Thursday, April 26, 2018

The West Marches: Character Concepts

In my last post, I invited folks to tell me about their character concepts within a West Marches fictional context, and within a context where characters are defined narratively, rather than via stats.

I posed the following questions as a starting framework, and wow did people ever deliver!

Far beyond the edge of civilization, there's a land that's strange.  Maybe you heard it's where barbarians roam the hills in cunning packs, where goblins steal babies and leave behind twig-constructs, where witches grant power at the price of your dreams, leaving only nightmares.  There are people out here, cities too, yes- but they're like nothing you've never known.  But something has drawn you here nonetheless, to this wild and untamed land.

In this context, what are the MOST IMPORTANT THINGS about your character?  I actually don't think Strdexcon Intwischa is the best way to describe who you are in that setting.  What is?

  • Are you a Human?  Elf?  Dwarf?
  • What is your strength?  Are you Strong?  Quick?  Clever?
  • What are your capabilities?  Do you Have Magic?  Are you Skilled with the Sword?
  • What have you brought with you?  Your Mother's Sword?  A Talisman of Faith?
  • Why are you here?  Do you seek A Cure?  Your Brother?  Gold?  Glory?
Let's look at some of the responses.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The West Marches

Far beyond the edge of civilization, there's a land that's strange.  Maybe you heard it's where barbarians roam the hills in cunning packs, where goblins steal babies and leave behind twig-constructs, where witches grant power at the price of your dreams, leaving only nightmares.  There are people out here, cities too, yes- but they're like nothing you've never known.  But something has drawn you here nonetheless, to this wild and untamed land, to The West Marches.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Dungeons & Dark Souls

Or: "How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Delve"

So a while back I had an idea...

So that was all interesting, but that was maybe an entirely separate RPG.  But the other part I was really interested in pushing on is 5th Edition's concept of "the adventuring day"- especially the Dungeon Master's Guide's assertion that a party of 4 should be fighting between six and eight medium to hard encounters before needing a long rest.  This assertion has always surprised me, from the beginning, and I don't think I've EVER run a game of 5th that actually hit that marker- my players have always elected to take a long rest early.

So... what if there was a game that was set up explicitly to push against that daily limit?

Read on.

(Jacquayed, a term paying homage to Jennell Jacquays, author of Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia, meaning to build a convoluted layout with multiple entrances, many interconnecting paths, and many connections between levels- offering players much in the way of choice for how they move through the dungeon space)

Another weird thing that comes out in traditional megadungeon play: My character went to the left, and got blown up by a fireball trap and died.  My new character steps into the dungeon and immediately says "DON'T GO LEFT."

Surely we could look to Dark Souls for some inspiration in how to solve that particular bit of weirdness.

As all game design should be done to solve a problem, let's talk about the problems we're trying to solve:

  • How do we push players to continue adventuring to their point of failure?  How do we hit the 8-encounters-per-day limit?
  • How do we solve the mental disconnect where characters die, but players retain knowledge of the dungeon from that death?
  • How do we give players the ability to make informed choices when exploring a sprawling labyrinthine megadungeon?  How do they decide whether to go left (and maybe get blown up by a fireball?) or go right (and maybe fight some goblins)?

And some answers:
  • How do we push players to continue adventuring to their point of failure?  How do we hit the 8-encounters-per-day limit?
    • Force players to leave the dungeon to take a long rest.  Encourage players to push as far as they can by adding consequence to resting without reaching a checkpoint- in this case, by making encounters respawn on a long rest.  As a carrot- the objective drawing players forwards- players can reach various checkpoints.  Either a shortcut, allowing them to bypass some encounters, or a new entry point, that lets players enter the dungeon beyond content they've already mastered.
  • How do we solve the mental disconnect where characters die, but players retain knowledge of the dungeon from that death?
    • Losing a character isn't necessary for "death" to be impactful!  If the players are attempting to push through a certain number of encounters in order to hit a checkpoint, then if a death makes the team weaker overall, it's still something to be avoided.  There's no need to fictionally remove a character who dies!  Effectively, as in Dark Souls, player characters are immortal.
  • How do we give players the ability to make informed choices when exploring a sprawling labyrinthine megadungeon?  How do they decide whether to go left (and maybe get blown up by a fireball?) or go right (and maybe fight some goblins)?
    • If characters don't truly die, then players are free to learn by trial and error.  They went left and got blown up by a fire trap?  That's fine- they can come back later after they find the stash of fire-resist potions on level 3.  In that way, by running into the problems of the dungeon, players learn to make intelligent and informed choices about how to move through the space in order to accomplish their goals in play.

So what does this turn out to look like in practice?

In summary, the rules I'm using at the table look like:

  • After combat, a surviving PC can take 5 minutes and spend one use of a healer's kit to restore a dead character to life with 1 hit point.  This resuscitation inflicts 1 level of Exhaustion on the resuscitated character.
  • If the party wipes, everyone wakes up in the infirmary outside of The Delve, having fully recovered.
  • You may extract from The Delve at any time.
  • In order to take a long rest, you must extract from The Delve.
  • Every time you enter The Delve, the dungeon is reset.

The emphasis in a dungeon of this style is in seeing how far players can stretch their limited resources before they begin tapping out.

As a short term goal, the dungeon is riddled with secrets- hidden treasure, secret doors, tricks, twists, and traps.  In every play session, players should be able to find something new; perhaps even something new in an area they've already been through... maybe even an area they've been through multiple times.

As a mid term goal, the dungeon is built to be thoroughly complex, with many shortcuts to find and unlock- these don't reset when the players re-enter, so if they open a shortcut on one run, they can use it on a future run.  All of a sudden, when it used to take 5 encounters to reach the Fountain of Crystal Seeing, now that you've opened the portcullis, it only takes 1.

As a long term goal, the dungeon contains multiple insertion points.  Exploring and fighting all the way to a secondary insertion point and unlocking it on discovery means players can then choose where they start from when they enter the dungeon.

As a metagame goal, the dungeon contains hidden information that subtly hints at a story.  Careful examination of the environment and items found may start revealing clues that sharp players can piece together.

So I started building it.

I had my first session on Sunday, which is the subject for another post- but suffice it to say it was a great success, and now my mind is buzzing with more ideas.

I can't wait to tell you more about them.

Friday, September 29, 2017

0-Level Carousing

Who wants to leave Carousing until after you finally cart 50gp each worth of treasure and coin back from your first real dungeon?

No, my friends.  After your first time staring death in the face- after you emerge, scarred and bloodied, after you've journeyed days away from your ancestral home, after finding the glittering city with all its secrets and troubles... there's only one option for you.

Every 0-level character goes carousing exactly once on the eve of filling the shoes of their future role.  This is a rare and magical night, fuelled by the terrors of the deeps, the little coin available to them, and the fresh experience of being brand new in a strange place.  Oddities abound- no 0-level character emerges from this night untouched.

I haven't talked about this before, but I'll be keeping a Roster of characters who are ready to become level 1!  Every 0-level character who isn't immediately adopted by a player will get added to the Roster.  Later, once a player character dies, that player may return to the Roster and adopt whoever they so choose.

Not only does this special 0-Level Carousing table introduce new players to the idea of carousing to level up- but also it imbues every 0-Level character with something special and interesting about them... something that makes them hard to pass up.  These aren't meant to be quest inspiration either- just flavour added onto potential PCs to help them become more memorable.

0-Level Carousing

Every surviving 0-Level character must roll on this table once, adding their luck.  The results are known before a player chooses to adopt a character!

A number of these were suggested by my twitter followers- all credit to them for giving me the idea!

Roll 1d30 Result
1 Curse of the Dry One

You insulted someone in ornate robes with glowing, slitted eyes.  She reached out to grasp your arm and you spent the next few days in a cold sweat, skin sloughing away.  When you awoke on the fourth day, your left arm was replaced by a viper with a mind of its own.  Anyone who sees it is terrified and repulsed by you.

If you succeed on a Personality test, you can use it to make a bite attack for 1d3 damage, plus asp poison (DC 13 - success: 1d3dmg - fail: 2d6dmg).  You can burn a point of personality to force a success on this test.

2Mouths and Tongues

An old man with one eye challenged you to an ancient game of rune stones.  As he taught you the rules, he droned on about the history of the earth.  When the light burned low, his eye kept a steady glow on the board late into the small hours of the morning.

When you awaken, you possess esoteric knowledge of a foreign tongue.  When you choose your class, roll one additional time on the language chart to determine which language you learned.

3Mother Hen

You remember starts and flashes of a wild carnival, and raucous games.  When you awake, cradled gently in your arms is a football-sized chicken's egg.  You don't know what will hatch from it.  At the start of each session, roll 1d30.  On a 30, the egg hatches.

The GM will roll to know what manner of creature it is (1d8): (1) Hound  (2) Giant Spider  (3) Pheasant  (4) Cockatrice  (5) Crocodile  (6) Owlbear  (7) Lynx  (8) Doppelganger

4Face Rearranged

You ran afoul of the wrong crowd, friend.  You stumbled into a muscular woman who didn't like the way you looked, and decided to fix that for you free of charge.  In addition to getting a wicked scar on your face, lose 1 point of Personality, and gain 1 point of Strength (up to 18).

You may spend up to 2 Luck; each point spent this way allows you to lose 1 additional point of Personality and gain 1 point of Strength (up to 18).

5Bed Rest

A crew of thugs saw you wearing a rival crew's color.  Not a smart idea.  When you woke up, you were in some church's infirmary, under forced bed rest to recover from the beating.  You've developed a permanent limp, and also lose 1 point of Stamina and gain 1 point of Intelligence (up to 18).

You may spend up to 2 Luck; each point spent this way allows you to lose 1 additional point of Stamina and gain 1 point of Intelligence (up to 18).

6Potion Taster

You hired out your services as a potion taster.  Gain 1 silver piece, and roll once on the following table.

You may gain up to 4 additional silver pieces, rolling once for each silver piece gained in this way.

As a temporary effect (now ended), you...
(1) Ate metal  (2) Exhaled chlorine  (3) Walked through walls  (4) Saw in the dark  (5) Turned invisible  (6) Could sense Law / Chaos  (7) Could smell gold  (8) Spoke three words of the song of creation  (9) Briefly awoke in a thick vat of pink sludge  (10) Could feel the under-worm boring straight towards you for a few moments

As a permanent effect, you have...
(1) Bronze skin  (2) Hair turns black -> brown -> red -> gold -> blonde -> silver -> black  (3) Eyes that glow in dim light  (4) Gills (non-functioning)  (5) All hair falls out  (6) Nails turn black  (7) Grow one horn  (8) Hunchback  (9) Body hair becomes fine downy feathers  (10) -1 Stamina

7One Good Deed

Late in the evening, a very drunk elderly woman came over to you, insisting she was your aunt, and that she wanted to leave you her deed.  She would hear none of your protests, and pressed the official document into your hands before vanishing in the crowd.

You have the deed to a house, but you don't have any idea where it is, and it's not in this town.  (Thanks to @captnkiwi)

8In This Life and the Next

You really hit it off with someone very beautiful (your choice of gender).  Eloquent, upper class, fiery yet sophisticated.  You two spoke and drank for hours, and ended up in your room.  As you helped them out of their finery, your fingers brushed the knot on the ribbon around their neck.  It came untied, and their head fell off- their body falling lifeless to your floor.  You found a different room to stay the night in.

You have an ornate brooch on a dark colored ribbon, worth 5gp.

9A Prophecy of Doom

You wandered into a festival, where a fortune teller stroked his beard and gazed into a crystal ball, seeking your fortune.  He fell back, shocked, and delivered a prophecy of doom!  "Fool!  Beware, for your doom shall come to you at the hands of the....!  (roll 1d10)"

The creature rolled (or creatures like it- ie, owl-BEAR, etc) will always be strangely hostile to you, will always attack you first in battle, and its to-hit dice is improved by one step against you.

(1) Bear  (2) Lion  (3) Wolf  (4) Serpent  (5) Goat  (6) Cat  (7) Chicken  (8) Deer  (9) Boar  (10) Spider

10The Subtle Knife

After a heavy bout of drinking, you found yourself on the rooftops with a cutpurse, engaged in a bit of tricky second story work.  Your memory of the events of the evening is fuzzy- poisoned arrows, lampblack, and the sick crunch after a nasty fall.

All you have is a note saying "thank you"... and a dagger.  It whispers to you of all the murders it has committed.  Other than that, it appears to have no magical properties.  (Thanks to @rhysmakeswords)

11A Dark Price

A witch plied you with drink and promised you riches and glory if you would but give her what she needed to create her spell.  Entranced by her promises, you assented...

You no longer have a shadow.

12Sweet Tooth

You were caught stealing a pie.  After a complicated local legal process involving a hotly contested bake off, you were determined the loser.  The magistrate employed a spell-bound warlock to lay a curse on you:

Whenever you taste sugar, you cough up ash.  (Thanks to @sythmaster)

13My Best Friend

You remember nothing of the night before, but when you awake, an animal is following you everywhere you go.  It's completely mundane, and ordinary for its type- it just really likes you.  (Roll 1d6)

(1) Dog  (2) Cat  (3) Rat  (4) Falcon  (5) Owl  (6) Pig

14Liar, Liar

A crone caught you lying through your teeth in your attempts at seduction last night.  She fixed her wicked eye on you and cursed you such that whenever a lie leaves your mouth... (Roll 1d6)

(1) you cough up a toad  (2) a swarm of crickets heads for your location; they'll arrive in 2d6 rounds  (3) you drop whatever you hold in your hands  (4) you must speak backwards for the next 1d10 minutes  (5) 1d10% of the hairs on your head turn white / fall out / grow back in  (6) A crow begins following you.  When they reach 24 in number, they will attack, attempting to tear out your tongue.

15A Gambler's Debts

You tried your hand in a gambler's den, but got completely fleeced.  The house let you keep playing... but now you owe a Debt.

16A Gambler's Fortune

You tried your hand in a gambler's den, and lady luck was on your side.  You won 1d100 gp, and walked away with a smile.

17Eye of Gold

You hired yourself out as a runner for a wizard's apprentice, ferrying volatile chemicals back and forth all evening.  Late at night, after a quick pit stop at the local pub, you tripped- spilling a droplet of the liquid into your left eye.  It is now colored... (roll 1d4)

(1) Gold  (2) Silver  (3) Ruby  (4) Amethyst

18A Stroke of Luck

You challenged a darkly dressed gentleman in a grinning masquerade mask to a game of skill.  The game was tight, and drew a large crowd.  At long last, when the points were tallied, it was you who was the victor!  But your mysterious opponent had vanished...

You gain 1d4 points of Luck, with no maximum.

19What Goes Around

You were given a strange coin under circumstances you don't remember.  Thinking it lucky, you tossed it into a well with a wish to send it on its way.  Later in the evening, when you put your hand in your pocket, you found the coin once again...  You seem entirely unable to get rid of it for more than a few hours.  (Thanks @kwhitaker81)

20A Vow Broken

Your head is pounding.  You remember drinking heavily with a large crew of militaristic folks, singing songs, and drinking large steins of beers.  Flashes of memory come back to you- a hilltop in the rain, words shouted to the heavens, lightning splitting a stone in two...  If only you could remember the vow you made.

Every so often, dark portents remind you of your failure to uphold your vow (roll 1d8).  There doesn't seem to be the faintest pattern to their appearance.

(1) Your wine turns to blood, food rots, etc.  (2) Lightning strikes the nearest high point 1d12 times.  (3) A storm gathers and breaks, all over the next 1d3 hours.  (4) A black cat crosses your path and hisses at you.  (5) The next mirror you look into shatters.  (6) Wolf howls echo in your ears.  (7) Your weapon rings like the peal of a bell.  (8) The clouds form a menacing face, glaring down upon you for the day.

21The Prodigal Child

An older man stops dead in the street, turning white at the sight of you.  His face, lined with age though it is, could be a mirror for your own features.  His voice shakes as he speaks, asking you about your life and journey here.  He tearfully describes the day you were stolen away from him, never to be seen again.  When you part, he presses a coin-purse into your hands.

You have two small amethysts, each worth 10gp, and a Favour 1 relationship with your well respected, long lost father.

22Friend to the Little Folk

Your carousing ended in a cozy room, warmly decorated, and kept with care by a family of halflings.  They listened to your worries and trials and tutted sympathetically, plying you with good food and good wine.  Spending the night with them eased your spiritual burdens more than you knew.  Gain 2 Personality (up to 18).

23A Splash of Colour

Your evening ended at a tattooist's, gripping the leather of the chair, and swallowing gulps of a burning liquor.  When you awoke, you found you had a massive new tattoo on your.... (roll 1d4)

(1) right sleeve  (2) left sleeve  (3) chest  (4) back

It shows whatever cool or heroic imagery you want.

24Thief among Thieves

You saw a figure clad in tight fitting blacks climb out a window, and scamper across the rooftops.  Not willing to ignore the flash of gold as they pocketed something, you followed.  The trip took you over roofs and clothing lines, down guy-wires and across beams over alleyways.  The thief lost you, but when you awoke, the whole experience was seared into your mind.  Gain 2 Agility (up to 18).

25In Sickness and in Health

You have no memory of acquiring the simple gold band on your left ring finger, but no matter how you try, you can't remove it.  (Thanks @coyotewitch!)

26Not as Bad as you Thought

You were singing a bawdy tune while dancing on a table when you fell, cracking your skull.  You watched from above as your companions rolled you over, feeling the warm pull of a white light above you...

When you came to, the first thing anyone said was "Wow, guess it wasn't as bad as we thought!"

Your lowest stat is raised in value to match your next lowest stat.  (If you have a tie, you only get one adjusted this way, but you get to choose.)

27Back Alley Ministrations

After a nasty cut in a fight, your friends brought you to a back alley cleric of some cult you don't know.  After expressing too-eager interest in your general state of health, he agreed to lay hands on you.  The process was... extreme- reknitting your flesh like clay.  You have two large hand prints sunk into your chest now.

Re-roll your hit points- keep this new roll, regardless of if it was higher or lower.

28O Brother Where Art Thou

A man exactly your age keeps staring at you over mugs of ale!  As he approaches, you notice the great similarity in your features.  As you two compare stories over the night, you come to the realization- this man is your brother!

Add a 0-Level PC to the Roster with stats that are the inverse of yours (18 minus your stat for each ability score).  Give him your last name.

29Vile Relic

The streets turned in on themselves- you looked up to see the city behind you, stepped through a door onto the underside of a set of stairs.  That's the last you remember of your night, but in your hands you now hold...

It is a... (1d5)
(1) A vile carving of a squat fish-person, with a lamprey mouth.  (2) A rod of bone, thick as your finger and long as your arm.  It ends in a spike that twitches occasionally.  (3) A mummified hand with black iron nails, ice cold to the touch, growing from it.  (4) A long staff of ironwood, with silver set into it depicting a rage of serpents devouring each other.  (5) The preserved eye of a warlock, in a vial of formaldehyde.

When you... (1d5)
(1) Will your energies into it, heart pounding wildly, burning 1 point of Strength...  (2) Whisper a vow to it- it will inherit your bones on your death- burning 1 point of Agility...  (3) Feed it your blood, burning 1 point of Stamina...  (4) Caress it tenderly, speaking words of love to it, burning 1 point of Personality...  (5) Release your most cherished memory into its keeping, burning 1 point of Intelligence...

Then it... (1d5)
(1) Grants you invisibility for the duration of a single held breath.  (2) Allows you to exhale a cloud of chlorine gas, filling a 10x10 square, lasting as long as the air is still.  (3) Places a charm of friendship on a single creature, broken when anyone speaks their name to them.  (4) Gives you functioning gills, which live for 1d3 turns, before dying and falling off.  (5) Reverses your personal gravity for 10 minutes.

30A Fine Specimen

Your night was a tale of adventure worthy of note for weeks.  You drank with the best of them, sang everyone's favorite songs, fenced a duel and graciously lost, and probably kissed a baby.  You wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go.

You may gain 2 points to any attributes, distributed however you like (1 to two, or 2 to one)- up to a maximum of 18.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


One of my favorite things about Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser tales are how, at the end of nearly every adventure, they're flush with their winnings- but, by the beginning of the next, they've pissed away all of their cash in some frivolous manner- usually involving debauchery and drink.  Even later, when they're running a thieves' guild or mercenary company, they're beset by the winds of fate, and turn to a life of adventure to shore up their diminished purses.

My friend Brent ran DCC RPG with a spend-gold-for-XP system (I love gold for xp), and his rule was that you could spend gold Carousing, in 50 GP increments, and earn a better XP return from your money.  It was great- and I think it came from the excellent posts over here, on Balthazar's Bloviations.

So, with inspiration from Brent and Balthazar's Bloviations, here's my d30 Carousing table.

A few notes on some oddness you'll see here:
  • XP Cost to Level: 
    • I'm multiplying XP requirements for DCC by 10: Level 1 costs 100gp, not 10.  Level 2 costs 500gp, not 50, etc.
  • Gaining XP: 
    • You gain 1xp per 1gp you spend, in any way.
    • Killing a monster gives 10xp per HD, divided amongst the (surviving) party.  
    • Unless the result declares otherwise, Carousing results give a 1.5x xp bonus on the amount of money you spend: 50gp => 75xp, 100gp => 150xp, etc.
  • Debts: 
    • You may gain a Debt from carousing.  Other carousing results can either cash in your debt (pay up or suffer badness), or erase your debt.
    • You can always pay your debt at any time, at a cost of 100gp per level.  This earns you XP, one for one.
  • Favour: 
    • Some carousing results allow you to increase your Favour with an NPC.  This tracks how much this NPC feels like they're indebted to you.  It's only worth tracking on important NPCs.
    • When you want to cash in a Favour, roll 2d6+Favour.  On a 10+, they're gonna come to you for help later, but (if they can provide it) they give you what you're asking for.  On a 7-9, they need collateral from you right now.  On a 6-, you're out of luck.
    • If you have positive Favour, you can burn 1 Favour with this NPC to turn a 6- result into a 7-9 result.  You put the squeeze on them; they're not happy with it, but they'll see what they can do.

Without further ado....


Roll 1d30 Result
1-3 A Really Bad Night

Suffer the following, but Karma smiles on you.  Gain 1 Luck upon awakening.

Cleric: You wake up with a wicked hangover, and look down to see the symbol of a rival god tattooed on your forearm!  Gain 1 disapproval permanently.  Maybe once you get rid of the tattoo you can make amends with your god.

Fighter or Dwarf: In a drunken rage, you threw your equipment into the water.  Make a luck check against every piece of weaponry and armour you have- for magic items, add their bonus to this check (minimum +1).  For each one that fails, you threw it away.

Thief or Halfling: You got caught with light fingers and heavy pockets.  Lose all your coin and valuables (earning xp), and gain a Debt- someone paid your bail.

Wizard or Elf: Your otherworldly experimentations are best performed sober.  Roll 1d10 minus your level, plus your Luck modifier on the appropriate Corruption chart: (1-3) Minor (4-5) Major (6) Greater.


Jack-booted thugs accosted you as you stumbled through the bad part of town.
If you have a Debt, they're here to collect.  Pay up now, or get beaten up.  Roll 3 times: (1) -1 Strength (2) -1 Agility (3) -1 Stamina (4) -1 Personality (5) -1 Intelligence (6) -1 Luck (7) Broken Limb (8) Organ Damage.  Your Debt is paid.
If you don't have any Debts, they just don't like the look of you.  Pay up to 20gp per level (earning xp).  If you fall short, they rough you up- take damage equal to the amount you fell short by.  Don't worry, they leave you alive.
5A Powerful Enemy

Someone’s enforcers surrounded you as you relieved yourself.  You were escorted to an audience with someone wearing a masquerade mask and velvets.
If you have a Debt, it's time to settle.  Pay up now, or generously give over your most valuable item- magic, if you have it.  Your Debt is paid.
If you don't have a Debt, sounds like you ran afoul of some obscure local tariff.  Pay up to 40gp per level (earning xp).  If you fall short, they also take your most valuable non-magical item.  No they don't give you change.
6Traitorous Dice

You gambled hard all night.  It was going so well until you decided to go double or nothing on a single roll of the dice!  It was all downhill from there…  You owe a Debt.
7Get Rich Quick

Your new friends were so generous, throwing money around all evening!  When you asked about their windfall they told you about such an affordable investment, and guaranteed to make a quick return….  You won't see them again, but you owe a Debt.
8An Over-stayed Welcome

You make a fool of yourself with your drunken and disorderly conduct- crashing parties, streaking through the town square, bathing in fountains, vomiting on someone wealthy.  Take a permanent -2 to Personality tests with citizens of this town, but gain 1 Luck.
9-11Showing Off

Roll 1d5 and suffer the consequences.

(1) Drunk on wine and victory, you boasted of your prodigious strength.  You have broken memories of various trials- wrestling an ox, carrying an anvil, or swinging some massive warhammer.  Make a Strength check.  (20) An ox follows you wherever you go, now.  (Success) You came out looking good.  (Fail) You looked a bit soft.  The group’s strongest retainer, hireling, or follower tests their morale.  (1) You tore something.  Lose 1 Strength permanently.

(2) You wake up someplace very high- a bell tower or a wall or an old tree- with no recollection of how you got up there.  There’s no obvious way down.  Make an Agility check (or Climbing, if you are a thief).  (20) Some kid runs up to you exclaiming he didn't believe you could do it.  He hands you his “shiny stone,” which actually is worth 1gp x your level.  (Success) Your head hurts, but you make it down fine.  (Fail) It’s a bit of a hard landing.  Take 1d6 falling damage- you’ll live.  (1) You twist your ankle as you land.  Lose 1 Agility permanently.

(3) You gorged yourself, guzzled wine like water, and smoked strange substances all night.  Make a Stamina check.  (20) Your pouch contains just enough fine herb to share with one companion.  Take a +2 Personality bonus to checks made while you share it with someone.  (Success) You're hung over and your mouth is cottony, but you’re fine.  (Fail) For the next day, make a fortitude save once per hour (and when you roll initiative) or vomit uncontrollably for 1d3 rounds.  (1) You feel absolutely terrible.  Lose 1 point of Stamina permanently.

(4) You met someone incredible and spent the entire night discussing your futures together.  Only, now that you've woken up… you can't remember a thing about them.  Make a Personality check.  (20) Your pocket contains a tiny gem stone worth 10gp x your level, and a note: “for our ring, my love.”  It’s not signed.  (Success) Well… there's plenty of fish in the sea, right?  (Fail) You bought a ring.  Spend up to 50gp (earning xp).  If you spend 50, it's solid gold and worth that amount.  Any less and it's a fake.  (1) You’re heartbroken.  They were the one.  Lose 1 point of Personality permanently.

(5) You hazily recall challenging someone to a drinking game of riddles- the loser takes a shot.  Make an Intelligence check.  (20) Your prowess is the talk of the town.  Gain a permanent +2 to Personality checks against the citizens of this town.  (Success) You feel bright eyed and well rested, if slightly sorry for your opponent’s morning.  (Fail) You have a wicked hangover.  Take 2d4 points of Stamina damage (not permanent).  (1) You’ve never been so drunk in your life.  Lose 1 point of Intelligence permanently.
12Some Fresh Ink

You got a tattoo!  Roll 1d8.  It shows… (1) Your most epic victory since you last caroused. (2) Your most embarrassing moment since you last caroused.  (3) MOM over a heart with an arrow through it.  (4) A symbol of some god- yours, if you keep one.  (5) A dagger through a human heart.  (6) MRDR HOBO knuckle tat.  (7) In Memoriam for someone you've seen die.  (8) The name of some bar you've never heard of, with beer steins.
13Keeping Up With The Smiths

You bought some cheap clothing in the most outlandishly fashionable style you could find.  Roll 1d8.  You’re wearing… (1) An old perruque. (2) a puffy white pirate shirt.  (3) Shoes with outlandishly curled toes.  (4) A beat up hat, sporting the largest feather you've ever seen.  (5) A cloak of many colours- actually just strips of about 50 cloaks.  (6) A ring across 3 fingers that reads TINO.  (7) The brightest green pants.  (8) A mole, glued to your cheek.  It will fall off in 1d5 weeks.
14A Question of Class

The following:
Cleric: You engaged in esoteric discussions of faith with a shadowy, robed figure.  You dreamt of tendrils sliding across each other in the dark.

Dwarf: At last, someone who appreciates good ale!  You met some fellow dwarfs and sang songs of the old mountain home and striking the earth.  You dreamt of your uncle, seized by the madness when the old mountainhome couldn't give him a bonecrafting workstation.

Elf: You spent the night out under the stars, clear headed and solitary.  You thought you heard faint music, once, but you didn't.  You dreamt of a lost love, sailing away, away forever.

Halfling: After a few cups, you barged into the kitchen.  The staff were dumbfounded but quickly adapted to your instructions.  The patrons cheered your cooking at the end of the night!  You dreamt of your great-uncle-twice-removed’s 111th birthday, and his strange disappearance that night.

Thief: You gambled all night, winning and losing in equal measure.  When your opponent finally left at the end of the night, you noticed her drink spilled in the shape of a skull, struck through: “well played,” in the cant.  You dreamt of someone you owed something to, and never repaid.

Warrior: You drank, arm-wrestling all takers.  Late in the evening you had to take a sore loser outside.  You took a few punches, but they were far worse off.  The tavern cheered when they limped away- they’d been bullying the clients for weeks.  You dreamt of breaking an old sword down and reforging it, quenching the hot steel in some dark liquid.

Wizard: You scrawled mystical symbols on a tabletop for hours!  While you were gone buying more ale, someone erased a key part of your formula and replaced it with a lewd swear.  You didn't see who it was.  You dreamt of driving an obsidian dagger into your breast, and offering your beating heart into a huge, six-fingered hand.
15Kindred Spirits

The following:
Law: A group of town guards took a liking to you.  You stayed drinking with them for hours.  Gain +2 to Personality checks with guards and upstanding citizens for the next session.

Neutral: A group of merchants was very interested in your tales, and you were happy to oblige them.  Gain a 10% discount on purchases made for the next session.

Chaos: You went on a roaring bar crawl, gaining a large crowd of musicians and hangers-on.  Gain a +2 to Personality checks with artists and riff-raff for the next session.
16With A Little Help from my Friends

You ran into someone important, and they opened up to you about their financial problems.  If you feel generous, here's the chance to make a good impression… Spend cash to increase their Favour with you by 1: (Favour 0) 25gp.  (Favour 1) 50gp.  (Favour 2) 150gp.  (Favour 3) 300gp.
17Schmoozing and Boozing

You ran into someone important and convinced them to join you.  You had a fantastic time together.  Increase their Favour with you by 1, up to a maximum of 3.
18A Bad Influence

You caroused royally, and some young townsfolk was inspired by your tales and lifestyle.  Roll up a level 0 character- you've gained a follower!
19You're Scaring the Children

You told tales all evening of your most terrifying moments of adventure!  Some poor adventurer-hopeful heard every word and decided to hang up their sword.  Strike one Level 0 character of your choice off the Roster.
20Derring Do

You told tales all evening of your most glorious moments of adventure!  Some wide eyed listener has decided this is the life for them.  Roll up a random Level 0 character and add them to the Roster.
21-25Heroic Carousing!

The tale of this night will be sung for weeks.  You hit every bar.  The bards sang all your favorite tunes.  You bought a round for all your friends, and a round for all your enemies.  You arm-wrestled the strong, riddled with the quick, and romanced the beautiful.  You were the life of the party: gain 2x xp instead of 1.5x.
26My Specialty

As Heroic Carousing!, plus:
Cleric: While regaling some passers by with wisdom of your god, you were struck by divine inspiration!  Roll a random Cleric spell of your level.  You may replace one of your currently known spells with it.

Dwarf or Warrior: A strapping young person is inspired by your personal skill.  Roll up a Level 0 character- you've gained a follower!

Elf or Wizard: Your sharp ears and clever inquiries have paid off.  Roll once on the spell chart: you’ve heard rumor of this spell, and can attempt to learn it when you level up.

Thief: For whatever reason, people are just honest with you.  Choose between learning a new rumor about somewhere you already know, or somewhere you don't; both will be true.  Then learn a helpful hint for how you can pursue this rumor.
27Legendary Gambling

As Heroic Carousing!, plus Lady Luck was on your side!  Your gambling gave you great rewards.  You can choose to reduce your Luck, earning 10x your level in gold pieces per point you reduce it by.  If your luck is greater than 18, you are gripped by the fates: You automatically reduce down to 10 Luck, gaining 10 x your level gp per point, as appropriate.
28I Owe You One

As Heroic Carousing!, plus your head is pounding but you have faint and broken memories of high stakes battling and epic heroism across the rooftops and down the alleyways.  You find a note pinned to your chest.  It reads: "The (roll 2d6) _____ _____ thanks you for your service."  If you had any Debts, they've all been erased.  If you don't have any Debts, you've earned a temporary 3 Favour with a shadowy figure, good for a single request.
1: Ivory.  2: Ebony.  3: Jade.  4: Umbral.  5: Velvet.  6: Silk.
1: Rat.  2: Mouse.  3: Falcon.  4: Panther.  5: Serpent.  6: Lion.
29A Night to Remember

As Heroic Carousing!, plus your revelry is the talk of the town.  Gain a permanent +2 to Personality checks with the citizenry of this town.
30+It's All Clearer Now

As Heroic Carousing!, plus your truly epic night of debauchery was just what you needed to unwind.  The lessons of your adventures have solidified in your mind unusually strongly. Roll: (1) Roll your hit dice again.  If the total is higher than your current HP, this is your new HP value.  (2) Gain 1 Strength.  (3) Gain 1 Agility.  (4) Gain 1 Stamina.  (5) Gain 1 Personality.  (6) Gain Intelligence.  (7) Gain 1 Luck.  (8) Roll twice, ignoring further 8s.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Hidden Ways

"At first glance, the wilds may seem impenetrable.  A wicked labyrinth of dead end trails, washed out bridges, sucking fens, and hidden lairs.  But spend a little time outside the comforts of civilization, friend, and you'll learn to see the way I do.  You see, there's a network of hidden ways crossing these lands- a language of peak and gully and old menhir and game trail.  There are roads that cross each other such that you'd never notice the path.  The trail heads are hard to find, but once you find them... well.  The whole world opens to you.  And then you'll see-

There's so much waiting to find you."

The wilderness is a confusing place.  It's twisted and turns back on itself.  Ways you thought were straight double back; ways you thought were tangled have unexpected shortcuts.  Forests are dark as night, even at midday.  Hillsides slough off in rain, blocking a passage.  Rivers shift their course.

Travelling the wilderness is by no means an easy task.  You can try it, and if you're smart about what you're doing you might just get where you're going- but there are better ways.

Just as dungeons have rooms and corridors- traps, tricks, and treasures- so do the wilds.  Features, pathways, points of interest, landmarks- a lattice web of reliable paths to follow.  "Head north for five hours" may be nearly impossible- do the players have a compass?  Is it accurate?  Are there lodestones or ley lines that might disrupt their pathfinding?  However, "Find the old stone oak tree north of town.  From there runs a game trail that will take you to the old mill creek.  From atop the mill you can see an old wood cross on a distant hill... walk to it and an hour past it and you will be overlooking the Valley of Carrowmere"- now that, you can achieve.

Skeins and Tapestries

So the hex map of the wilderness is a huge tapestry.  A 6 mile hex is ~36 square miles, or 1,003,622,400 square feet.  Let's imagine a truly huge adventure site, like a Keep.  The site itself (including the building and grounds) is probably 1,000 feet on a side (200 squares)- or 1,000,000 square feet- MAYBE 0.1% of the total space in a hex.  And a dungeon of that scope could easily occupy 10 sessions of play!

What are the odds of players accidentally stumbling across this adventure site as they explore the wilderness?  Is there a more interesting way to let players find it than spending a day to roll a search check within this hex?

The solution I'll be tooling up for my sandbox game is to run skeins of hidden paths across the tapestry of the wilderness.  These "overland dungeons" will feature landmarks that obviously link to each other.  Any dungeon crawler can see that the Altar Chamber has two exits on the west wall, and a sharp eyed elf can spot the draft blowing on the tapestry at the back.  

Just so, any wilderness adventurer can see that, from the old hanging tree, there's a shepherd's trail that winds across the plains to the east; a split peak a half day's walk northwest, and a clever ranger might know that the berry bushes at the bottom of the gully might reveal an animal trail to follow to the north.

Players can strike out across the wilderness undirected, using their survival instincts to hold to a direction, uncovering the general lay of the land.  They can spend hours executing searches to see if they discover any interesting landmarks in that area!  But they can also gather information from locals and find their ways onto these hidden paths, these overland dungeons.  Once they're there, it becomes much easier to navigate from point to point.

Rooms and Corridors

Rooms are large spaces that can contain interesting features to interact with- combat challenges, puzzles, tricks, traps, and more.  Corridors are the connecting glue tying rooms together; they can often contain the same, but rooms are dwelling spaces and corridors are traveling spaces.

What might these look like in the wilderness?


  1. The half-ruined tower atop an old hill.
  2. The fetid lake.
  3. The witch's hut.
  4. The old hanging tree.
  5. The old stone menhir, with six skeletons skewered on pikes surrounding.
  6. The black bear's foraging grounds.
  7. The ruins of Old Weston.
  8. The resting spot of Ningauble's Hut, next to the swampy lake.
  9. The blasted spot of plains, where nothing will ever grow again.
  10. The old well, and its ever expanding tendrils of fungal growth.
  11. The signpost at the intersection of the old King's Road and Coastal Way.
  12. The druid circle.
  13. The bright glade.
  14. The rocky spire, split in two.
  15. The ancient and crumbled statue of a long forgotten queen.
  16. The negative-psychic afterimage of an ancient wizard's tower, long ruined.
  17. The crawling whisper of something under the surface.
  18. The mountain peak, topped with an ancient ruin, still lit at night.
  19. The old stone foundations of the gate in the pass.
  20. The emerald blue-green lake, source of the pure stream.
  21. Etc.


  1. A game trail.
  2. An old ranger trail, marked with faded strips of colored cloth.
  3. A gully between two dried hills.
  4. Line of sight.  (It's easy to get to that ruined tower- you can see it from miles off!)
  5. A broken and ruined road, hundreds of years old.
  6. An overgrown holloway, nearly a tunnel in the growth of the surrounding lands.
  7. A string of witch-lights through the forest, following some ancient and arcane track.
  8. A powerful ley-line, plucking at the hairs on the back of your neck.
  9. A stream, spilling from a tight cavern in the rock.
  10. The only walkable descent down the mountain side.
  11. A knife-sharp ridge line between two peaks.
  12. The echoing grinding sound that repeats out of the hills to the east.
  13. Old rope bridges strung up between ancient trees.
  14. A line of new growth through the old woods, sprung up in the wake of a forest fire years ago.
  15. A series of lightly magnetic dolmens across the plains.
  16. A line of mossy earth, tilled with sparkling mica from old mining.
  17. A short cavern that exits into a new glade.
  18. The line of dead earth, relic of some ancient sorcerous battle.
  19. A miles long branch of mycelium, deadening the surrounding landscape.
  20. Old bonfire sites atop hills, marking an ancient line of signaling.
  21. Etc.

Tricks, Traps, Treasures

What's a good dungeon without tricks, traps, and treasures?


Things to pique the players' interest, that aren't obviously good or bad until messed with...

  1. Touching the standing stone causes it to flare with a brilliant light, visible from miles around.
  2. A brilliant white stag leaping away through the forests... always one step ahead...
  3. An elf-feast, lantern lights and music- all vanishing on drawing near.
  4. An old consecrated site, where the undead fear to walk.
  5. A humming ley-intersection, conveying unpredictable effects on spellcasting.
  6. The brilliant campsite at the edge of a star-filled lake, comforting and restful.
  7. An old stone door set into the ground, graven with runes and imagery, impossible to open.
  8. An explosion of tufts of feathers and fur, plus a visible trail of blood.
  9. Etc.


Surprising problems that can afflict the unwary traveler.
  1. A shale patch, the entire hillside ready to shift and slide.
  2. An old bridge above swift waters, ropes nearly rotted through.
  3. A sucking quicksand fen.
  4. A lurking presence just beneath the surface, who awakens at night to steal spells from the minds of sleeping magic users.
  5. The roosting grounds for carrion crows- gone during the day, but returned after nightfall.
  6. A wolf den.
  7. The dry cavern, so convenient for camping in, with a false wall at the back that disgorges thieving orcs and goblins.
  8. A mirror lake, which shows all reflections in a dark half-light.  If you see them, they'll come for you...
  9. Etc.


Delightful surprises, easing the burdens of travel.
  1. A wandering bard.
  2. A patch of fresh berries.
  3. A pure, cool spring.
  4. An old ranger cache, freshly replenished.
  5. A traveling merchant's forgotten pack.
  6. An elf-feast, warm and welcoming.
  7. An unexpected inn.
  8. An ancient portal to a sumptuous and restful pocket plane.
  9. Etc.

Putting it all together

With these tools, we can build interlocking megadungeon spaces in the overland, open world sandbox- complete with factions, powerful threats to avoid, lairs, enemies, easy treasures, and devious traps.  Suddenly, exploring the open world is no longer a matter of moving one hex and rolling for encounters, but a continuous, descriptive, fiction-rich play experience.  And if players want to strike off into the unknown, there's even more for them to stumble across and discover.

You can even layer these megadungeons over top of each other within hexes- the space that runs out to the Keep on the Borderlands and the space that leads players to lost Carrowmere might have hidden ways that cross each other, but which are only visible from within each of their respective megadungeons.  This layered, hidden information creates a dense tapestry of discovery for exploration.

I hope you've found these ideas interesting!  What other rooms, corridors, traps, tricks, and treasures could exist in an overland dungeon?  How would you put this into your game?

Until next time!

Monday, September 4, 2017

Why Explore?

In the context of sandbox OSR D&D games... why should the players explore your game world?  What rewards exist to motivate exploration?

Here's a list based on my own experience, plus the answers a bunch of people gave me when I asked on twitter.  Players want to....

  • See their character change based on what they encounter
  • See the world change in response to their actions
  • Discover the interaction points between the world and their character
  • Enjoy the gamble of randomness in the game
  • Form new or build on existing in-game relationships and romances
  • Gain XP - often in the form of treasure
  • Gain power and capabilities - new items and resources and allies
  • Gain knowledge about the world and environment
  • Gain information about other challenges that have them stumped
  • Engage with new content - finding a new quest or situation
  • See something new in the world, experience something unique - environments, settings, monsters, etc.
  • Be surprised by what they find
  • Discover something, put it on the map for others
  • Follow clues to their ultimate discovery
  • Solidify an alliance with a faction
  • Find out what happens, what are the consequences of their decisions 
  • Overcome a tough challenge
  • Make deals
  • Open or unlock new content- areas, quests, relationships, npcs
  • Embody their alignment or beliefs within the world
  • Solve problems or help npcs 
  • Unlock and play with new character options
  • Explore options within the fiction
  • See their character succeed or fail
  • Simply to experience it themself
  • Find out what will happen to their friends

Let's break that list down a bit in terms of three different categories:

Mechanical Motivators

These things are explicitly mechanized by OSR games- there are rules the players can point to and follow for these events.

Notably, the extrinsic rewards of the game all fall here.
  • Gain XP - often in the form of treasure
    • Explicitly mechanized
  • Gain power and capabilities - new items and resources and allies
    • Explicitly mechanized
  • Overcome a tough challenge
    • Player Experience
    • Explicitly Mechanized

Narrative Motivators

These things aren't explicitly mechanized in OSR games; they rely on the GM's narrative chops to set up the opportunity for them to exist, and for players to interact with them.
  • See their character change based on what they encounter
    • OSR games don't tend to mechanize this explicitly within the core rules- rather, when it happens, it falls under the narrative OSR umbrella of "if it happens to you, it happens to you"- your arm got chopped off, so you don't have an arm.  "Rulings, not Rules" gets a lot of play here.
    • Some OSR style games have crit or fumble tables, or magical corruption tables that mechanize this.
  • See the world change in response to their actions
  • Form new or build on existing in-game relationships and romances
  • Exploit in-game relationships; make deals
  • Gain knowledge about the world and environment
  • Gain information about other challenges that have them stumped
  • Open or unlock new content- areas, quests, relationships, npcs
  • Put something discovered on the map for others
  • Follow clues to their ultimate discovery
  • Solidify an alliance with a faction
  • Embody their alignment or beliefs within the world
  • Solve problems or help npcs
  • Unlock and play with new character options

Experiential Motivators

These are just things that the players enjoy experiencing as they play the game.  If you have the first two categories, you should naturally have this one covered- but it's always good to keep in mind.
  • Explore options within the fiction
  • See their character succeed or fail
  • Simply to experience it themself
  • Find out what will happen to their friends
  • See something new in the world, experience something unique - environments, settings, monsters, etc.
  • Be surprised by what they find
  • Discover the interaction points between the world and their character
  • Enjoy the gamble of randomness in the game
  • Discover something in the world
  • Find out what happens, what are the consequences of their decisions
  • Engage with new content

So what does this mean?

It means that, if you're trying to set up a sandbox open world D&D game, the ruleset of the game you're using probably only manages a small fraction of what motivates players to go out and explore- and the rest of it is up to the narrative framework of the world you're building.

That large list of Narrative Motivators also raises a series of excellent questions for us to consider, as far as our players are concerned.  For example:
  • When does the player's character change?  How?  What keeps those changes in check, to allow the player to have fun with their character?  How does the player feel agency over the way their character is affected by the world?
  • How does the player know the world will respond to their actions?  (That might be a base assumption of all players- including GM- but it's good to clarify!)  How does the player know how the world will respond to their actions?  What are the avenues of agency the players have over this response?  How much agency should the players have in this response?
  • How does the player successfully build in-game relationships and romances?  How does the player know they can do this?  What are the avenues of agency for the player pursuing these?  
  • What are the consequences of a new relationship?  What benefits can it offer?  How does the player know what these are?
  • How does the player gain knowledge about the world and the environment?  What are the avenues of agency for the player pursuing this information?
  • How does the player pursue information about challenges that are stumping them?
  • How does the player know what courses of action will unlock new content?
  • How much can a player put on the map for other players?  Everything?  Nothing?  What if that character dies before making it back?
  • What if the player misses clues?  How does the player gain more information about a puzzle?
  • What do alliances with factions do?  What do factions do?  What benefits and risks does faction membership confer?
  • Why embody your beliefs and alignment?  What are the consequences of doing this?
  • Why solve problems?  Why help NPCs?  What are the consequences of doing this?
  • How does the player know what new character options will be made available?  How does the player know whether a new character option is desirable to them?

That's a lot of ground to cover, and it's part of why I think sandbox OSR games present a unique challenge to the enthusiastic GM!

I suspect some of this should probably be mechanized with explicit rules; some of it should definitely not be; and a great deal of it could be made easier with some simple, well-written guidelines.

Maybe we'll do a bit of that!

Until next time- did I miss a key motivator for you, as a player (not your character- you!)?  Do you disagree with how I've divided things up?  Think something I marked as Narrative is actually Mechanical?  Tell me all about it!