Ten Monster Setting

“I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

- T.S. Elliot, The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock, 1920

Nate Marcel ,  Gullman , 2019

Nate Marcel, Gullman, 2019

I recently ran across Three Toadstools Publishing’s idea of creating a mini-setting using only ten monsters & wanted to participate. I worked on a post off and on for my Lands of Khos setting & ultimately abandoned the project. I told myself it was because I didn’t want to spoil any of the pleasures to be found by players exploring the world for themselves, but that’s not quite true. There was useful failure in my effort because I learned a couple things. First, my setting isn’t quite as thematically focused as I might like (there are easily a couple dozen monsters I currently consider “core” to my campaign). Second, to the degree that it is focused, it is heavily centered on fey monsters which was not a great fit for this exercise.

Here then, is my #tenmonstersetting. It may yet be found in my campaign world, but it might be at some remove from where the players take up their initial adventures. I’m picturing a coastline where something like Greyhawk’s U-series might be found. I note it has some similarities to the original post, but that is coincidental; I’ve run a few nautical games & tend to return to that motif.

Semi-intelligent humanoid

Diggers (Crab-men)

Years before Krogas “The Drowned City” succumbed to “The Final Tide”, Diggers were servitors created by the Yanaidar elders as labor for the now haunted and desolate metropolis. Those diggers that remain have become forgetful archaeologists and archivists of a sort. They know the city and its subterranean tunnels. There are multiple factions & what they consider valuable varies by clan.


Drowners (Ghouls)

When Krogas was destroyed by a wall of water, most simply perished. Cultists of Yanaidar, however, passed into undeath, the waters the unholy baptismal their devotions had prepared them for. These ghouls do not paralyze as easily (+4 to saves), however they are often lead by a divine spell-caster & victims collapse before paralysis. This is a particular danger in a city still deluged by water.

Ancient Fey

Cove-maidens (Nereids)

Forty, led by Lieutenant Halia. This platoon of fey warriors was pledged to the harbormaster before the deluge and have seven years left to their oath. The city is gone and the mariner likely dead, but their service remains. Squads of seven patrol the city looking for the “The Master.” They might be bargained with, but are as likely to press-gang adventurers to their service. They hold five giant otters among their assets.


The Scrag Brothers (Marine Trolls)

Malik & Ugo. Finding crab-men delicious, “The Scrag Brothers” live in a saltwater lake in the city’s interior near one of the smaller digger enclaves. The two usually try to extract some kind of toll from interlopers into their “feeding grounds". Both are cowardly bullies who, after little injury, will run for regenerative waters & will be open to negotiation thereafter. Expert trappers, their devices are everywhere.

Great Wyrm/Lizard

Brackrym (Brine Dragon)

This young adult dragon came soon after the ruin of Krogas. They want badly to rule over a people and are not content with any of the factions’ levels of flattery nor tribute. Brackrym’s disposition and alignment vary widely with the tides - reasonable at high tide, much less so when the waters ebb. It’s not true, but they’ve lately taken to calling themselves “The Harbormaster” in a misguided hope of fooling the Cove-maidens.

Nate Marcel ,  Gullman 2 , 2019

Nate Marcel, Gullman 2, 2019


Gull-men (Aarakocra)

The few dozen remaining in The Drowned City make their home in the rooftops of the former temple district. Along with the javelins they make from coastal spinegrass, they’ve scavenged the weapons of the temple guards & set up a peculiar masonic order led by Firstgull Jothan. They despise the Drowners and Vodyanoi, but are also very territorial with respect to the temples. Most of the other factions consider them self-righteous braggarts.


Vodyanoi (Koa-toa)

It was Vodyanoi priests, in an unholy alliance with the Yanaidar cultists, that brought the wall of water to Krogas. The Vodyanoi raided the human settlements of this coastline for generations. Now, by drowning most of the city’s inhabitants, they have ensured access to ancestral vaults in the catacombs beneath. And their sleeping aboleth god. They no longer have use for the Drowners, their former allies.


Sprays (Mephit)

Sprays are the saltwater imps which were bound as apprentices and errand-runners for the Yanaidar cultists. Now that their former masters are technically dead, their contracts are broken & there are several of them running around the city and its catacombs, each with their own agenda and each getting up to all kinds of mischief. They seem to be unable to return to their abyssal planes.

Classic Mythos

Hephaestus (Titan)

The Vodyanoi and Yanaidar cultists believe they summoned a wall of water to destroy Krogas. In truth, they merely prophesied Zeus casting the meteoric infant Hephaestus into the ocean. The nereids Thetis & Eurynome magically shrunk him down, bore him through underwater tunnels, and raised him away from Zeus’s wrath, in the catacombs below Krogas. A teenager now, Hephaestus carves out massive underworld forges and plans his eventual escape to a wider world.


Dredge (Derro)

Over time, Hephaestus made dwarven helpers from the anthracite near his hearth. These forge apprentices tunneled towards the surface when they were not assisting Hephaestus. Many of these have been captured by Yanaidar cultists and transformed to hateful analogs called the Dredge. The Dredge share their brothers’ fondness for precious gems but have added forbidden lore to their desires.

Fort Mutska 0104

More of a trading outpost than a redoubt, the wooden palisades of Fort Mutska peek furtively above the waterline on a hundred hectare island at the fork where the Zamok feeds into the Alavil River. Fort Mutsa is the headquarters for a frontier trade company headed by two Riverfolk gentlemen, Fishbone & Opivy. Fort Mutska’s defensible island and the reputed gregariousness of Riverfolk make it a popular location for adventurers and myriad other outcasts for both repose and rumor-mongering.

Riverfolk or otherwise, all of the furriers, trappers and scouts of the Mutska Fork Collective (MFC) are equal partners, with Fishbone and Opivy calling all committee meetings. The MFC maintains Fort Muska as a demilitarized neutral ground for all kinds and have sought to make their frontier outpost indispensable as a way of forestalling otherwise disreputable trappers from taking Riverfolk pelts.

Nate Marcel ,  Otter , 2019

Nate Marcel, Otter, 2019

Kak Dela? (1d6)

1) Fishbone and Opivy are getting married! The fort is full of drunken well-wishers, both crashers and the invited. If any of the PCs are friends of F&O they are in the wedding party. Last-minute plans will be made as their invitations were lost in transit! F&O’s wedding guest gifts are generous and in some cases, miraculous. (If F&O are already married this result is an anniversary party or semi-regular romp).

2) Dozens of Alavil River-roaming traders have filled Fort Mutska to the brim. Rumors abound but are particularly prevalent and truthful with respect to 1) War 2) A rumored Peace 3) The Shadowlands 4) Faerie 5) A dungeon the PCs have delved. 6) A dungeon the PCs have not delved.

3) The faerie knight Laurel Snowthistle and their noble pig Blacksnout are present and are provisioning themselves for an expedition into The Gardens of Ynn. Laurel claims there’s a way through there to Faerie even for a Scáthsidhe like themselves. Fishbone is begging Laurel to stay or, failing that, to send scouts ahead to Ynn to help ensure their safe passage.

4) The “Crab-Men” upriver from here have declared some kind of holy war upon Fort Muska & it’s all anyone is talking about. Fishbone and Opivy are divided on whether to sue for peace, find allies against them or to send someone to take the fight to them. One of them would likely pay for any of these services.

5) A longship from Solneya and beyond has disgorged its wayfarers at Fort Mutska. The passengers are mostly 1) Utlanner mercenaries 2) Solneyan reinforcements bound for the Bone Campaign 3) The Vadim Caravan, trying their hand at river trade 4) A far-ranging Anadolan Empire [future link] expedition 5) war profiteers from Tolsk 6) Re-roll or other.

6) “The Three Brothers,” Lech, Chek & Rus, famed scouts and hunters, are at the fort. They are bored and are potentially available for hire. Lech is a uniquely unerring scout for all points north for many leagues, Chek similarly for the west & the youngest, Rus, for the locales east of here. Each are expensive but unusually willing to serve for less experienced adventurers.

The Fantasy Trip - Random Drawbacks

Gustave Doré, illustration from Ludovico Ariosto’s  Orlando Furioso , 1877.

Gustave Doré, illustration from Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, 1877.

After paging through my copy of The Fantasy Trip Companion, I started noodling around with creating a table to randomly generate “Drawbacks” for beginning TFT characters. It’s hard now to appreciate just how innovative character disadvantages were in 1982, but I remember being bowled over by the concept when I first read The Space Gamer article where they were introduced. Of course, I was then a scrawny kid who’d only been in the RPG hobby for a couple years, so it wasn’t especially hard to knock me down.

But character disadvantages were then a tangible game changer.

I’ve lost quite a few artifacts from my gaming youth, most of them in a basement flood in the 90s. I managed, though, to hold on to several issues of The Space Gamer, including TSG 51.

I’ve taken my preferred TFT character disadvantages from TSG 51, TSG 57, and from John Leising’s website, Imaginaerie Media and created my own random table and applicable house rules for generating one of forty-eight possible “Drawback” options for new TFT PCs so that players can purchase additional Talents and Spells for their characters using the framework provided by the Legacy Edition of the rules. As far as I know, “drawback” is Lesing’s nomenclature. I prefer it to the “handicap” term used in TSG 51 & 57.

This table won’t be of much practical use for those without either the original magazines or without The Fantasy Trip Companion that was available through the Kickstarter, but perhaps Steve Jackson Games will make the Companion available down the road. There were enough backers of the TFT Legacy Edition that I thought I might as well throw it up here for others as I’d gone to the trouble for my own use.

The Fantasy Trip - Setting Out

I spent most of the weekend familiarizing myself with the new Legacy Edition of The Fantasy Trip, making characters and beginning a run through Dhallak m’Thorsz Carn’s Death Test, a gauntlet I faced at least a dozen times almost forty years ago.

Arthur Rackham,  Untitled  from  Hansel & Grethel & other tales , by Brothers Grimm, 1920

Arthur Rackham, Untitled from Hansel & Grethel & other tales, by Brothers Grimm, 1920

My contact with TFT’s new rules was a bit like my experience running games I’ve playtested through their alpha and beta stages into publication; blending my memories of how the game worked in the past with its final iteration causes some hiccups and rules mistakes. In this case, it’s more because most of my experience with the original game comes from 1980-1986, (and much of that with various house rules I can no longer find), than because the game itself has been much changed. I’ve observed referees coming to a final game fresh are often in a better position than playtesters or even the designer with respect to recalling particular rules. Another of many reasons new players are so great.

What I did not yet find time for was to dig into any of the five new adventures which have been released (in pdf only so far) for the new Legacy Edition. My abbreviated time with Death Test suggested that while it’s a great solo adventure for teaching and for re-learning the rules for Melee, it leaves some understandable opportunities on the table with respect to the In the Labyrinth rules which would come two and now forty-one years later.

Death Test, along with the five new adventures, will naturally be the way many new players first experience the game at their tables. So before I take the time to dig into the initial published adventures I thought I’d pause to consider a couple things I’d hope to find in them & which I might incorporate into my own TFT adventures as I introduce the game others.

1) More for Mages

I’m going to put things into my adventures that provide opportunities and advantages for wizards. I’m going to think both about the spells players are likely to take (e.g. Fire ) and the spells they’re not likely to gravitate towards (e.g. Clearheadedness). For the spells they’re likely to take, put something in the adventure that says, “thank the gods Gwydion was with us!” Until they have Manastaff (Staff II) and some experience under their robe’s rope belt, beginning mages are in a tough spot in TFT. New adventures should have some things in them that make a new TFT player happy they didn’t simply opt for an ST 12 DX 12, IQ 8 Hero with a broadsword, light crossbow & large shield. For spells they’re less likely to take, I want to see things in adventures that suggest to players, “Geez, maybe I should pick up that one weird spell when I ‘make 33’ if I’m going to be running into these kinds of things.” At the end of this post I’ve added two foes I might incorporate into an adventure which demonstrate this principle. Other examples off the top of my head: a) an encounter with several illusions that higher IQ characters can “disbelieve pop” far more effectively than could a typical IQ 8 starting hero. b) a gem worth $1200 as a reward at its conclusion. Do the characters sell it and divvy the funds or do they invest in their wizard by keeping it to make a Powerstone? Gods only know when they’ll again find such a jewel.

2) Play with the Forms

This occurred to me while reading through the new edition. Monsters in new adventures should not be bag-o’-hit points bare bones stat blocks. As brilliant and seminal as Gygax, Arneson & others were in creating the hobby, modern shoulder-standers have been at their best when they play with the forms, add flavor and innovate. I’m glad Jackson’s entry for ghouls is unchanged from the original. The ghoul’s description is gratifyingly unpleasant, and some of the old guard would complain if numerous unnecessary changes were made to the original. But the game mechanics for these eaters-of-the-dead leave opportunities. Anyone writing an adventure for TFT in 2019 will do a disservice to the project of building upon this game’s great legacy if they create an adventure that indicates simply that a chamber has two ST 15 DX 11 ghouls in it. My “Dusk Ghouls” below provide a draft of the kind of thing I’d hope to discover in the new adventures.

Book Golem

These golems are made of tomes their creator has read, and determined are not worth re-reading but are suitable to protect the remainder of their libraries. A book golem has ST 33, DX 11, IQ 6, MA 6; its voluminous arms strike for 1d+3 damage and any opponent struck must make a 3/IQ Saving Roll or lose 3 IQ points and forget any Talents for which they no longer qualify. This effect lasts a number of turns equal to the number by which they missed their save unless the golem is destroyed, or their IQ is somehow magically restored; the book golem absorbs their talents. A book golem takes triple damage from magical fire and is set aflame, losing 3 hits/turn thereafter. Non-magical fire, e.g. a torch, does double damage, but is not sufficient to set the golem aflame.

Any turn following a book golem striking a foe but doing no damage, it will perform a Paper Cut Burst, rather than its standard attack, (1d occult damage bypassing armor to all adjacent foes) as hundreds of razor-edge pages and bookmarks fly from its form). This attack also triggers the 3/IQ saving roll.

1d-1 usable spell scrolls may be found tucked in the “corpse” of a book golem (1d-4 if burned); roll 2d6+6 to determine the level of any scrolls.

Use the 3-hex template for any book golem. By its nature, a book golem cannot absorb spells as it can talents. They are usually encountered one or two (bookends) at a time.

Dusk Ghouls

Prowling among the shelves in the dust libraries of Saemorn the Maggot are his dusk ghouls, sages who traded their vitality for forbidden knowledge which has now cursed them with undeath and a hunger for the flesh of the living. Strange lines tattoo their leathery hides, verses from arcane tomes they’ve read.

A dusk ghoul has ST 12, DX 12, IQ 9, MA 10; their nailed hands deal 1d-2 damage, (1d in HTH). Their skin tattoos stop 1 hit of damage. Each time a ghoul hits (a damaging blow or not), they inflict a cumulative -1 DX penalty caused by maddening whispers heard inside their victim’s mind. If the penalty reaches -4 DX, their foe loses all motor function and collapses, effectively paralyzed for 1d6 turns or until they make a 4 die saving roll against IQ. Lifting the DX penalty (e.g. with a Clearheadedness spell) is also effective. Paralyzed or not, the DX penalty will otherwise last fifteen minutes.

A dusk ghoul which has recently inflicted its mad whispers on a victim glows with a strange power and has 10 additional points of life force with respect to the Drain Strength spell. Dusk ghouls will often attack in packs, retreating to gift any master(s) with their unholy strength.

The Fantasy Trip - Legacy & Renaissance

Last week I received my “I Want It All” Legacy Edition box of The Fantasy Trip RPG. Work projects and other obligations have prevented me from digging into the re-release as much as I’d like, but it looks like Steve Jackson Games have created a fine product that is worthy of this game’s great heritage. I hope it’s received with enthusiasm sufficient to permit ongoing support, (official and otherwise).

The Fantasy Trip was essentially my introduction into the RPG hobby. I’d been playing Metagaming’s Melee, Wizard, Death Test (1 & 2) and Grail Quest for months prior to cracking an AD&D book with sufficient attention to be able to poorly run it for my middle school friends. It’d be months later still before I’d have my own copy of the Monster Manual, never mind a Dungeon Master’s Guide or Players Handbook.

Sir Alynor sets out on a holy quest at my game table.

Sir Alynor sets out on a holy quest at my game table.

In February, in advance of my Kickstarter shipment, I dug out my old copy of Guy W. McLimore, Jr.’s wonderful Grail Quest, (the 3rd MicroQuest and my personal favorite), along with some print-outs of some of the Legacy Edition’s pdf materials. I mapped my progress and had a lot of fun revisiting the solo RPG’ing of my youth. Sir Alynor fell before he found the grail. Maybe I’ll have a comrade knight try again and make a blog post of it. TFT veterans might note that Sir Alynor forgot to purchase either the Sword or the Shield talents! In my rush to revisit my RPG glory days before I’d even re-read the re-release of my first RPG (I prefer hard copy to pdfs), I neglected to give my knight the appropriate martial prerequisites. My retcon has it that Sir Alynor was not as literate, sexy, nor as good at catching fish as he might have thought. It wouldn’t the first time a man misjudged his talents and, in any case, none of these three came up in the course of his quest.

I have a bit of breathing room now so I’m looking forward to spending more time with TFT’s Legacy Edition & with the pdf copies of The Fantasy Trip Adventures I also backed. More, I’m looking forward to making my own adventures. I ran or played more than a hundred sessions of The Fantasy Trip in the early and mid-80s as a middle and high school student. Since then, I’ve played close to a hundred RPGs. I’m hoping 35+ years of experience will serve me well in creating some fun scenarios, both for people who’ve loved The Fantasy Trip for a long time and for players checking it out for the first time (that will be most at my current table). I think my time creating set piece encounters for 4th edition D&D will be especially applicable.

I have reservations about some of the creative choices and art direction for TFT’s Legacy Edition, but it has otherwise made a good first impression. I’ve no doubt it will find time and place on my gaming table in the years to come. I’m a biased judge, but its appeal should rise above pure nostalgia and find a niche for others as well. Maybe down the road I’ll find time to write more about why that should be.

Naming Stones

On the outskirts of any settlement at least as old as the most venerable living souls sits a great runestone carved as did the northern forebearers of many of those who dwell today in the Lands of Khos.


Rather than choosing their own names, parents who observe faithfully the old ways take their newborns to “Naming Stones” to be named by a cleric, volkhv or witch according to local custom. An adherent of Lada or Mokosh is a common proctor.

A typical ritual has the sacred authority holding the infant’s brow to the stone briefly, then listening close to the monolith to hear their designation. A blessing ceremony of some kind follows and the child is known thence by the name whispered by the runestone.

In the “bear’s share” of the settlements in the Lands of Khos, the names heard are of a uniform nature, names like Sasha, Yaroslav or Elena. In places where the old trees are yet observant or passages to Faerie are near, names like Rhiryd, Tangwystl or Gwerydd might whisper forth.

Decades ago, around the time the elves began to abandon this world, a few mischievous Fae began to “infect” the naming stones to occasionally offer more unusual names. Upon hearing the name, some clergy will shake their heads, beseech their deities and report regardless to those gathered for the ceremony that they’ve heard  a more traditional name.

Others elect to faithfully report the murmured name, regardless of its peculiarity. Some tricksy Fae have ventured to far realms and times, have gathered names from these places then stored them in the runestones for their amusement. The phenomenon is a topic of controversy among both clergy and the laity throughout the Lands of Khos. Some parents and their neighbors receive the unusual names as a curse while others take the monikers as a sign of great honor and portent. A recent theory circulating among a handful of religious scholars is the Fae who’ve done this have no ill intent; the naming stones are simply repeating the words whispered into them. Regardless, most have become at somewhat inured to the situation. In Vyshne, for example, there are three teenagers respectively named Thundarr, Deez Nuts & Finieous and hardly anyone bats an eye.

Design note: It’s seldom explicit, but many D&D worlds have “naming stones” in them. The judges of these worlds methodically craft and distribute their culture-specific recommended name documents but there’s occasionally that one player who chortles to themselves and records “Boaty McBoatFace” for their Dwarven sailor character. In addition to his unfortunate name, Boaty will soon be discovered to possess a shockingly bad “Scottish” accent. In a world of divers authors, modules & products, naming stones also serve to explain why in an otherwise Nordic-themed campaign there might be a village named Orlane full of folks like Grover Ruskadal, Zakarias Ormond & Kilian Gade.

Kyrgorod Keep - 0102

On a bluff overlooking an idle river, the ruined remnant of the Shadowland warlord who built this castle an age ago has been re-purposed by a company of Scáthsidhe (shadow fey) soldiers who call themselves the Raven Guard.

John Martin,  Moonlight - Chepstow Castle  (watercolour), 1815

John Martin, Moonlight - Chepstow Castle (watercolour), 1815

Kyrgorod Keep (Pop. 150) is badly dilapidated, most of its wooden interiors long since rotted away excepting the refurbished keep at the interior of the fortifications. Gaps in the crumbling battlements are filled perpetually by an undulant inky “smoke” which only the Scáthsidhe seem able to see through.

What’s Going On In Kyrgorod? (1d6)

1) The Shadowlands portal in the yard behind the keep has somehow changed and travel from here to there has become uncertain. The Raven Guard have tasked themselves as guardians to prevent umbral incursions but now find they are oft prevented from scouting those dark lands or joining their kin there.

2) 3d6+5 deserters from the Bone Campaign have drifted here from the camps at Ostrog. Captain Eithne (AE nyuh); Sca6, permits them to squat in the outer yard and has allowed some to escape punishment by emigrating to the Shadowlands - for a difficult fee or favor. Some have become desperate and are possibly for hire.

3) The faerie knight Laurel Snowthistle, and their noble pig Blacksnout have returned from the Shadowlands & have struck a great blow against Baron Krulak and his ghul regiments. Three nights of merry feasting by Cpt. Eithne (EN-yeh) and the Raven Guard are in progress.

4) The Vadim Caravan [future link] have ventured a detour from their usual circuit to provision the Scáthsidhe of Krygorod. The caravan leaders are in good spirits and have thrice their usual chance to have rare goods at hand. A re-roll is allowed for any fortunes told by their mediums.

5) Lt. Lohd Preben and 2d6+3 bear soldiers are quartering here until one of their 1d3+1 giant bee drones (stinger-less; produce memory honey) are recovered from injury. The billeting was agreed to and compensated, but there is a 1-in-3 chance of false pretense with Lieutenant Preben doing reconnaissance on behalf of another.

6) The Scáthsidhe tattoo artist Ciaran (KEE ur ahn) Nightshade is in camp. For a price, he can ink magical tattoos. Most are temporary, but he also knows The Final Sunset marking (Infravision but normal sight forever limited to 60’). Ciaran is prone to flattery.

The Fall of Magic

J.R.R. Tolkien,  Rivendell

J.R.R. Tolkien, Rivendell

Some divide the fantasy literature from which D&D sprung into two broad categories: Tolkien or Howard. I appreciate both, but my Lands of Khos campaign will look more to Tolkien and his predecessors. An age undreamed of precedes each, but their sense of what has been lost differs. For Howard’s Conan the past is unfathomable, mysterious and of an equally amorphous moral fiber as his present Hyborian Age. With Tolkien’s Third Age, even victory over a clear Manichean blight was accompanied by a sense of loss about what too was passing away from Middle Earth.

I’ve run enough old school fantasy RPG games to feel both thrill and anxiety at what sometimes follows the first steps of campaign’s long road. For the short arcs and one-shots of the myriad small-press RPGs I’ve reveled in the past fifteen years, I’ve learned to welcome character decisions that can’t be taken back. For the long-form sandbox campaign I have in my mind’s eye, however, I want to be careful about the “toys” I place within. Maybe I’ve simply read too many threads about Rings of Invisibility or Brooms of Flying and such. I want the PCs to be able to utterly transform their Age but am wary of adding permanent elements to an ongoing campaign that might bring harm to the overall endeavor by taking focus away from the characters and putting it on their toys.

Hence, “The Fall of Magic”. The Elves of Khos have almost entirely “gone west” to their Feywild and magic is passing away from this world. This will reinforce themes of loss and decay as well as create escape clauses for my mad experiments.

What does this mean in practical terms?

Along with traditionally consumable items like wands and “potion growlers,” most magical items will have one of the six classic polyhedral dice ascribed to them, e.g. “Helm of Telepathy (d10)”, Gauntlets of Ogre Power (d20). Each time an item is activated, the assigned die size will be rolled and if it comes up a “1” or “2” then the die size will be decremented one size until it reaches a d4. When such a diminished item is risked further, on a “1” or “2” result its magic will depart and the item will either break or be inert. The default activation time will be one turn or one use as appropriate, but might vary according to the nature of the item. Even magical weapons and armor will need be “called upon” and stoked to power before a fray.

I was in a campaign several years ago that used a form of this rule to track ammo. Rather than having 20 arrows and having to account carefully for each single arrow, people had, for example, Arrow Quiver (d12) and would roll at the end of a combat to determine whether their ammo had diminished sufficiently to decrement their quiver to a “d6”.

I asked on Twitter about the origins of this kind of a mechanic and heard back that Confrontation had a form of it, that Logan Knight and James Young later used it to track torches at their tables & that David Black’s The Black Hack may have been the first published old school FRPG to use something similar. Apart from the aforementioned campaign, I think I re-discovered it elsewhere.

I’ve not considered it much, but it occurs to me now that so long we’ll be taking the time for such decrement checks, some other result (4s?) might result in a “flare” and/or a side-effect for some items as one finds with house rules or systems where magic is unpredictable (Dungeon Crawl Classics excels in this kind of thing).

The “breaking weapons” element in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild game received mixed reviews. Players seemed to either enjoy or dislike the feature. It wasn’t implemented exactly the way I might have chosen, but I appreciated its design intent & thought it was mostly successful. Facing a given conflict, I liked having to choose whether to end it quickly and with less risk by using a superior weapon or to “keep my powder dry” by charging in with a humble Moblin club.

I felt the draw of this kind of design aesthetic recently while watching a playtest of Agon 2nd Editon. Deciding moment by moment, situation by situation, whether to exhaust a resource or reserve it and increase one’s risk of loss is powerful.

When at its best, two hearts of good old-school role-playing are managing resources and putting meaningful decisions into the hands of players. I hope to infuse more of both by basing my game in a world where magic is dying.

Incidentally, while far from the old school (closer to freeform academy), the Fall of Magic is a stellar RPG, a favorite of mine, and one I hope to to return to. It’s a game that evokes for me that Tolkien-esque sense of loss of a world which is passing away.

Mimir's Head - 0101

A sylvan valley hides a shallow brook. Half-buried in the muck of the runnel lies the colossal form of Mimir’s Head.

Mimir’s Head nears nine feet ‘cross and weighs a thousand stone.

Odin left him ages past for some sin to atone.

His pallid skin and lolling tongue toll forgotten dread.

His haunted eyes weep anon and stain the waters red.

John Bauer,  Odin Speaks With Mimir’s Head For The Last Time  (illus.), 1911

John Bauer, Odin Speaks With Mimir’s Head For The Last Time (illus.), 1911

What’s on Mimir’s mind? (1d6)

“Stay awhile and listen.”

1) Gibbering madness. Mimir cast Contact Higher Plane and it went… poorly last time out. He’ll be himself in 1d6 weeks.

2) The 2d4 giant centipedes painfully feasting on his ever-regenerating flesh & the fey Branch Sisters not three leagues away who left them here to feed and grow plump with wisdom until they come to collect them. Or perhaps it was Baba Yaga who did this?

3) The faerie knight Laurel Snowthistle and their noble pig Blacksnout have not returned from the quest which Mimir bade them. Mimir senses they have run into trouble 1d6 chambers into a fell place 1d6 hexes from here in a random (1d6) direction.

4) The dreams of the dragon Vaithrax to which Mimir has unhappily become attuned. Mimir knows where Vaithrax is when the wurm sleeps and for how long they are likely to slumber. Mimir is vexed with bouts of useless greed until this bond is somehow broken.

5) The latest scheme of either a lich or Khoschei the Undying. Present company excluded, there are few who know of Mimir’s location. Mimir knows the hiding place of the lich’s/Koschei’s phylactery. If the latter, Khoschei’s goat Peony is nearby to ensure Khoschei knows when and whether this information is relayed, but it’s possible (2-in-6) Peony has wandered off for a bit.

6) Little to put into words for those whose lives are but a candle’s length. Mimir is thirsty for knowledge of the lands where he’s been abandoned & is predisposed (+ 2 reaction) towards those who might provide such.

Mimir cannot likely be slain nor moved, however much he might wish. He can cast Contact Higher Plane, Geas, and its reverse as a 14th level caster. If well-disposed, he might act as a sage with nine specialties including Ancient History, Dragons, & Northern Lands. Mimir knows the properties of most magical items created on this plane. If ill-disposed and/or poorly-treated, expect a Geas involving collecting some intelligence or artifact for him.

Inspiration for Mimir’s Head comes from John M. Stater’s NOD #6 (p35)

The Right Tools For The Job

I spent most of the past weekend finishing up the player-facing equipment document for my B/X Essentials campaign. I went through the exercise because the equipment list for B/X D&D is terse for my purposes, because I intend to revise it with simpler-than-RAW encumbrance and other house rules down the road & because experience has taught me it’s good to have a few copies of more easily-referenced gear for when the game transitions to “shopping mode.” I lifted items from The Nightmares Underneath, Advanced Labyrinth Lord , Beyond the Wall and many others.

I had a few thoughts about this process & thought I’d share some while they’re fresh in my mind. No doubt at least one of these observations have been made ad nauseam in the blog-o-sphere over the last decade.

The Humble Crowbar

As written, this item costs and weighs more than a short sword and yet has no explicit mechanical benefit. From B/X Essentials and some versions of Expert D&D it’s mentioned as being used for prying open objects like chests or windows. It’s not clear whether an adventurer even needs one to be able to force open a stuck door. I decided to clarify and rule on this; you can open a stuck door w/o a crowbar, but the base chance (2-in-6) falls to 1-in-6, so the base chance assumes you’ve got one.

Five Gold Garlic

Garlic is found in the Expert edition of the game and in B/X Essentials’ equipment list. It would be pretty harrowing for Basic level (1-3) adventurers to run across a vampire, but one never knows. Neither tell you on the player-facing side what garlic does. I’d been adding some explanatory details for my list, but decided not clarifying garlic’s potential benefits in the equipment manifest was a good creative choice. What amused me is that garlic costs approximately 250 times what one might expect given it’s difficult to not grow garlic, in our world at least.

I’ve read blog posts and listened to podcasts about following some of D&D rules’ peculiarities to their seemingly illogical conclusions rather than ignoring them or house-ruling them away. Judd Karlman talked about this with alignment languages recently on Daydreaming about Dragons. “That kid was born speaking Evil…”

What does it mean that garlic costs two orders of magnitude more than you might expect? Has a local vampire lord found some way to curse the soil for leagues around so that garlic takes an especially green thumb and or magics to nurture? Something like that sounds fun. I’d already been borrowing lots of things from Dolmenwood for my game, so maybe someone like this guy is behind this garlic price-fixing scheme.

Holy Symbols - You Get What You Pay For

I found it curious that Moldvay D&D doesn’t seem to provide any indication as to whether a holy symbol is necessary or how it might be used beyond devotional or status purposes. Such a symbol costs 25 gp which is quite a bit for a beginning Cleric who might also like to afford some other protections. Turning to Expert D&D, I find a holy symbol is “Used in turning undead.” The B/X Essentials book I’m using as my base indicates that “a cleric must carry a holy symbol.” As I’m making equipment packages & would like even a relatively impoverished acolyte to be able to afford a symbol of their faith along with some armor and weapons, I’m providing a wooden holy symbol option that costs only 1 gp, but has the disadvantage of a -1 to their 2d6 ability to Turn Undead. I’m guessing the 25 gp version might be made of something like silver and that such metals are for some reason more effective in warding off the undead. I think I may have stolen this “-1 for wooden symbols” from some blog or another, but arrived at this at least two years ago and have no idea by now where it might have come from. I think for my game holy symbols might be something more like a religious icon of some sort, some weighty object.

Silver and Wolfsbane

Engraving, 18th cent. depicting a scene from Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg's  Die Emeis  (1516)

Engraving, 18th cent. depicting a scene from Johann Geiler von Kaisersberg's Die Emeis (1516)

D&D monster entries indicate that lycanthropes, i.e. werewolves and such, may only be harmed by silver or magic weapons when they’re in their animal form. The literary origin of this vulnerability to silver apparently comes only recently from 19th century German folklore. On a weapon and equipment list as concise Moldvay D&D’s, I find myself wondering that a full three items, silver arrows, silver daggers & wolfsbane, are about the killing and/or driving off of shapeshifters. If one had only page 12 from the 1981 edition of the game, one might guess its primary mode of play was in hunting werewolves. Was there some Appendix N fantasy fiction especially concerned with this kind of adventure?

I recall playing a Solomon Kane / Van Helsing-like character in 4th edition D&D. The GM, catering to my concept, threw some recurring wererats at us in the several sessions. Apart from that, I don’t actually recall any particularly memorable D&D arcs over the years that involved lycanthropes, either as a GM or a player and feel like I may have missed something there. Moldvay Basic details nearly as many kinds of were-creatures (five) as it does dragons (six)! In using B/X: Essentials and in the world-building for my game, I’m wanting to get at something cardinal to the origins of the hobby, so werewolves will be a going concern. Some werebears might also be appropriate.

In some Russian folklore, a werewolf is called an oborot (“one transformed”) and there’s an evocative ritual to become one involving circling a tree and stabbing it with a copper knife while chanting a peculiar rite. That’s a great seed for an adventure.

In the B10 Night’s Dark Terror module I’m hoping to incorporate, there’re a couple of werewolves named Bailakask & Kalkask that are vital to end of finding some important ruins along the Volaga river.

Some depictions of the grand prince of Kiev, Vseslav of Polotsk, had him not only as a sorcerer, but as a werewolf. More fodder.

The silver arrows and dagger of the classic equipment list also reminded me briefly of 3rd edition D&D’s damage resistance mechanic & how it did actually lead in one campaign to that edition’s mostly apocryphal “golf bag of weapons” i.e. one silvered weapon, one cold iron one for fey, a bludgeoning weapon for undead, etc. Good times.

Every House Rule a Resource or Relationship

I finished up a run of the Legacy RPG recently and am taking a break from GM’ing while I prep my B/X campaign. I am playing in a couple ongoing games though. The first of these is Ryuutama, which has me pondering resource management and travel rules, the second is Primetime Adventures, (our fifth series there?), which again has me thinking about the power of PC/NPC relationships in tabletop role-playing.

I like house rules because I dig hacking games to my own preferences and to those of the other players at the table. I enjoy the process of experimentation whether or not the ratio of success to failure is any better than 1:1.

A lot of the players in my community are interested in playing role-playing games “as written,” whenever possible. At least at first. Especially when it comes to old-school dungeoneering. Either they are around my age, want to revisit the game they played in their youth and have since discovered that they never actually played the game as written forty years back or they’re younger and are interested in the possibility of experiencing some “uncut taste” from a mystical “Golden Age.” In spite of my hacker core, part of me feels the same way. And what if my additions are nothing so much as baking soda?

There are convincing arguments that the "Golden Age” of old-school RPGs is all about adding and subtracting things. Tinkering with the form. Others have covered that thesis well.

I ultimately had several pages of house rules for the multi-year Dungeon Crawl Classics campaign I ran. It probably got to be a bit much for some of the players, but a lot of “extras” seemed a decent fit for that game with its various spell effects, critical and fumble results tables, etc. For a B/X game, I suspect fewer house rules would be preferred. Again, for the players I know and for initial sessions in particular.

Reading through The Nightmares Underneath recently, I was struck by its rules for developing social institutions for the civilized settlements adventurers return to. In TNU, as explorers spend coin at these institutions, the organizations grow in potency and become increasingly able to offer specialized goods, information and services. These rules, along with recent episodes of Daydreaming About Dragons and an old Against the Wicked City post (the hirelings bit in particular), got me thinking about ways I might add various game states and conditions I want to the campaign by adding them to the world itself rather than always to a house rules document. Employing exception-based design as games like Magic: the Gathering do, players get the benefit of a “purer” and simpler ruleset, but I get the house-rules I might want to try out. By tying game states to an NPC, a resource or an institution, one might gain richer world-building as well as further incentives for characters to explore, seek status & develop communities inside the fiction of the game. I’ll post in the future examples specific to my Lands of Khos setting, but here is a single case for a common hack:

Max HP at First Level

This house rule increases the survival rate for new PCs. It’s a long way to second level in Classic D&D. At 5 XP per giant centipede, many GMs consider this hack almost essential either to manage player frustration or to keep the game from dark comedy in a game that might otherwise be rules-as-written. Even Moldvay Basic nods towards a similar option where “the DM may allow a player character to roll again if the player has rolled a 1 or 2 for the number of hit points…” (B6). Max hit points at 1st level serves the secondary function of niche-protection. A Fighter with 1 h.p. doesn’t much feel like a character that can protect the others in their party relative to the high CON Cleric who starts with 7 h.p.

One could simply add this rule to a house rule document or mention it during character creation. It’s popular, common & few would bat an eye and/or feel they were being denied the hardcore mode of the original “old school.”

Some might though. And from what I’ve been reading and listening to lately, adding even this simple and typical house rule represents a missed world-building opportunity to create a relationship and/or a resource.

Nate Marcel.  Blood Caster,  mixed media on paper. From  The Nameless Grimoire , 2017, Metzger, Johnstone

Nate Marcel. Blood Caster, mixed media on paper. From The Nameless Grimoire, 2017, Metzger, Johnstone

What if everyone rolls their hit points and you get what you get? Or you at least employ the Moldvay option so there’s a slight chance a struck character yet survives? Now you’re playing on “Hurt Me Plenty mode.” The grognards and grogs-at-heart will smile.

But you, clever and secretly soft-hearted DM that you are, know there’s a Blood Caster named Zora who dwells in the forest somewhere near the keep where the campaign begins. You placed her there in this world. Zora is more-or-less on the way to one of the most likely destinations for adventurers. There are rumors about Zora among the keep’s villagers. They say she can bring you luck… for a price.

Zora wants something from the nearby Cave of the Unknown. If you swear you will retrieve it for her, she will quickly perform a blood sacrifice and you will receive Zora’s Boon. Zora’s blessing lasts for three days and nights and grants a PC one-half their HD +1 temporary hit points (i.e. 3, 4 or 5 hit points) every morning they wake. These daily temporary hit points are gone once lost, cannot be healed and represent a narrow miss or lessening of any damage otherwise received.

Consider how many birds may be felled by this design stone relative to “all PCs get maximum hit points at 1st level.” Should they decide to attend to the rumors about Zora and having met her, they agree to her terms, they’ve improved their chances to survive a single dangerous encounter each day as if they had near maximum hit points or better. They’ve gotten to speak with an enigmatic and hopefully interesting new associate. They’ve made a choice and expressed something interesting about their character; maybe the 3 hp acolyte of Freya is offended by something in Zora’s terms and decides to forgo her blessing! As a DM, you’ve eliminated a house rule and are playing closer to “rules-as-written.” Moreover, by making these hit points temporary you’ve thrown a wrinkle into the classic dilemma of the 5-minute adventuring day; Zora’s boon is time limited. The magic-user’s Sleep spell is exhausted, but should the party head back to the cave entrance and camp there or should they press on while they’re still under the aid of Zora’s sacrifice? Choices…

Unlike a house rule which, if changed, may exhaust both a GM’s memory and a player’s patience, Zora can always move along if you decide the “rule” is not quite right for your table. Or that it was fine while the PCs were 1st or 2nd level, but the extra hit points have outworn their welcome. On the flip side, the relationship with Zora holds the potential for further benefits and dangers, further experimental game states. "Zora the Blood Caster” contains more latent possibilities than a hit-point house rule. Zora can take care of herself, but she’s also a resource and a relationship that might be threatened in-game. More choices.

A popular modern house rule, All Shields Shall Be Splintered, operates under a similar design principle - how can we increase the survival rate for old school low-level D&D player characters while giving their players’ more choices?

Gary Gygax had his own list of house rules and began many of his campaigns at 3rd level. This may have been his way of molding the games he ran to the preferences of the players at his table. Some of his players may have tired of the ultra-high mortality inherent to playing 1st level characters rules-as-written. It’s a great house rule to that end! I wonder whether by examining every house rule through the lens of possibly converting it into an in-game resource or relationship, we might serve our own tables as well.

Whither Russia?

Matt Colville asked on Twitter recently “How is your campaign setting different from everyone else's? What's the weirdest thing about your world?” One of many replies was “It’s based on Eastern European/Russian folklore.“ I studied Russian history in college thirty years back and I’ve been working on my “Lands of Khos” dark faerie tale Slavic setting since shortly after The Witcher III dropped in 2015. I’m still far from finished, but it feels like there’s lately been a lot of material sprung from this zeitgeist in the D&D world. When I arrived home, I found my copy of Ussura had arrived. I decided a cursory review of some of the Slavic fantasy influences in D&D might make for a post or three. There are a lot of reasons a D&D game set in a fantasy version reflecting Slavic Eastern Europe/Russia elements makes a good fit. I thought I’d also maintain a living bibliography for those looking to build a world inspired by similar sources. A summation of what follows might easily be “My campaign world project is not all that weird.” A lot of dark faerie tale and Slavic fantasy game settings have proceeded it. I’m okay with that.

Ivan Bilibin,  Tale of Prince Ivan, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf  (illus.), 1899

Ivan Bilibin, Tale of Prince Ivan, The Firebird and the Grey Wolf (illus.), 1899

I never played in the default setting for 4th edition D&D, but I liked the description of it & felt like the whole “Points of Light” thing recalled something primal in Dungeons & Dragons. 4E’s Nentir Vale was described as a cold and sparsely populated land, a frontier dotted with ruins and monster lairs. It brought to mind Gygax’s Keep on the Borderlands, & reminded me of my early years play in Judge’s Guilds’ Wilderlands of High Fantasy setting. For me, part of D&D fundamental setting was always near post-apocalyptic. There was a Golden Age in the past where people and things we know little of constructed and dwelt in these amazing places that have since fallen into dissolution. The reason these dark corners haven’t been explored, (and this is where the adventurers come in), is not only because these places are dangerous, but also because the lands are… big. They contain a frontier so vast that one could spend lifetimes exploring it. It’s a place has enough of the familiar to make it relatable in game and narrative terms, but a place that is also strange and unfamiliar. To me, a westerner, that’s the draw of Russia -a concept that contains both West and East. A place of contradictions and therefore a place for my fantastical grotesques alongside Whitman’s multitudes.

Another common trope in Dungeons & Dragons for me are its connections to heavy and later “viking” metal music. I’m not as versed in this connection as many, but I’ve skimmed its surface at enough at least to absorb its shibboleths. You see it in the early artwork, in the popular conception of vikings, in R.E. Howard’s Conan, in other Appendix N fiction, and as a result, in many of the role-playing hobby’s early and current devotees. My roots in the hobby go back to the Satanic panic of the early 80s. From this mental space, my mind wanders to the Rurik dynasty, Kievan Rus’ and the Varangians. For me, the archetypal Dungeons & Dragons explorers were viking peoples & so it only makes sense that the borderland frontier for their adventures might be placed in a fantasy version of the East Slavic lands and beyond.

I’ll return here to edit and maintain all the resources I’ve been using to build my “own private Novgorod,” but for now I’ll point simply to the first in Basic D&D’s Gazetteer series The Grand Duchy of Karameikos (GAZ1) as an impetus for me to follow this Slavic path. I wanted to someday run the well-reputed adventure module Night’s Dark Terror (B10) which is contained within this duchy. I read of Karameikos’ Rugalov keep, its Patriarch Aleksyev Nikelnevich, its meandering Volaga River and my course was set.

Living Bibliography:

GURPS Russia S. John Ross, Steve Jackson Games Publications. S. Jackson Games, 1996.

Seeds on the Borderlands

M Meredith Williams,  Lagertha  lithography, 1913

M Meredith Williams, Lagertha lithography, 1913

1. This season's viking was unfruitful. Some clans log the forests of the borderlands west of here, repairing the ships that will bring them home for harvest. Your jarl has allowed you to travel and seek opportunities at the keep during this interval. Led by the shieldmaiden Kadlin, a dozen of your rival clan Tjärnholm are rumored to be scouting the keep in advance of a final raid. (Ftr)

2. Among other intents, you're to retrieve from the keep's armorer a suit of silver-ornamented chain mail for your captain. Due to a logistical error the suit is not yet paid for. Return to your captain empty-handed or find a way to pay for the suit and be compensated later? Your cousin Dražen is assistant to the smith Nazer. Dražen is brave, but his pockets are as empty as his head. (Ftr)

3. A confidante has informed you the jewel merchant Tikhon is quartered in the keep and the caravan he waits for will be delayed for weeks. You also know he secrets gems in his belt. He is reputed as cautious and you'll not likely get close to him without jewels of your own to sell. He’ll drop his guard if he’s inspecting a large gem. How to find such a thing? (Thf)

4. Your sister Mira and her new husband have been captured by the Spinebreak hobgoblins. If that witless honey merchant hired adequate protection she wouldn't be in this fix. Doubtless father's magical dagger Dustbringer she made off with after the wedding is missing now as well. She's always been there for you. Maybe it's not too late to find her. (Thf)

5. An ascetic priest from your village, Brother Dalibor, came to this region years ago. Some say he was a heretic, others that he held great wisdom and knowledge but was a bit touched in the head. You've been tasked to find him and entreat him to return to the order or, failing that, to request from him the Ring of Martyrs which he took from the elders when he left. Assuming he's still alive, he may be difficult to track down. (Cl)

6. A priest of your order, your mentor, directed you to ask the keep curate Radovan about rumors of an amulet worn by the dead-who-walk, a ward which makes it more difficult to turn them. If you recover such an amulet, Radovan may be able to teach your order how to nullify its potency. (Cl)

7. You've come into the possession of a fantastical magical formula. For all the good that is likely to do; the ritual requires a pound of ground owl beak! It is bad luck to kill an owl and this ritual would required scores of owl beaks. Unless you are clever enough and can find some way forward from this dilemma... Maybe you'll find answers at the keep. (M-U)

8. When the Spinebreak hobgoblins ambushed a honey caravan some weeks ago the seer Naum, your mentor, was traveling with them. He must have been struck down before he could wield the wand of paralyzation you know he always carried.  It's unlikely they know of its properties and have made kindling of it by now. But perhaps not! (M-U)

9. Your uncle Beinost, a naturalist warrior, and his partner Almithara indicated their intention to collect blistercress from the red alder trees of the swamplands in this area. That was three years ago. Someone sent word that Almithara was seen at the keep recently. It may be she knows where he was last wandering. (Elf)  

10. The raids upon your people by the Bonesnap goblins and Spinebreak hobgoblins have increased. Your leaders are occupied with even larger problems, but you have heard there is no love lost between these goblins and the Skulltooth orc tribe said to garrison near here. Perhaps they can somehow be turned against these goblins - use one trouble to fight another. (Elf)

11. In years gone by, your clan earned its reputation by the heroes among them who slew giants. You are setting out to make your own mark. There is an ogre by the name of Irok dwelling in these lands who has worked as sellsword for the hobgoblins which have raided your people. He is no giant but his death would increase your name. (Dwarf)

12. You escaped the torture chamber of the Spinbreak hobgoblins just a couple months ago! Your wounds have healed and you know the location of their cave entrance in the ravine near here. You also have a fairly accurate memory of the location of that hated chamber relative to the cave entrance and have drawn a map. With your comrades-in-arms, you are intent on paying back your stripes with interest. (Dwarf)