and violent creature, and one of the obstacles they must overcome is an attractive young woman. But this is precisely what we want when we predetermine what cards will be associated with which game element. It forces us to further stretch our minds, to further break from our own patterns. I’ll keep this one short since the post is starting to run long.

After defeating a mad pyromancer, the party discover a journal whilst looting her body. It turns out she was hunting for a missing artifact. She had recently pinpointed its location: the ancient Amrou people who had hidden it had allowed an owl to swallow it, and enchanted the owl so that the artifact would be passed to its children. For generations, this family of owls has hunted among the Tempest Falls–a breathtaking and rare cluster of waterfalls in a far off land.

Along the way, the party is hounded by the forgotten descendants of those who first hid the artifact. However, if they looted a special amulet from the pyromancer, they will discover that it has an unusual ability. Whenever one of Amrou blood is near, it will summon a basilisk. The basilisk will attack the Amrou on sight–and will attack the players if it cannot find any Amrou nearby after being summoned. This makes any attempt at peace very difficult.

If the party successfully finds and slays the owl, the moment it dies, a great rumbling is heard, and an ancient war construct rises from beneath the earth to kill those who have breached the sacred trust of the Amrou.

Once the construct is defeated, and the players are finally able to examine the orb from the owl’s belly. If they are able to use magic to identify it, they will discover that once per day, it may be used to attempt to force a permanent 1 step alignment shift in another creature. Will save DC: 17, may not be used on the same creature twice regardless of success or failure.

So there you have it. Generating new adventures via magic. It’s not the only way of coming up with new ideas, but it’s one very good and fun method to try.

The Girl and the Granite Throne: Chapter Three

The Girl and the Granite Throne Chapter 3

 “But if the Hidden Lord teaches that each of us has in our heart a dark seed of weakness, then why would He bestow upon his high priest the title of “The Heart?”” Erin asked, incredulous.

“Ah, but The Hidden Lord also admonishes us never to reveal all that we know, child! Our greatest strength is our secrecy.” Argetta replied “Surely, you do not think that even a priestess such as myself would know His thoughts. It is enough that he has given us his Heart, and that we follow the teachings the Heart passes on to us.”

Frustrated by the dodge, Erin pressed “How can I know what teachings come from Vecna if I know not who the Heart is?”

The two women sat in the chapel, as they often had in the three years since Erin’s encounter with her god. The Whispered Lord had not spoken to her often in the intervening years–He had made it clear that she had not yet earned His full support. So Erin had taken it upon herself to seek out his teachings through the religion which worshiped Him. Increasingly, however, she found herself frustrated by the shortcomings in the dogma spouted by low level priests like Argetta.

Just as the older woman opened her mouth to respond, Immar stormed into the chapel, throwing the doors aside with a reverberating thump as they struck the walls. Erin stood and turned to face him immediately.

“How was your meeting with Mayor Geonlad, Master?” Erin asked. Normally she would be nowhere near so formal, but she did not want to give her teacher any excuse to focus his mood on her.

“That piss drinking son of a troll!?” Immar shouted, “That pompous bag of flatulence!?” Erin did her best not to quirk a smile, but the corner of her mouth quivered a bit. Immar was not very good at cursing.

“I take it then, sir, that the audience he requested did not go well?” she asked. From the corner of her eye she saw Argetta skulking out of the chapel, and very much wished she could join the stealthy old hag. “Is he still claiming that the tower is within the bounds of Heathrop to try and extort you for taxes?”

Immar took several deep breaths, which seemed to reduce him from a towering pillar of anger, back to an Illumian man. “Would that it was just the large words of a small man as it has been in the past. Today he presented forged land titles to that effect before the captain of the town’s guard. We are to comply within a fortnight, or he will order my arrest.” At this, Erin did laugh, though only for a moment before Immar’s glare made her cover her mouth to straighten her face. As quickly as she could, she explained herself.

“What hope could Geonlad have of restraining you? His city guard can barely keep on top of a rambunctious drunkard!”

“Paladins,” Immar replied, his tone still seething. “Eight of them, Cuthbertians. Apparently here to help the ‘goodly’ people of Heathrop by dealing with the wizards who are ‘abusing their power to avoid their legal responsibilities.'”

Now Erin was starting to feel angry too. “Gods damned paladins!” she cursed through gritted teeth. “Always more interested in being ‘heroes of the common people’ than they are in doing things right.”

Immar rubbed his eyes, then turned and began to walk out of the chapel. “I must meditate and pray.” he said, not bothering to look behind him. “Find Argetta and tell her I would like to see her in my chambers, then get some sleep. In the morning we will discuss whatever plan seems best.”

Erin nodded, and moved ahead of him out the door so she could find the priestess. She avoided looking back at her teacher. Eight paladins was a very real danger, and after all these years she knew Immar was not likely to pay for something he did not owe. She was afraid, and did not want the older wizard to see the fear she knew was evident on her face.

Loattie climbed onto Erin’s face just before dawn, and hopped up and down. Erin awoke, and made exaggerated sputtering sounds of disgust until the frog hopped back onto the bed side table. She gave her familiar a withering glare with her one good eye.

“I know I told you to wake me up in the morning, but shouldn’t you have figured out a more pleasant way to do it by now?” The frog chirped throatily back at her.

“Oh shut up.” Erin spat back, never much a fan of mornings.

Uncovering her Everburning Candle, Erin sat on the floor and cracked open her worn and trusty spellbook to begin memorizing the spells she thought she might need that day. By the time she had finished laying the mental framework required for casting, the first rays of the morning sun had begun to filter through the trees outside of the tower. She washed quickly before rummaging through her armoire for the day’s clothes. She had (somewhat clumsily) sewn additional pockets to all of her shirts and pants to store any spell components. And, of course, each had an extra pocket for Loattie.

Before rushing off to meet with Immar, Erin took a moment to stand in front of the mirror. She checked to make sure her hair was neat, and to quickly adjust the way her clothes rested around her increasingly curvaceous figure. She was not a vain woman, but she had discovered the potential of boys to be very entertaining. Though, she had also learned that most of them needed to be singed a bit in order to get them to do it right–but she didn’t mind. Burns healed.

Thoroughly satisfied that she looked alluring, Erin briskly walked out of the room, scooping Loattie off of a table and into her breast pocket as she did so. She quickly ascended the staircase, which gently wound along the inside edge of the tower’s cylindrical frame, eventually opening up into Immar’s laboratory on the top floor. There she found her teacher surrounded by a dense forest of papers. She saw maps, letters of correspondence, and tomes covering a variety of subject matter, covering not only his desk but the floor around him.

“Master?” Erin asked from the stairwell, unsure of whether to approach through the maze of documents. Immar stood and turned so fast that his wooden chair upended itself.

“Erin! Come here! You must see this.”

Erin could see even from across the room that the older wizard had not slept since the previous night. Before moving to join him at his desk, she moved to the windows and drew back the heavy curtains, allowing the early morning light to fill the room. Immar winced and brought up his hand to cover his face.

“It’s morning already…?” he started, before apparently deciding that the hour was irrelevant, and waving emphatically for Erin to join him.

She did, picking her way through the papers on the floor as gracefully as she could to join her teacher at the table. Immar had never demonstrated the absent minded eccentricity often attributed to wizards before. Erin could not wait to learn what had caused him to start now.

Among the items on the table was a book Erin had perused once or twice before, entitled “Tome of War: The Arcane, and the Mundane.” Speaking as a scholar it was of only minor note, detailing what a wizard named Feyun The Crimson Blade believed to be the optimum application of spells in warfare. Presently it was open to a brief chapter detailing the problems posed to a wizard by paladins.

Erin’s eyes bulged, and before Immar had even said a word she spun on him, carelessly tearing some papers beneath her heel.

“You mean to fight them!?” she nearly shouted, aghast at the thought.

“Of course I do.” he replied, in the same tone he might use if she had just misunderstood the simplest of cantrips.

“But there are only the two of us and Argetta!” Erin replied, “And the tower isn’t exactly a fortress.”

“Which is why we’re bringing in more people, and won’t be fighting from the tower.”

“Indefensible as the tower is, I hardly think the forest will be a better place.”

“Which is why we won’t be defending.” Immar continued.

Erin, still unsettled by the idea of fighting trained and seasoned warriors, unconsciously cocked her head to the side and furrowed her brow, unable to decipher her teacher’s cryptic leading statements. Immar let her dangle for several moments before taking pity and making the leap of logic for her.

“We are going to take Heathrop.”

Erin felt her knees weaken, and fumbled for the chair, righting it and sitting down to avoid falling over. The idea seemed ludicrous, but Immar was clearly serious. Of course, he was a powerful wizard, and though he didn’t make much use of them he was fairly well connected within the Illumian covens of his people. But there were well over 1200 people in Heathrop, and she doubted Immar could muster even a tenth of that.

“Then what?” was all she managed to ask.

“Then,” Immar continued, straightening his back and looking as commanding as he could “We hold it. We rule it. And we guide it into prosperity with the light of intellect.”

Erin was silent. She had been fearful about the paladins before, but had gone to sleep confident that Immar would overcome. Now…

“What role then am I to play?” she asked, looking up to meet Immar’s eyes.

Immar put a hand on her shoulder, and let another moment of silence pass before he spoke.

“You are my right hand, my dear. You will lead a portion of those who join with me. It will be dangerous, but I have confidence you’re up to the task.”

“Master,” Erin began, “I am a scholar.”

“You are a wizard, Erin.” Immar replied. “One of the finest wizards I’ve ever seen at such a young age. This task may test you, but you’ve never failed a test I’ve set before you yet.”

The younger wizard stood, trying to wipe away the small welling of tears in her eye without her teacher seeing. She took a step towards the table, and unrolled a map of the surrounding area which she found there.

“So,” she asked, “what is the plan?”


The room was much cleaner two weeks later when Erin stood next to Immar as he explained his plan to the five Illumian commanders. They, and their men, had been sent in response to the wizard’s request for aid from his cabal. Erin had insisted that the 50-some odd warriors would not be enough against a town with a population more than twenty-times that. But Immar had assured her that not nearly a twentieth of the town was so attached to the mayor, and his leadership, that they would fight and die.

“Besides” he had added “even those that will are peasantry who’ve been given swords and called soldiers. An Illumian Warblade is worth a hundred clumsy fighters. It’s the paladins we need to worry about, they’re the real dangerous element here.”

Immar was droning on, pointing at key locations on the map and using minor illusions to better demonstrate his plan. Erin tried to pay attention, but found herself fading out. None of this was new to her–some of it had even been her idea. Simply put, Erin would go into town ahead and organize those few who were among the faithful of The Whispered Lord. On the night of the upcoming festival of high summer, her group would take any action they could to disrupt the town’s ability to defend itself, while the Illumians would quell any major resistance. Immar would personally lead one of the Illumian Tenche, a group of ten soldiers, directly to the center of town where they would capture the Mayor and his family. There were details, but the plan was straightforward.

Straightforward enough that Erin found herself far more interested in the Illumian boy across the room. he was perhaps a year her junior, and most certainly was not in command of a Tenche, as the five other Illumian visitors in the room were. Part of her was curious to learn why he had been invited to attend this meeting when the rest of the soldiers had been left to wait in the camp erected outside. A much larger part of her, though, was very interested in finding out if he was as well formed as his light leather armor made him look.

Erin barely noticed when the meeting ended, and only turned to look at Immar again once she noticed that everyone else was filing out of the room.

“Will that be all, master?” she asked, hoping he hadn’t already answered that question.

“No, I need you to remain a moment. There are a few final matters for us to discuss.” Immar gestured for her to sit, and she did. He waited until the commanders had left the room before he began.

“You’ll be leaving for Heathrop in the morning, and I need to know that you understand what this role will require of you. It’s just been the three of us here in the tower for most of your life. You’ve never really needed to be a leader before.”

“How difficult can it be?” Erin asked. “You’ve got authority over the faithful in this region, and have put me in charge those in the town. They must do as I command, correct?” Immar bit his cheek.

“It’s not quite that simple, child.” he began, picking his words carefully “Much as I have faith in your abilities, they will still see you as a fifteen year old girl. Many of them will likely have daughters your age, or even older, who they still view as young children.”

“I am no peasant child!” Erin growled, a little more offended at the implied comparison than she knew she should be.

“Precisely why you will be leading them. But if you want them to listen to you at all then you need to be firm with them. You cannot accept any dissent, and you must never show them any fear or indecision. If they view you as weak, then you cannot lead them.”

Erin opened her mouth to respond, but Immar interrupted her and continued. “And you must lead them, Erin. If you fail then so fails the entire conquest, and you and I will both likely lose our lives at the hands of a paladin inquisitor.”

Pursing her lips, Erin merely nodded.

“I haven’t forgotten what’s on the line.” she said, softly, but with a determination in her voice which put Immar’s mind at ease.

“I know you haven’t, my dear girl.” Immar said, leaning forward and placing a hand on top of Erin’s. The two sat silently for a moment, enjoying the familial comfort for as long as they could before the coming battles threatened to separate them forever. Finally, Immar stood.

“I have something for you,” he said, as he walked across the room to one of the tables near the wall and picked up a long shaft wrapped in velvet. “I had thought to make you a proper wizard’s staff, but this seemed more appropriate. I commissioned it a few months ago, and it only just arrived.”

The older wizard handed his student the shaft, and she expectantly unrolled the velvet to reveal a long, expertly crafted war spear, with two additional blades angled back along the shaft.

“It’s called a ‘duom,'” Immar offered, “I was told they are favored weapons among those Warblades who favor the spear.”

Erin turned the weapon over in her hand, admiring the light weight and beautiful craftsmanship.

“It’s magnificent.” she whispered, unable to take her eyes off of it.

“I’m still not sure why you insist on using such unsophisticated weaponry when you have spells available to you, but I’ve never been able to change your mind so you may as well have the best tools available.” Erin looked up and met her teacher’s eyes.

“Thank you.” she said. “I will use it to ensure your victory in the coming battles.” A little flustered by the emotional exchange, Immar changed the subject.

“Speaking of, there is one last thing we need to discuss.” without waiting for an acknowledgement from Erin, he turned and called loudly “Byert!” Almost immediately, the young Illumian Erin had been eying earlier was on the stairs, and moving to stand at attention before Immar. Erin quickly made her face stern, not wanting the emotional moment she had just shared with her teacher to be on display.

“Erin, this is my nephew, Byert. He will serve as your guard during this offensive.”

“What!?” shouted Erin. “Am I now some child who needs a chaperone whilst I overthrow a government for you?”

“Do not overestimate yourself, young wizard!” Immar replied, raising his voice to match her indignant shouting. “There is a limit to how many spells you can cast without rest. No wise mage enters battle without a fighter to protect them.”

Erin refrained from pointing out that the spear fighting skills her teacher had discouraged were useful in precisely that situation. Whether she liked it or not, though, he was right. Even Immar himself would be fighting with ten trained warblades by his side.

“Very well, master.” Erin said, mustering as much of a respectful tone as she could through clenched teeth. “But you-” she continued, whirling to face her ‘protector.’ The warning comment she had ready for him died on her tongue, however, when she saw he was kneeling on the floor.

“What are you doing?” the two wizards asked, almost simultaneously.

“Lady Erin,” the boy said, his voice resolute and his head bowed “I vow I will serve and protect you faithfully, with my life if need be.”

Erin and Immar looked at each other, a little confused by the young warrior’s zealous pronouncement.

“Um…rise?” Erin ventured, and he quickly did. The two youths stared at one another blankly, both waiting for the other to speak. The silence might have continued indefinitely had Immar not stepped in.

“The two of you will leave at first light for Heathrop. Now get some rest.”

The young warrior crossed his arms over his chest in a formal Illumian salute, spun on his heel, and marched back down the stairs. Annoying as Erin found him, she couldn’t help but watch him with lusty eyes, and wonder if he still had his cherry. She was in the middle of enjoying that thought when Immar grabbed firm hold of her ear and painfully twisted.

“He’s my nephew, you cad!” The older wizard scolded, only half joking.

Role Playing: The Basics

Kids Playing

Do you remember what the word “playing” meant as a child? You took your G.I. Joe, or your Barbie, or your Hotwheels, or even just the stick you found, and you made it real in your mind. Anything could happen. The bush in your front lawn was an immense forest for your smaller toys, or if you were partial to the stick, then trees, signposts, or even just the air around you became a band of ninjas intent on releasing their real ultimate power all over you.

Of course, they were never really good enough to overcome your masterful, flailing swordsmanship. And much as we prided ourselves on being the greatest swordsman in the back yard, we inevitably grew bored with the lack of challenge involved.

And that’s where traditional pen and paper role playing games come in. They take everything which we loved about playing as children, and give it the structure and guidance it needs to remain fun through our entire adult lives.

For the most part, this blog has assumed that readers of the RPG related posts are, themselves, role players. I haven’t bothered to explain the more basic concepts, because I assumed nobody interested in those posts would need them explained. However, a twitter-friend of mine, Mocharaid, recently requested that I write a “D&D for Newbs” blogpost. I don’t get a lot of requests, so just asking was flattery enough for me to oblige.

In this post I will try to put the essence of my beloved hobby into words. Though books could, and have, been written on the subject, I think it worthwhile to say things in my own way. Of course, nothing I write here could be a complete distillation of everything there is, (the most basic rulebook for Pathfinder alone is over 500 pages long!) I hope only to provide outsiders with a glimpse of what life is like around the game table.

A quick disclaimer before I move forward: I am not setting out to do research for this post. I’ll fact-check, of course, but this will be a tale told through the lens of my personal experience, focusing on the games I’ve played.

A (Very) Brief History

1st First Edition Dungeons and Dragons Booklette I know History isn’t very interesting unless you’re already interested, so you can skip this if you like. However, a basic history can be helpful, so here we go.

Wargames had already been around a very long while when, in 1974, a pair of fellows named Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson struck upon an idea for a game. In this game, the players would take control of individual characters in a fantasy world, and guide those characters as they worked together to face danger and seek out treasure. They called this game Dungeons and Dragons, and it took off, selling 1,000 copies the first year, and 4,000 copies the next.

It didn’t take long for innumerable games with their own take on the basic concept to spring up. Some focused on Science Fiction, while others focused on realistic modern-day adventuring, and still others take place in the realm of Lovecraftian horrors. Some of these games are good, some of them are great, and some of them are downright awful, but nobody can complain about lack of variety.

Meanwhile, the two founders of the genre created a second edition of their game, and went on releasing supplements and improvements to Dungeons and Dragons until the late 90s. In 1997, Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR (the company founded by Gygax and Arneson). And in the year 2000 Wizards release Dungeons and Dragons third edition, which was followed in 2003 by the release of D&D 3.5. 2003. These two systems took the interesting step of implementing the open gaming license, or “OGL.” To put that in software terms, many parts of Dungeons and Dragons were now considered “Open Source.” Incidentally, is where I came in.

In 2008, WotC released Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition. And, while beloved by many, many others felt that 4th edition betrayed the history of the D&D franchise. For these displaced multitudes who now found themselves clinging to the sinking ship of D&D 3.5, a savior came. A company called Paizo took advantage of the OGL used by D&D 3.5 to release Pathfinder.

Pathfinder is the game which I currently champion. It is Dungeons and Dragons 3.5, updated and polished. I look forward to many years of playing and enjoying this game. And, if this post inspires you to look into the hobby further, I encourage you to buy the absolutely gorgeous hardcover copy of the book. Aside from buying it online, you should be able to find it at any gaming store, or bookstore which sells RPGs. And if the price tag is too high for you, Paizo offers the entire set of rules for free online.

The Absolute Basics

A Game of Dungeons and Dragons In Progress
Here’s what an RPG is, distilled to a single sentence:

In a group of two or more players, all but one player take control of characters, while the remaining player controls the environment, any non-player characters, and determines the difficulty and success of any tasks the other players would like their characters to perform.

That single player, often referred to as the “Game Master,” or GM, is the facilitator. In the imaginary world which everyone is engaged with, the GM is not only god, but the tavernkeeper, the king, the farmer, the monster, or even the inconvenient wall. It is the GM’s job to construct a game for the other players to play, his or her job to determine the outcome of any actions taken by the characters, and most importantly, to make sure that everyone is having fun.

Everyone else at the table, often referred to as the players (in contrast to the Game Master), controls only a single actor in the world the GM has created. This player character, or PC, has free reign to explore the GM’s world, but are powerless beyond whatever abilities their character possesses.

At this point someone skeptical about the value of these games might point out that all I’ve described above is a video game, with the electronics being replaced by a person. A person who will not only need to do a lot of work, but one who might not be as good at game design as a professional game designer. Or, worse yet, one who might be biased to favor one player over others at the table. And all of this is true, but it ignores the greatest strength of RPGs. The one thing that elevates them, in my mind, above any video game ever made.

You can do anything.

Remember that time in a video game when the zombies were closing in on you, and you wanted to get into the next room to escape, but the door was boarded shut? In the game, you had to stop, kill the zombie with your weapon, then try to find another entrance to the room.

In that same scenario in D&D, here’s just a few of the alternatives you would have:

-Attempt to kick in the door.
-Attempt to climb up into the rafters, out of the Zombie’s reach.
-Climb out of the nearby window onto the ledge outside and see about finding another window to climb back into.
-Attempt to throw the zombie out of aforementioned window.
-Climb up into the rafters, dangle yourself in front of the window, then pull yourself up just in time for the charging zombie to fall out of the window.

Of course, a video game might include functions to replicate one, two, or even all of the options mentioned above. And that’s fine. But no time in the near future will video games be able to allow a player to respond to challenges in the sheer variety of ways that a pen and paper RPG does.

And as for the amount of work the GM needs to do? Well, while some of us mumble and grouse about it, the truth is we love every second of it. We spent our childhoods making maps and inventing imaginary lands. Nothing makes us quite as happy as sharing those places with people who appreciate them. A kind word here, and a compliment there, is more than enough to make me eager to keep going.

The Role of Dice

Crazy Looking Gaming Dice

Players of RPGs use a lot of unusually shaped dice. Most people are familiar by now with the existence of twenty-sided dice, but in my gaming career I’ve used dice with 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 20, and even 100 sides. And that’s hardly the extent of the dice which are used by the gaming community.

Dice are the means by which success and failure are determined. I think my favorite explanation of how dice interact with the game comes from a line of Game Master advice in superb Star Wars RPG, published by West End Games.

Pick a difficulty number. If the character’s skill roll is equal or higher, she succeeds.

Dice serve as the one element of the game which is out of everyone’s control. They are the great equalizer. The Goblin King may be 100 feet away, and the fighter may only have the broken hilt of a sword left to her, but if she decides to take that shot and rolls a 20, then against all odds she might just be able to turn a losing battle around. Of course, in the very next scene, while walking across the relatively sturdy (but somewhat narrow) bridge, a roll of 1 could leave the mighty slayer of the goblin king tumbling to an ignoble death.

Of course, most games don’t leave everything to chance. Many actions have no chance of failure (such as eating or walking through normal terrain). Still other actions are blatantly impossible, or have skill checks only a god could make. Even everything in between isn’t left completely up to the dice, as players have the opportunity to be better or worse at specific types of tasks.

Lets say, for example, that your character is good at climbing. Depending on what game you’re playing this might be represented a number of different ways, but the end result is that you have a better chance to succeed at climbing than another character would. This might take the form of allowing you to roll additional dice, or simply giving you a static number which you can add to any die result you get.

The number you have to roll is normally determined by the Game Master, and is higher or lower based on the difficulty or ease of the task at hand. To continue with the climbing analogy, making your way up a steep slope might require a moderately high roll. Perhaps a 15 on a 20-sided die. Whereas climbing a cliff face which slopes outwards might require a roll of 25–meaning you damned well better have a bonus of at least +5 if you’re going to attempt it.

How to Stop Wishing and Start Playing

So you like what you hear, you want to play, but you don’t know anybody, right? Almost every gamer I’ve ever known has had this problem at some point. It’s frustrating, the hobby really isn’t all that wide spread these days. So here’s my advice:

Just fucking do it.

I know that seems ridiculous, but I’m trying to make a point: there are gamers out there. And, if there aren’t, then there are potential gamers out there. Ask around, browse the Internet, you’ve probably got a comic shop, or better yet, a friendly local game store. The store owners might even allow a few groups to play in the shop, or at least let you post a “looking for group” announcement on their bulletin board.

If you’re willing to take on the mantle of GM, then talk to your friends or your coworkers or anyone who will listen. Odds are at least some of them will be interested enough to come over to your place for an evening of pizza, beer, and fun. Some of them will decide that role playing isn’t really their kind of thing, and won’t want to do it again. But that’s okay–finding your group is an ongoing process.

And if all else fails, turn to the Internet. There are resources like The Pathfinder Society to help you find people. And if even that fails you, lots of people play online.

There are games and gamers out there–you just need to find them.

Anything More?

If anybody enjoyed this or found it useful and would like me to write more on this topic, let me know what you want to know, I will try to oblige.

A Treasure Trove of Classic Gaming

I’ve been a little quieter lately than normal. There are two reasons for that, neither of which is a slow down of my ideas.

1) As much energy as I have for the kind of writing I’ve been doing, I’m bad at maintaining that energy after a long and draining day at work. After my last post (which I don’t think reflects my best work) I decided I needed to take some time to rest and relax, so I can bring my full energy to this.

2) Is…well:

Oldschool Dungeons And Dragons ModulesClick to enlarge and check out the awesome cover art!

I recently began delving into classic D&D modules with the intent of updating the best ones for Pathfinder. My local gaming store, Fantasium, had a ton of them! The updating process will be a pain, but it would be worth it to be able to take groups through these classic adventures. And it’s certainly blog-worthy content as well.

For the curious, here are the adventure modules I’ve got, from top left to bottom right:

Vecna Lives! By David “Zeb” Cook, published in 1990
I’ve always been a huge fan of Vecna as a villain. He brings depth, and an imposing presence to both cults and to the undead. Unfortunately, since I started playing after the release of 3rd edition, most of the classic Vecna stuff was already out of print. I found a PDF of this online, and have been devouring the printout I made at work. (As it turns out, I’ve made a few mistakes in The Girl and the Granite Throne…I think most can be explained way though.) This is also the only second edition module I have. All the rest are serious, oldschool, first edition awesomeness.

Vault of the Drow By Gary Gygax, published in 1978
Aside from Vecna Lives!, this is the only one I got in printout. I really prefer to have the actual copy, but these things are damned difficult to find and Vault of the Drow is supposed to be the adventure which made the Drow into one of the most terrifying enemies out there…at least until The Crystal Shard made them into cool loners who doesn’t afraid of anything.

Earthshaker! By David “Zeb” Cook, published in 1985
I’m not the biggest fan of juxtaposing classic sword & sorcery with technology. I’ve nothing against it, I just never see it done in a way which appeals to me. Then again, Final Fantasy IV had a pretty awesome giant robot in it, and this was written by the same badass who wrote Vecna Lives, so I’m more than willing to give it a try. It includes maps detailing the inside of the robot. I imagine there will be fighting in there.

Adventures in Blackmoor By Dave L. Arneson and David J Ritchie, published in 1986
I haven’t had much time to look at this one. However, contrary to what I said above, that mechanized horror on the front looks awesome. Less like technology and more like advanced siege weaponry. And with Dave Arneson behind it, I’m sure it’s a fantastic adventure.

The Endless Stair By Ed Greenwood, published in 1987
I bought this one a week before I got the rest, so I’ve had the most time to peruse it. First off, Ed Greenwood, which is awesome. The adventure follows a group of adventurers as they work to unravel the mysteries of a stairway leading up into the sky, while two rival wizards watch and wait for the party to unseal the secrets of their former teacher. I really can’t wait to get this one updated and run it for my group. It’s a great one-off kind of game.

The Savage Coast By Merle and Jackie Rasmussen, and Anne C. Gray, published in 1985
Haven’t had time to read this much at all, but it’s got knights riding on horsies on the cover. Plus, “The Savage Coast” sounds crazily awesome, doesn’t it?

Five Coins For A Kingdom By Allen Varney, published in 1987
Is it just me, or is “Five Coins for a Kingdom” a fantastic title? It’s really high level too. Granted, I don’t know much about first edition, but 3rd ed maxes out at level 20, and this adventure is for characters of level 28-32. I don’t know much about it, but it comes with five cards, each representing one of the five coins. Each coin grants a special power, and causes a certain shift in personality. I’m assuming that the module calls for five players, and each gets a coin.

The War Rafts of Kron by Bruce Nesmith, published 1984
I haven’t even taken this one out of the bag yet. Nautical adventures are not my greatest strength as a GM, but who cares? It looks awesome.

Death’s Ride by Garry Spiegle, published 1984
Again, no idea what this is about, but the picture on the front is awesome. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it somewhere before, just can’t think of where.

Legacy of Blood by Steve Perrin and Katherine Kerr, published in 1987
Also haven’t had a chance to open this yet, but I did lul over the stereotypically impractically immodest garb worn by the woman on the cover.

Where Chaos Reigns by Graeme Morris, published in 1985
Two things about this one have struck me. First, there is a British flag in the corner for no reason I can determine. (Perhaps the module isn’t compatible with my Region 1 D&D rulebooks.) Secondly, and maybe I’m being silly here, but the pictures of the fellows atop the mammoth seem like racist caricatures of black people.

So yeah, that’s what I’m up to.

Expect normal posts to resume in the coming week.

Pathfinder Homebrew: Unusual Spell Materials

Witches Brewing Unusual Spell Materials Pathfinder Homebrew
Material components for spells are glossed over in the modern Dungeons and Dragons / Pathfinder collective. There are untold hundreds, or thousands, of spells, numerous classes with access to those spells, and all around no room for a complicated system which forces a caster to keep track of how much Bat Guano they’ve got on them. All things considered, I think the current system is adequate. For most spells with material components, those components can be found in the nondescript “component pouch.” Those few spells with more costly components, which need to be purchased and tracked, are generally not those which a caster will find themselves casting very often. It’s not perfect, but it works.


relegating material components to baubles picked up in any town robs us, GMs and Players alike, of a rich element in fantasy storytelling. So many classic tales of adventure revolve around recovering a rare item required for a wizard’s spell. A spell which is, perhaps, the only thing which can wake the sleeping prince, or the best hope of finding the lair of the evil warmistress. Even when spell components are not the in the spotlight, it’s almost a requirement for any story which features a wizard to include a list of strange and arcane items. Usually this list is recited whilst the wizard’s apprentice runs about the laboratory, madly gathering “Eye of Newt” and “Wing of Bat.”

Now, as mentioned above, I think the current system is adequate. There may be a better one, but I’m not concerned with finding it. What I do propose is a system which will allow material components to play a serious role in a game. One which will serve as a compromise between keeping track of each zombie knuckle, or squid tentacle; and throwing everything into a generic “Component Pouch.” What if there were special material components which were not required to cast a spell, but could be added to a spell to enhance its effects. Like tossing a tablespoon of dill seed in the marinara sauce.

I’ll demonstrate with an example from an upcoming game of mine. My players recently helped a town which was ravaged by fire. Turns out the eons-old red dragon king, Kolgoth’Ronnomaktar, has taken to flying around and breathing swathes of flame across the land in his old age. To prevent the same from happening again, the villages request that the party ask a kindly–but eccentric–old wizard to ward their village against fire. After a series of tests, the Wizard will happily comply, however, Kolgoth’Ronnomaktar’s fire is particularly powerful, and normal wards are insufficient. In order to cast the necessary spell, the players will need to gather a branch from a tree which was struck by lightning, but did not catch fire.

This is a very specific example, but I think it shows how powerful and flavorful this element of fantasy has the potential to be. Below, I’ve compiled a list of unusual components and the effects which they might have when added to a spell. This list can be expanded to the limits of your imagination. However, the most important thing to remember is that none of these components should be easy to obtain. If a wizard can just drop into town and buy a bag of celestial’s wing feathers, then all we’re doing is buffing an already overpowered group of classes.

Ideally, casters either:

1) Embark on quests to gather these components for a specific purpose.
2) Receive them as treasure.
3) Harvest them when they happen to cross paths with the source during an adventure.

Items with which to enhance spells

[Color] Dragon’s Tooth: Adds one damage dice to any damaging spell which uses the damage type of the Dragon’s Breath weapon, and adds +1 to the saving throw or attack roll.

Example: Ezren is low on spells and needs to boost his Acid Splash to make it count. Since the spell does acid damage, Ezren uses the Black Dragon’s Tooth he’s been saving. He receives a +1 on the ranged touch attack required to deal damage with the spell, and since the spell deals 1d3 damage normally, it now deals 2d3 damage.

Example: The next day, Ezren is the last of his party standing and needs to clear a room filled with ghasts in a hurry. He decides it’s time to use the Red Dragon’s Tooth he found in a chest yesterday. Normally, his Fireball spell has a saving throw of DC: 18 and deals 7d6 damage. By consuming the red dragon’s tooth, the spell has a save DC of 19, and deals 8d6 damage.

Handful of [Color] Dragon’s Scales: Doubles the effectiveness of protection spells against the damage type of the Dragon’s breath weapon.

Celestial Blood: Adds the [Evil] descriptor to any spell. Doubles the effectiveness of any offensive spell against good aligned creatures.

Demon Blood: Adds the [Chaos] and [Evil] descriptors to a spell. Doubles the effectiveness of a spell against Lawful or Good creatures. These bonuses stack.

Devil Blood: Adds the [Lawful] and [Evil] descriptors to a spell. Doubles the effectiveness of a spell against Chaotic or Good creatures. These bonuses stack.

Lock of hair from a King/Queen: Enchantment spells cast as two caster levels higher.

Shed Angel Feather: Adds the [Good] descriptor to any spell. Doubles the effectiveness of any offensive spell against evil aligned creatures.

Treant Branch: Allows a caster who has prepared “Summon Nature’s Ally” to cast one level of the spell higher. This does not require a higher spell slot.

Vampire’s Fang: Necromancy spells cast as two caster levels higher.

Balance could be improved on these. I have to admit I’m a little conflicted about whether I want to beef up the power on some of the low powered ones to make them more worth the time it would take to acquire them, or if I want to nerf the power down on some of the higher powered ones because casters are already overpowered.

Still, I think the above examples make the point.

Pathfinder House Rule: Ability Penalty Flaws

Pathfinder Flaws SystemJust as I knew I would, I forgot an entry into my current list of house rules. Truthfully, I probably missed even more, but this is the only one I came across whilst perusing a recently filled notebook. It comes from the superb Blog of Holding, which I love, and read every day despite their focus on a system I don’t play. The outline of the system is detailed on a post from July 20th. You’ll notice, however, that my version detailed below is significantly different. Brilliant as Paul’s idea is, the flaws listed seem at best goofy, and at worst unbalanced.

In most systems, flaws are used as a kind of reverse-feat. The player agrees to allow his or her character to suffer from some frailty, and in exchange, they earn a benefit of some kind. On the surface it seems like an awesome idea, and I recall being very excited about it when I first read about them. As I’ve gained experience, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s impossible (or at least very difficult) to implement such a system without inadvertently creating unbalanced characters.

This begs the question: why should flaws come with buffs to characters at all? You and I have flaws, and those don’t come with benefits. I’m overweight and dropped out of college due to financial problems. That doesn’t mean I got to pick “hilariously funny,” “devilishly charming,” and “god damned brilliant” to make up for being fat, uneducated, and poor. I have those positive traits despite my failings.

Using the rule below, flaws have no upside. And, since only the most hardcore role player would take such a flaw, flaws are also mandatory under certain circumstances. Please note that none of these flaws are overly harmful to a character. These flaws merely enhance a per-existing lack of ability in small, flavorful ways.

Without further ado:

Pathfinder Flaws System

If a character has a score of 9 or lower for any of their 6 base ability scores, they must select a flaw from the list below related to that ability score. For each ability modifier lower than -1, the character must have an additional flaw related to that ability score. For example, a character with a Charisma modifier of -1 must take one Charisma flaw, a character with a Charisma modifier of -2 must take two Charisma flaws, et cetera.

If any of the ability scores with associated flaws are ever permanently increased, then flaws may be removed at the same rate as modifier penalties are removed. If the ability score modifier reaches 0, all flaws associated with that ability score are removed.


Puny: You are treated as though you are one size category smaller than your racial norm with regards to weapon proficiencies.

Weak Grip: Any time you miss with a melee attack your opponent may make attempt a disarm combat maneuver as a free action.

Bad Swimmer: You cannot succeed on any swim check with a DC higher than 10.

Bad Climber: You cannot succeed on any climb check with a DC higher than 10.

Insufficient Block: If you use a shield, you only gain half of its AC bonus. If your game utilizes the “Shields Will Be Sundered” rule, you may not take advantage of it.


Slow Starter: You cannot win an initiative roll. If your roll is ever highest, you move to second place in the initiative order.

Butterfingers: Upon rolling a natural one in combat, you drop your weapon.

Two Left Feet: When moving over difficult terrain, or trying to move over an obstacle, the character must make a Reflex save (DC: 13) or fall prone.

Pushover: Upon being struck by a critical hit, you fall prone.

Awkward Fall: Add +1 to the falling damage for every 10 feet you fall.


Medicine Dependent: You require a daily dose of medication to avoid the fatigued condition. After two days you gain the exhausted condition.

Slow: You can run at a maximum of twice your normal move speed, rather than four times your normal move speed.

Cheap Drunk: Even a slight amount of alcohol, as much as half a cup of weak brew, leaves you impaired. You take a -4 to all Dexterity checks & Wisdom checks until you’ve rested for 8 hours.

Weak Frame: If you wear any armor in excess of 40lb, you are treated as encumbered.


Illiterate: You cannot read or write.

Ignorant: You cannot succeed on any Knowledge check with a DC higher than 10.

Inexpressive: You take a -2 on any check which requires you to express yourself to another. This includes Diplomacy checks, Bluff checks, Perform checks, or any abilities or spells which require a subject to understand the character.

Bad Eye for Value: You always pay 10% more than market value when buying items from merchants. You always sell for 10% less than market value.


Tempted: Select a temptation from the list below. Whenever presented with your temptation, you must make a will save (DC: 10 + Your Character Level) or indulge in that temptation. This flaw can be selected more than once, its effects do not stack. Each time it is taken, select a different temptation. List of temptations: Alcohol, Food, Sex, Drugs

Overly Honorable: You cannot make bluff checks.

City Slicker: You cannot succeed on any survival check with a DC higher than 10.

Day Dreamer: You cannot succeed on any reactive perception check with a DC higher than 10.

Spendthrift: For every day your character spends in a town or city, he or she loses 1d10/level gold on purchases of food, drink, and baubles.

Gullible: You cannot succeed on any sense motive check with a DC higher than 10.


Rude: You’re unable to bite your tongue. You cannot succeed on any diplomacy check with a DC higher than 10.

Meek: You’re unable to assert yourself. You cannot succeed on any intimidate check with a DC higher than 10.

Magically Inept: Any successful Use Magic Device check has a 25% chance to misfire, causing the target to be determined randomly. If the target is self, the spell merely fizzles.

Bad With Animals: Animals which encounter you are unusually aggressive towards you. Those which would normally be friendly are unfriendly. Those which would normally be unfriendly may attack you.

One of the best things about this house rule is that it is nearly endlessly extendable. The flaws are both simple, and entertaining to come up with. As much as I like it, however, it really isn’t for everyone. Players will almost always be resistant to something which reduces their effectiveness. As always, the best policy is to work out what works best for your group, as a group.

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Thoughts and theories on tabletop games.