Wednesday, September 28, 2016

An Exercise in Improvisation, Procedural Generation, and Small Scale Adventuring

For a very long time, I've run games in the same setting. That is, a world that takes influence from aspects of the Early Modern Period, the Age of Sail, and Columbian Exchange in an island chain that is a pastiche of the Caribbean. There you see aspects of swashbuckling tales like The Three Musketeers and Pirates of the Caribbean, weird magic a la Clark and Howard, ancient aliens, gritty sword and sorcery, tales of endemic warfare, and Caribbean folklore, both Taino/Carib and Post Columbian. So you're likely to battle alongside hupia against vicious colonist militia men on the remains of an ancient alien space craft.

However, I've been really interested in trying a campaign where I control very little of the world itself. One that is as randomly created as humanly possible, from the hexmap to the landmarks and adventures that can be found. Doing this was to be an exercise in drawing inspiration from the random and interpreting results to be interesting for adventures, no matter how crazy it may combine. I want to improve my improvisation abilities and remain flexible against weird results, especially since it's a good preparation for dealing with the most random aspect of gaming; your players.

I also had a second goal for this. I've been playing a hell of a lot of Witcher 3 and in that game, you have all this adventure crammed into an area that could be smaller than a six-mile hex. So, I wanted to replicate that feeling of tons of adventure packed in almost 15,000 acres of land. I want each sub hex to have something there that was interesting. Whether it's tracks and spoor of a local creature, a lair of a demon, a city, ruins, landmark... anything that is interesting.

Doing this was interesting, as after a couple hours, I had enough adventures and a campaign that could easily last me weeks, if not months. The books I used were

  • d30 Sandbox Companion: An amazing toolkit that I probably used the most when doing this. I also used the d30 Terrain Hex Generator a great deal.
  • The Perilous Wilds: The second most used book. Even though it's Dungeon World, the Ask the Fates section was great for populating each of my sub hexes.
  • Hex Map Pack: I used this for my hex map. I preferred the 6:1 ratio, but you can use less granular ones if you wish.
  • Dodeca Series: Primarily the Weather generator, because I feel it's the most in-depth climate and weather rules out there. My game is meant to be a wilderness survival game, so weather is important. But everything else in this cheap book is really useful.
  • The Disoriented Ranger's Random Narrative Generator: Along side the adventure generator in the d30SC, +Jens D. blog really helped to add some interesting twists and complications to different things going on.
  • Dice Dungeon Generator: I used my dice dungeon generator whenever a dungeon or ruin rolled itself on my hex map.
  • Vornheim: Despite being a wilderness adventure, I also have a city and ruins to be explored. And this book has always been a staple in my games.
  • Adventure, Conqueror, King: I used this to stock my dungeons and for the economy. The world building aspect is really great too, but I didn't use that this time. Mostly it's because that's better for a top-down approach of campaign building and I was going from a bottom-up approach. If Lairs and Encounters ever come out, I'd love to use that.

My Approach

My only rules were to keep it as random as possible. Things like town names and NPC names and number were created by me.

  1. I started with a single six-mile hex and had several one-mile hexes as the sub hexes. Counting the half and third hexes as separate hexes, this gave me over forty adventuring locations in a single six-mile hex. 
  2. Using the d30 Hex Terrain Generator, I randomly rolled what the middle hex terrain would be, then rolled what each surrounding sub hex's terrain would be until I filled up the six-mile hex.
  3. I used the d30 Natural Features and Phenomena table to fill up the sub hexes with crazy stuff.
  4. I'd then roll a d3 to see how many special and interesting discoveries there were in a given hex. Then, using Perilous Wild's Discovery table, I rolled for each sub hex to see what would be there. I got a lot of threes so this took a bit. Next time I might skip the d3 roll.
  5. For each result of a dungeon, I used my Dice Dungeon Generator to create them. For things like ruins or intact keeps, I used Vornheim's building generator.
  6. I stocked the dungeons and ruins using ACKS, though I tweaked the table to have monsters that would fit a tropical setting. I also used this for treasure stocking.
  7. I rolled for the weather for 14 days. I started the campaign on a New Moon and set up tides at 8A/2P/8P/2A for times. Whenever I roll weather, I always seem to get a tornado result. It's become a joke among my friends.
  8. I then took a look at everything on the hex map and interpreted the results, making connections that seemed like they would work and filling in some results with monsters or NPCs that caught my eye. Also used the d30 NPC Maker to make a lot of NPCs for the area.
  9. For each possible adventure, I used the Random Narrative Generator. For simple quests, I only rolled on it once or twice. For more in depth adventures, I rolled three to four times, and for longer campaigns, I rolled five times.
  10. Made a random encounter table
  11. Had a beer
The original terrain map after rolling
Above is the preliminary hex map. Big hex is 6 miles and the sub hexes are 1 mile. The letters are the terrain for the area. W is water, H is hill, F is forest, S is swamp, and P is plain. WZ stands for Wild Zone, which is a campaign specific hex that I talk about here and here

At this point, I had made all the connections and was essentially ready to run the campaign. I wrote down all of the adventure ideas that I had randomly rolled up and interpreted and I have to say, I was really excited for what was created. The biggest thing I like is that each 1 mile hex has at least three interesting hooks in there for adventures. Everything from treasure maps to tracks of a creature to dungeons to NPCs. And the best part is that despite the results looking quite disparate, the adventure narrative between things really work out. On paper, this looks fun and I can't wait to run this for a group. Once I get my scanner working, I'll have to post my notes up on everything.

I learned that there is a greater value to random rolls than I honestly first imagined, even with my love of random tables. I feel a bit more in the right headspace for the world because I've had to interpret everything instead of creating, though there was plenty of creating from the inspiration of the rolls. I think that my improvisation skills will benefit from this little exercise. Now I just need  a chance to run it.

My next post, I want to post up the final map and the notes I made for each area that I rolled up. With the move and packing, my time will be a bit limited on what I can post.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Against Magic: Part 2 of Anticasting Series

My last post was about mages and some of the methods that mundanes can exploit to stop a loose cannon wizard from becoming an arcane tyrant. Some brainstorming caused me to think up more ideas. Some of these are inspired by the Witcher series, which is all about using alchemy and special materials to take down supernatural creatures.

Hallucinogens and other Mind Altering Substances

Being a caster requires some mighty mental discipline, unwavering faith, or extreme focus. You take that away and the caster just becomes a normal, albeit tripping, mortal like the rest of us. Many a mage hunter will keep these on hand to take down pesky magic users, though it can be dangerous for the user if using a smoking hallucinogen. That's why more often than not, mage hunters use digestible drugs in food to get to the mage.  

Tripping (Source)
Hallucinogens are primarily a role-playing issue rather than a poison. There isn't a saving roll for the drug itself. Rather, there are mental rolls to force a state of lucidity so you can take action. Otherwise, you are likely under the influence of mental illusions as you go through a bad trip.

Hallucinogen: When the mage is under the effect of a hallucinogen, whenever they wish to cast a spell, they must roll a d20 and add their casting stat to the roll. This is rolled against the following DCs (5e):

Weak Hallucinogen: DC 5
Moderate Hallucinogen: DC 10
Strong Hallucinogen: DC 15

If you are playing ACKS or similar like I do, then this is a Poison/Death roll with a +4/-4 modifier depending on the weakness and severity of the Hallucinogen.

Success means that they are able to pull it together for a brief moment and cast their spell normally. Failure means the spell is cast, but something changes. This is a great chance to use a Wild Magic, Chaos Magic, or other crazy magic table to roll on and see what happens. Go crazy with it. If you don't have one, you can use the following (until I make a crazy Wild Magic list).

  1. The spell doesn't work, but still uses up a slot. You take 1d4 damage per spell level.
  2. A different spell on your list is cast, GM's choice.
  3. The spell's cosmetics changes. Fireball becomes purple and grease smells like lavender.
  4. Something cosmetic changes either you or the target(s). Hair color, smell, clothes, gender, whatever you or the GM decides. It lasts for 1d6 hours.
  5. The spell casts for free, without using a slot.
  6. The spell heals you or your target for 1d4 per spell level.

Cerulean Smoke Bomb

Also called "devil's ink" and "bat smoke", this concoction was first brewed by assassins from a land of rajahs halfway across the world. Using the secrets of gunpowder mixed with ultramarine (ground lapis lazuli) and devilfish ink, alchemists create a smoke bomb that puts the victim in coughing fits and makes it hard to breath or see. What is interesting is that the smoke has the secondary effect of interfering with spell casting. The magic from the ultramarine and the ink blocks arcane, divine, and ki energy and makes it attack the user if pushed too far.

Lapis Lazuli

Cerulean Smoke Bomb: You can throw the smoke bomb up to 20 feet. The smoke fills up a 10 foot wide cube. Any one trapped in the smoke is blind. On the start of their turn, they must make a Constitution saving throw (5e) or a Poison/Death saving throw (ACKS). Success means you hold your breath long enough and can act normally. Failure means that they lost out on an action due to coughing fits. The victim can still move at half speed and end their turn. 

If the victim is a caster, then their casting goes haywire. While the caster is in the smoke, they cannot cast any spells. Leaving the smoke can give them a chance to be able to cast. Anytime the caster tries to cast a spell, they roll a d20 plus their casting stat against a DC 20. Success means the spell goes through. Failure means that the spell attacks the caster, dealing 1d4 Constitution damage. 

The cloud will dissipate after three rounds. The magic blocking effects on the caster lasts for 3 rounds after they leave the smoke cloud.

Monday, September 26, 2016


In the setting I run, there are several orders that are dedicated to keeping the balance between magic and mundane level, or in favor of the mundane. Some see themselves as keeping the peace in these dark times, while others actively look to protect normal folk and crush the arcane. Magic and its practitioners are dangerous to decent folk that neither have the strength nor fortitude to fight back. And looking at history, it's hard to argue against it. Wizards are capable of bringing a nation to its knees with their arcane strength, or force anyone to do anything they wish against their will. Clerics are somewhat more accepted among the populace. However, with constant crusades, forced proselytization, and religious persecution and oppression,  both pauper and prince are becoming more and more exasperated with divine casters. As for psionics and mystics, there is a general distrust of the antisocial hermits that have removed themselves from worldly matters. Not to mention their ability to mentally assault kings and peasants puts them in the same category as warlocks and witches.

Some of the worst villains and tyrants have been casters or supernatural creatures. Several people have come together to create organizations that will protect the world from the supernatural and level the playing field, using their magical weaknesses against them. Here they are, and some of their tools.

The Rational Quencha Empire

In the southernmost continent of Thivola lies a land of extremes. Rain forests that carpet an entire nation, mountain ranges that pierce the heavens, and silt desserts that house primordial sludge make up some of the more memorable areas of Thivola. Making their home in Etapu's Spine mountain range is the Quencha Empire. For a long time, it was a theocracy that united most of the continent under the banner of the earth god Etapu, but has since become a secular nation that oppresses religion.

Quencha is under the leadership of Ka Macha the Terse, a slave turned president that overthrew the theocracy and has reformed it. Much of the human sacrifice and mortification has be outlawed and many of the surrounding cities and tribes no longer have to be afraid of these murderous practices. Macha is very popular among the poor due to his philanthropy and laws enacted to make life better for the lower classes.

However, this has come at a cost. Much of the money used to pay for these laws and the military have come from wealthy casters. Clerics, shamans, and other divine casters have been charged with treason for consorting with other powers against the will of Macha and have their wealth and property taken from them and given to the government. And since the populace are weary of crusades and mass sacrifice, there is little sympathy for the casters. While the focus is currently on hunting the divine casters, wizards and psionicists alike seem to be next on the chopping block.

Tools Employed

Lobotomy: While many kingdoms in the world have experimented with surgery, the Quencha have taken the plunge into anatomy and autopsy. A common method to permanently remove a caster's abilities is to subject them to a lobotomy. The magic prisoner has their head opened and certain pieces of their cerebrum removed so that the caster cannot form spell thoughts in their mind. The caster is no longer capable of casting spells and is also mentally handicapped. This process is irreversible through mundane means and requires powerful magic to heal the mind again. Lobotomies are said to be done as a kindness to the mage, but in reality, they act to send a warning to other casters.

A character that suffers a lobotomy loses 2d6 INT, WIS, and CHAR permanently. A 0 in any of these stats means that they are catatonic, nonfunctional, or otherwise unplayable. If they are a caster, they lose any spell casting ability forever. Powerful spells like wish or miracle can reverse these effects.

Painted Mages: These are the spooks of the Quencha Empire. A magic secret police of sorts, the Painted Mages are an order of anti-casters that use special pigments to both increase their hunting prowess as well as locking the powers of a caster for a time. They call themselves mages as a sort of insult to real casters, as these are just exceptional mortals with magical paints. The pigments are all created from the ground up bones of a polydactyl vicuna and the blood of a minhoc√£o killed under a full moon. 

Different dyes allow the paints to have different effects on the user or the victim and higher concentrations of the blood and bone can make the effects greater (such as greater bull strength or more spell damage). The pains only have an effect if it touches the wearer's flesh. The effects last until the pained is wiped off with alcohol, or flake off after 1d4 days (2d4 if the painted target stays away from the elements and combat). Alcohol takes the paint off instantly, while water and sweat take 1d6 hours to wipe the pigments off. Below are the basics of the dyes.
  • Puka (Red) - a common dye crafted with red clay, this imbues the wearer with great power. The user is treated like they are under the effects of bull's strength (PF, 5e), vigor (ACKS), or giant strength of strange waters II (LotFP). This takes five minutes of precise painting on the user's body to work.
  • Willapi (Orange) - treated alder bark gives this dye its orange color. This dye is traditionally painted over the eyes of the wearer. Users that wear orange can see in even the deepest, magical dark as if it were broad daylight. This takes a minute to paint.
  • K'ellu (Yellow) - The sickly jaundice colored paint from a dyer's mulberry tree and ground achiote makes the wearer sick anytime they cast a spell or use a magic ability. Casting a spell does Xd6 damage, where X is the spell level of the cast spell. Painting a victim takes an action and is treated like if it were a weapon attack.
  • K'omer (Green) -  a verdant green imbues the wearer with healing abilities. The wears can spend an action to regain a single hit die plus Constitution modifier worth of health. This takes three minutes to paint the intricate designs on the wearer's body.
  • Sut'ijankas (Blue) - made from lapis luzali ground into ultramarine, this is the most important pigment in a painted mage's arsenal. Painted a symbol of a seal on the mage's torso, head, wrists, and ankles prevents them from casting. Useful for transporting a mage to a close-by area. Painting these seals requires a helpless and nude victim and can take five minutes.
  • Kulli (Violet) - crafted from treated brazilwood, these regal pigments are rare and saved for the higher ranking painted mages. It gives the user king's sight, the ability to see through lies instantly. With a successful Perception roll against an enemy's Deception (or Wisdom against Charisma), the user also sees the flaws in the target's body. The user gains an advantage (5e) or a +4 on all attack rolls against the victim for 1 minute. This takes a minute to paint on your eyes.
These paints are not without danger. Wearing any of these magical pigments (except blue) force the user to make a Fortitude save of DC 12 + 1 for every color they are wearing (5e) or a Poison/Death saving throw with a +1 penalty for every color they are wearing (ACKS). This check is made everyone half hour. The difficulty increases by 1 for everyone half hour you wear the paint. Failing the check means that you a poisoned and take 1d4 Con damage every hour. Further successes don't heal the poison and you can only cure it by wiping the pigments off of your skin. Repainting yourself must wait for a day after you wash the colors off or else the penalties to the saving throws remain. The life of a Painted Mage is a dangerous but valuable one. There exists talk of secret dyes that are kept only for the most dangerous mages and the strongest of the Painted Mages.

There will be more ideas and items for anticasters in the future, as well as more about the Quencha empire.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Stealth Part 2: The Rules

The Rules

In this ruleset, stealth is simplifies to the Stealth roll. Generally, the players only have to make one roll for their characters that will last until they are spotted, or until they enter a new area in the lair they are sneaking into. Players can move normally when sneaking, but going slower than their base speed and making themselves harder to find (crouching, crawling, camouflage) can give them up to a +4 bonus to the roll. Doing anything that would jeopardize the stealth (running full speed, stomping, etc.) gives you up to a -4 to Stealth. Anyone in any armor (or no armor) can sneak without penalty if they go slow.

There are ascending modes of espionage. These help to denote what kinds of actions the enemy would take. The GM can control and guide their behavior accordingly. Different actions can lead to different modes of stealth. When it mentions passive Perception, that's a 10 + Perception Skill and other modifiers, while the active Perception is an actual 1d20 roll + Perception Skill and other modifiers.
  • Infiltration: This is where a lot of stealth begins. The enemy is unaware of your presence and your Stealth roll is rolled once against the enemies' Passive Perception. The stealth roll is successful until they run into a guard with a higher Perception Skill or they attempt to do some action that could alert them to their presence. You can perform stealth kills without an attack roll, but it does require another Stealth roll. If you are caught and your presence has been relayed to the rest of enemy hideout, you can no longer enter this mode until you leave for an extended amount of time (days at minimum).
  • Suspicion: When an enemy has noticed your presence, but is unaware of your position. Suspicion Mode activates whenever you fail a Stealth roll by 4 or less. Perhaps they heard you kick a brick, or they smelled your stench as you passed by. Or maybe you threw a rock to distract them. You can hide, sneak by them, or kill them. You can still perform a stealth kill, but it requires both an attack roll and a Stealth roll so others nearby don't hear you. 
  • Discovered: You've been spotted! This happens if you fail your Stealth roll by 5 or more, or otherwise do something to get spotted. The game enters combat time at this point, so roll initiative. The players can engage in fighting, or flee and drop to Pursuit Mode. If word of your presence doesn't make it out during combat and you kill/disable all witnesses, you can drop back down to Infiltration Mode. Otherwise, go straight to the Pursuit.
  • Pursuit: You've been discovered and are being chased by the enemy. You and your allies must lose your would-be captors and find a better way to hide or disguise yourself. You must break line of sight for a minute or two before dropping to Search Mode. And using Stealth goes against everyone's active Perception roll. Your pursuers will scour the area quickly, closing off exists, tracking you, setting a perimeter, and otherwise try and stop you from escaping.
  • Search: The enemy has lost sight of you, but is actively searching for you. The enemy will be very active and search all of the rooms in many hiding places (under the bed, in a locker, behind curtains). So be careful when hiding against their active Perception roll. The enemy will be searching for you for a while, at least an hour or two. After some time of not finding you, it'll drop to Caution Mode.
  • Caution: The enemy and their allies know of your presence and your existence, but have lost your position for a while and are now back on their patrols. Guards are alert and smarter, travelling in pairs to patrol the area tighter. Whenever a player sneaks by a patrol, they must use Stealth against the patrol's active Perception roll. This becomes the new default after you are discovered by the enemies in the hideout. You can stealth kill as if you were in Infiltration Mode.

Stealth Kills

Stealth kills are brutal strikes that may immediately kill a creature. You can only do this in Infiltration, Suspicion, and Caution Mode. When you make one, you do double the damage to the enemy. You can also apply your sneak attack after you multiply the damage. If you are using a called shot system, then use those multipliers instead.

Whenever you make a stealth kill in Infiltration or Caution mode, you must make a Stealth check to make sure you don't get discovered. If you fail by 4 or less, you damage your target but surrounding enemies are now suspicious and will investigate the noise. If you fail by 5 or more, then the stealth kill fails and your target has now discovered you. Prepare for a fight!

In Suspicion Mode, if you miss your attack but pass your Stealth roll, you remain unseen. If you hit the attack and fail the Stealth roll, then you do the damage but surrounding enemies are now suspicious and will investigate the noise. If you fail both rolls, then you miss and are now discovered by your target.

If your stealth kill doesn't do enough damage to kill your target, then you are discovered and combat begins. You may choose to instead incapacitate the target, taking whatever penalties you would depending on your system of choice.

Killing people leaves bodies, which have a chance to be discovered by the enemy's allies. The GM rolls a d100 every twenty minutes to see if someone finds the body. If you simply leave the body out in the open, then there is a cumulative 15% chance that someone discovers it. If you hide it in a good, out of the way spot, then the chance is dropped to 10% or even 5% for a really good spot. Every additional kill adds another 15, 10 or 5% to the roll. Disposing a body in a way where it can never be found is still a 5% chance, since eventually someone will notice that the guard is missing. So be careful on how many people you decide to kill.

Example: Randy the Rogue is sneaking into Rogar the Orc's war camp. He has just killed an orc and has stashed the body in a covered cart. Since this is a good spot that not many will look at, the GM just rolls for a 10% on the d100. After twenty minutes, it becomes 20% chance of finding the body. At this point, Randy kills another orc and hides the body really well under some crates and supplies that won't be used for awhile. This adds 5% to the percentile roll. After twenty minutes, the GM rolls 35%, 30% for the first body and 5% for the second one. If Randy continues sneaking for another twenty minutes, this will increase to 50%, 40% for the first body and 10% for the second. Randy had better be careful!

Stealth and Combat

Stealth in combat is tricky, as everyone is alert to your presence and actively guarding. Hiding behind something while the target watches then attacking from there won't work. You have to move silently from there to a new angle of attack with a Stealth roll. If you hide from an enemy for a turn and then attack from a completely different position, or while they are distracted, you can get advantage against the victim and sneak attack damage, An enemy being attacked by two or more creatures is distracted enough for you to make a Stealth roll against their Perception roll.

Example: Randy the Rogue is in combat with a terrible orc. Randy hides behind a crate as the orc watches. If Randy just stays there and tries to attack, he won't get any sneaking advantage (sneak attack). Randy needs to distract the orc or otherwise make it difficult for the orc to sense him. This could be removing the light in the area, poking the orc's eyes, a smoke bomb, or any good idea that your player can come up with. After that, Randy can roll Stealth against the orc's Perception to move to another hiding place and hide, ready to strike.

Final Thoughts

These are the basic rules I use for stealth in my games. While the modes may seem overly complicated, I find they act as good references for actions that NPCs will take against the PCs when caught. Most of the modes have the same rules, just different NPC behavior. You'll find that they naturally lead into each other. And things don't have to end with these above behaviors. You can and should have the enemy speed up whatever they were doing, or even begin moving to a different lair if it's possible. These rules leave the NPC actions firmly in your control. And from my experience, this escalation/deescalation helps to give the players a bit more actions to take when things go belly up to remain quiet. So far, things have been pretty fun with using this. I even use these for things like Disguise, or tailing someone.

So let me know what you all think about it. Give it a try and see if it works in your game. And if all attempts at stealth fail, just remember...

Monday, September 19, 2016


Stealth is weird. Sneaking around has always been an odd point of contention at the tables I've played at. Perhaps it's my experience, but many of the GMs I've played with seem to not enjoy the idea of players sneaking through their entire enemy base and stealth killing the prepared final boss. Now, I do love me the epic final boss fight as much as the next guy. But, it is pretty lame when you and your fellow players go through all the planning, actually execute the stealth procedure, and as you get to the final boss, the GM simply squashes the stealth in a metagamey way. It removes the idea of choice and consequences if all of options have the same outcome.

Once thing about stealth that I don't like is the binary nature of success and failure people seem to have with it. If you (or chances are, your heavy armored fighter) fail your stealth, then that's it. Suddenly, everyone in the area is alerted to your presence and it's time to draw swords. When failure is that binary, there is a tendency to simply skip it and just go in swords blazing. Especially when the players probably have the damage and spells to just bust in and slaughter everyone.

Finally, even if players properly execute the stealth mission, if it's not run the right way, stealth can be super boring with an unsatisfying end to it. Stealth kills are great and all, but admittedly, it can be a bit anticlimactic to slit the level 10 Warlord's throat in one go without the fanfare and hooplah of a final fight. And stealth kills are also a bit hard to wrap one's head around, especially with the game concept of hit points. Should a level 1 fighter be able to one hit kill a level 10 fighter if the latter is completely unaware? Is that a problem, or is that fine?

How I Approach This

So, before I get into the rules, I want to get into the mindset of stealth and espionage. I feel that with sneaking, the journey is more important than the destination. So if you have a precious boss fight you want to throw at your players, just get rid of any attachment to it, because they will die. Really, it's a good idea not to be so attached to your NPCs in the first place, stealth or not. So let them slit the wizard's throat if they succeed and never get caught. And if they fuck up hard, then you have a great climactic battle ahead of you. 

Instead, focus a bit more on the stealth aspect. Have a lot of close calls and snags that the players run into. That makes the sneaking action much more interesting than just dodging guards effortlessly. Have them balance over some bandits eating their meal, or their disguise being put to the test by a crowd of soldiers. The tension and near misses are the most interesting parts. You wouldn't have a dungeon with nothing in the rooms. That'd be boring. Get creative.

Also, we should take a page out of different movies and video games and not have stealth be so binary. If a person fails their sneaking roll by a slim margin, I say have the guard hear something suspicious and walk towards the source of the nose. It opens up some more options that the player can try and attempt to use to diffuse the situation. Does the player kill the guard, or move to a different spot, or stand perfectly still? Makes things a bit more interesting and it helps to extend out the stealth sequence and make it a worthwhile method to the players. I also find that in more lethal and visceral games like LotFP and ACKS, players are more incentived to go quiet for fear of dying.

Speaking of lethal, how do we handle stealth kills in a game with ever increasing HP? For me, I think I'm okay with the players being able to do take downs, but there are things to consider when killing a guard. First is the sound a dead person makes, whether it's the scream or the body hitting the floor. Someone may hear that if the killer doesn't act quietly while he murders someone. Second is what to do with the dead body? If you don't dispose of it, then you run the risk of someone discovering the dead body and alerting their friends. So as a player, you have to decide if killing the guard is worth the trouble.

Of course, if the players get discovered, then the stealth plan may go out the window. Realistically, it doesn't have to. Consider the Metal Gear Solid games. It starts with Infiltration Mode, where you are sneaking around and not getting caught. When you are caught by a guard, you get into Alert Mode. As long as they can see you, they will attack you. Once you stay out of line of sight for a time, they get into Evasive Mode. They still know you are around and are actively search for you in the more obvious spots. After some time, the game will go into Caution Mode. They have lost sight of you and everything is like Infiltration Mode, except now they are much more active and aware. They will act smarter, keep a keen eye out, and travel in pairs or groups. So, when I was making these rules, I decided to use that for my game. I believe that it can be used to great effect to give stealth different layers of failure and success, and it helps the players find an alternate way of sneaking to continue or escape.

I do have a set of rules I've used a couple of times to good effect for sneaking around. It seemed to make things better while still remaining simple. Once I'm able to post them up, I'll get them in. I can probably do it tomorrow, or even tonight. How have you all run stealth situations and what has helped you in running them?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Lunar Cycles and Tides

The moon and the tides have helped to shape human civilization for millenia. From maritime activities to the simple wonder of the bright celestial body in the night sky, we owe a lot to these natural phenomena. So, I want to write up some simple ideas for using them in a campaign. Let's begin with the moon. Mind you, this only really works if you have one moon, but I imagine you can use the concepts presented here for multiple moons (or ditch them entirely).

Moon Cycles

The moon of Earth is a tidally locked satellite that orbits our planet every 27.8 days. We'll simplify this to just 28 days because I hate decimals. Because it is tidally locked, we always see the same face of the moon most nights. For game terms, we'll have only the important four lunar cycles; new moon, first quarter, full moon, last quarter. Every seven days you'll have a different section of the lunar cycle in the night sky and they will loop back into each other endlessly every 28 days. You'll also notice the in-between sections for crescent and gibbous moons. An easy way to remember gibbous is that it's inverted, like a black crescent moon. When the moon is becoming full, then it is waxing, and when it is becoming new, it is waning.

Source: Wikipedia


As we now know, the tides are controlled by the moon. Depending on the location of the moon will decide whether we have high or low tide. In game terms, the tides come in and out twice a day. So you'll have two high tides and two low tides. We can have these happen at 6 hour intervals of your choosing. For a bit more realistic tides, you can have the next day's tide times happen about 40 minutes later than the previous day's, but it's not necessary. 

When the tide is coming in, we call that the flow tide. When it reaches it's maximum, that is high tide. You'll see a lot of flooded beaches during this. When the water begins to recede, that is the ebbing tide. When this reaches its lowest point, that is low tide. You will see a lot more of the sand and ocean floor revealed to you. When the tides cease to move, usually at the peak of high and low tide, or when the flow and ebb has stopped, that is slack tide. The different between low and high tide can be one of a couple of feet in depth and several feet in distance from the coast to the ocean.

Tides in the UK on the same day
But that's not all. The phase of the moon can make tides weaker or stronger than normal. The stronger tide is called the spring tide and the weaker tide is called the neap tide. The diagram below shows when this happens. Like the lunar phases, it happens every seven days and alternates between spring tide and neap tide. Generally, it'll lag a little behind the phase of the moon by one or two days. For this exercise, we'll say one day. 

Now What?

So now that we know all this, how do we use this? The tides and their link to the lunar phases have been known as far back as ancient Greece. And they have had a great impact on coastal civilizations for centuries. So some ideas for applying it to game terms.

  • Great for nautical games that highly depend on the wind and tides to leave and enter bays.
  • Low tide can uncover a secret burial area by the coast.
  • High tide hides a secret cavern that leads to treasure. When it's low tide, you can enter it, but traversing it is difficult. High tide, you can easily swim to the different chambers, but it'll be hard to bring stuff out. Not to mention what creatures the tide brings in.
  • Low tide reveals a land bridge that leads to a set of ruins, or even an island city that is accessible by bridges.
  • High tide can empower water and healing magic, while low tide might stymie it, or instead it empowers earth magic.
  • Divination using the tides and what they reveal can be used by scryers and seers.
  • Different lunar phases can illuminate the night sky, if only up to dim.
  • The different phases can empower different types of magic. Full moon could empower healing and holy magic while the new moon powers summoning and divination magic.
  • Lycanthropy is the obvious pointer. You can even say that a ritual during the new moon can help to cure it. Or a ritual under the full moon can make the shift controllable.
  • Different deities and protectors of the tides and phases can exist and praying to them at that time can elicit boons.
  • Different phases of the moon shining on a dungeon can open different portals that lead to other areas.
  • Connections between our world and the spirit world are strongest under a full moon, while the new moon brings in demons and monsters into our world.
  • Full moons seem to bring out the worst in people as well as animals. Monsters and creatures become more wild and some people can suffer from lunacy.
  • A blue moon (the rare fourth moon in a season) can be the perfect time for a terrible ritual to summon demonic creatures or gather great power. You could even get a wish granted.
  • Or the moon could hide a terrible moon presence (spoilers for Bloodborne).
Grand Be during low tide at St. Malo, France
These are what I could come up with. I'd love to see what other ideas people have for using the tides and the lunar phases in their games. Truthfully, before I became a chef, I was into meteorology and I've always had a love of the cycles of nature. So admittedly this is a bit of a self indulgence of that for me, but hopefully this will be useful for those that run great nature campaigns. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Slice of Life

Something I was musing on was different tones of adventures. Whenever we as GMs write up adventures, generally they are adversarial. Something bad happens and the players react to it. In many circles, we like to increase the badness with more adult oriented and realistic issues (genocide, murder, rape, etc.). There are varying degrees on this based on player comfort and such, but generally, increasing the impact of the antagonists and their crimes and plots are common to us GMs. A lot of it is because we want to make memorable villains and plots

I wonder though, has anyone tried doing a scenario without an antagonist? I suppose I mean that the players run through an experience rather than a plot?

Once example of this I did was back a couple of years ago. The players held a festival honoring their fallen comrade who was a great patron to the kingdom they owned. The festival lasted the entire game session and it was made up of events, roleplaying, carnival games, and ended with the cremation of the character. There were no antagonists or bad guys, save for some friendly competition in the archery contest. But ultimately the players had a great deal of fun with a calmer, more slice of life adventure. Plus, it really cemented their place in the game world since the festival was in the dead PC's honor.

I'd like to do more adventures like this, especially after doing a heavy, dark adventure. What are some examples of these slice of life games that you found were great? How did they work out, and what are some good ideas on running more?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Sandboxes and Quagmires

I generally don't like doing advice blogs since there's a million opinions, but I can't quite get this topic outta my head. So here we go.

Since 2010, when I cracked open Paizo's Adventure Path Kingmaker, I have been enamored with the sandbox game (and hexcrawls in general). The idea of running a more player-driven game where the PCs choose where to go and what to do is really appealing. There is something nice about seeing your players getting invested in the game and in many ways, doing the GM work for you. And as a player, having that total freedom is pretty awesome. It's something you can't get from video games, even open world ones like The Witcher 3 or Skyrim.

Sandbox gaming is very common in the OSR community and for good reason. That freedom is awesome, but also it's great for the open table style of gaming, which is great for us adults that simply may not have the schedule to do a consistent campaign. Among the community, sandbox gaming is seen as the way best way to game and believe me, there are many grognards that would certainly defend that.

Unfortunately, sandboxes have their pitfalls, especially to those new to them. And in the last six years, I've experienced them all.

Pitfalls of Sandbox Gaming

In a sandbox, especially the more West Marches style, there is very little in the way of structure or concrete goals for players coming in. Aside from generally "rob the tomb, fight monsters, get rich". Nothing wrong with that, but for players not used to this style of gaming, the freedom of choice can get overwhelming and cause option paralysis. The game suddenly becomes one of "what do we do today guys?" and can grind to a halt. I have run sandboxes with new players that have bogged down because players really didn't know what to do.

There are more ways that a sandbox can slow down. A common factor I see with both new and experienced sandboxers is that with player choice, you have players that want to do their own thing. Generally, my experience is that you'll have two players that want to do different things, with other players neutral on what adventure they want to do. This happens because while there is the freedom of choosing your adventures in a sandbox, the team still has to agree on what they want to do. A gaming group follows general social dynamics, so you'll have one dominant player that will try and steer the group in a direction while another dominant player will want to do a different direction. And the other players generally don't care as long as they have fun, so no one really takes sides and it becomes an argument over what we should do that night. When running a sandbox, it is important for the players to have some sort of way to decide where they go next so that everyone gets a turn. Voting, choosing, picking straws... whatever works. But even with this, you will still have a person that is left choosing last, and depending on the adventure, they could have to wait weeks or even months. As a GM, you'll really have to step in and adjudicate things when this happens, or else game night could be ruined.

A common fix to both of these problems of inaction and arguing is to "have a guy with a gun kick down the door and attack". That is, throw some interjecting problem at them that they have to deal with right now. That does have its issues in a sandbox game.

With sandbox gaming, the style really emphasizes player agency and is seen as the opposite to adventure paths and railroading. However, most players confuse what player agency really means. Player agency is the player's ability to have a meaningful choice in what to do. If a player wants to do something, they have the freedom to attempt to do it. However, many players misunderstand this term and believe it means they have control over the fate and narrative direction of their character. In addition, players get rather attached to their characters the longer they play them. So, when they have to deal with a negative consequence to an action their PC did, or an interjecting problem out of nowhere, things once again grind to a halt as the player(s) get upset about it. This gets more exacerbated with games like Dungeon World, where narrative control is shared by the DM and the players. You'll have people breaking out the accusations of railroading and things bog down.

I think the most common issues I've seen is that with player option, you will have players that will do things that the team doesn't like. Maybe the character antagonizes an NPC that the other PCs are interested in bartering with, or does something that genuinely offends a player in the room. Eventually, a player or more will get disruptive and start becoming an obstacle to the team as a whole. Sometimes, all of the players get in the way of each other. This is because players are coming in and wanting to portray, experience, roleplay, and do things for their characters in a vacuum and eventually, this will conflict with the other players doing the same thing. And again that "player agency" term will rear its ugly head and players will get mad that the other is trying to stymie their game. And boy will things muck up

The Quagmire

Muck up is a good description for what I'm describing. If a railroad campaign is the eventual extreme of the adventure path style of gaming, then I would say that the extreme to a sandbox is the quagmire. A quicksand like pit that bogs everyone and everything down until you cannot escape.

I may have an unhealthy obsession with Pokemon
The issue I see is that the sandbox is player driven, but people take that to the extreme. In the case of the players, they see it as them taking some form of metagame control over the fate and story of their characters. Being given too much freedom can be detrimental to the game, especially when that choice isn't tempered by the feelings and thoughts of your fellow players. It's very easy to do things that sabotage other players and claim it was in the name of roleplaying and staying in character. That freedom will also bite you in the ass when everyone wants to do something different. Basically, everyone is out to make their own awesome sand castle, but there isn't enough sand for everyone's castle. So now people are kicking over sand castles to make theirs bigger and bigger.
For the GM, I notice that sometimes, you get lax in adjudicating and instead remain a neutral force. I find that this happens because of the player driven part of sandboxes. Mentally, I feel that because the players drive the action, the GM sits back and lets them deal with the big issues while you just throw NPCs and monsters at them. It's really for this to happen since being a GM can be a lot of work, so having players doing the heavy lifting for you is really nice. I know I have done this on many an occasion. Also, especially for new GMs in the sandbox, you sometimes don't want to come down with the GM hammer for fear of being a railroading judge. 

After dealing with these, sometimes you just want to give up and run simpler modules. I'll admit, after seeing some hexcrawls implode, I kind of crave the simplicity of running an adventure path or module. But we don't have to give up and throw out the baby with the bathwater. So what can we do for this?

These are my non-negotiables for running a sandbox. This goes for players and GMs.

1. Gaming isn't a story, or a game, or a competition. Gaming and game nights are social activities done between friends and peers to have fun. Ultimately, we as players and GMs need to remember that. This is a social group and the things we do as player characters are not done in a vacuum. So we have to remember to keep our peer's feelings in our minds when we make decisions, because that is more important than emulating a genre trope or simulating reality. We can't just do whatever we want, get mad when someone gets offended, and hold our breath until we get our way. And at the same time, we can't get offended with everything and deal with everyone issue with some kind of righteous indignation. When an issue arises in game, we have to chill out and talk it over. Cooler heads prevail and it's easy for things to get heated and leave bad feelings. If you can't talk things out reasonably and compromise like a fucking adult, then you don't have any business gaming. Period.

2. Talk with the players before the campaign even starts and let them know that this is a player driven game where you can make whatever choice you want. But, and this is important, impress the idea that this is a living, breathing world and that with this freedom of choice comes the burden of responsibility for them. All actions and inactions have consequences, positive or negative. And sometimes, things bigger than them will happen and they will have to react accordingly. Impress this to them over and over again if you have to. 

3. Sandboxes need to have some sort of structure and goal. By doing this, it helps to keep your players focused on something while they go after their own goals on the side. It also gives something for players to fall back on when they don't really know what to do. 

4. Having bonds between PCs is great. Many times in sandbox games, I see the same ragtag group of scoundrels and rogues out for number 1. While OSR games do focus on what the players do rather what they have done, there is something to be said about having preexisting backgrounds with each other. I find that more often than not, it helps the group mesh better and many of the issues of sandcastle kicking I mentioned above don't happen as much. Also, with backgrounds, you have some delicious hooks you can use.

5. GMs, don't get lazy. I think sandboxes need more GM adjudication more than any other style of gaming. It's really easy to sit back and let the players and the dice do your job. But, you have to be active in squashing anything that can bog down the game or more dangerously, break up the gaming group. You are the leader and probably have the most important job in the social group. Be active, assertive, and fair.

Doing these can help to prevent your game from becoming a quagmire and help make your sandboxes memorable and fun. It has certainly worked for me.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Another Stat Rolling Idea

So full disclosure, I'm not really a fan of rolling dice for character creation. Never was, even playing through 2nd and 3.x as a kid. I prefer point buy. With my recent foray into OSR gaming, I really gave it a try with ACKS and other systems, but ultimately, it's not my cop of tea. That's a post for another day. So I was brainstorming a way to combine point array and dice rolling. Kind of a compromise. This was actually done for a project I'm working on.

For the three stats, you have six numbers you can plug in. 2, 3, 4, 4, 5, and 6. Put those in any of the stats you have. Once all six numbers are in each of the six stats, you can then roll 3d6, drop the lowest and add the number. That's your stat now. So, if I have a 4 in STR, and I roll a 4, 2, and 5, then I'd replace the 2 with a 4 and have a STR 13.

For the rolling, you could do it a number of ways. You can have them roll it first, then assign it later. That tends to make more powerful characters. You could have them choose the stat, roll it, and keep it. You could also do something in between and let them switch two values. It's up to you. Doing practice rolls this seems to work pretty well. I tend to notice average characters with one or two really good stats, mostly average stats, and one bad stat.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016


In misty bogs and hazy swamps lie a cousin to the will o wisp, the mothlight. The mothlight is a glowing diaphanous orb of smokey light with gossamer tendrils that trail behind it as it dances in the moonlight. To many, they look like the colored blobs that appear when you close your eyes. Mothlights sway and flash hues of orange and blue to fascinate and entrance mortals that happen upon them. Despite their alien beauty, mothlights are existential predators. When a mortal gets too close to it, the mothlight drapes its tendrils around the creature and feeds on its thoughts and psychic energy. Mothlights will gorge on a creature's mental energy until it becomes braindead. The mothlight will then bloom and release smaller glowing polyps that will eventually move on and grow into full mothlights of their own.

Despite popular belief, the mothlight is not a creature, but mere a shadow of a creature from a higher dimension. Because our minds are three dimensional, we simply cannot fathom its true form, so we can only see the glowing shadow when it bleeds into our world. While in its dimension it is considered a mere animal, in our world the mothlight creature has a keen intellect that rivals most mortals. The creature will come into our realm through thin films between our world and the higher world, swimming through angles and hovering about through nature. It can't move much in our dimension, or perhaps it simply prefers to wait in ambush away from cities. Its shadow, the mothlight, attracts mortals through means unknown, where it can devour our thoughts. After you've seen the shadow, it's generally too late to run away. Even closing your eyes fail, as your own phosphenes betray you and guide you closer to the mothlight.

By Alexander Semenov
The only known way to escape the fascination effect is through over stimulation of your other senses. When going into an area infested with mothlights, it is best to bring smelling salts, gunpowder, or anything that can make loud noises or strong smells. Flash paper is also a good idea but rare and blinds you, which may not be preferable. After using any of those, run away. Only those with an intimate knowledge of higher order mathematics and physics can hope to kill the creature. Even third dimensional magic can't work. Only by mapping out the location with advances equations, or opening your mind to the higher dimensions through meditation, hallucinogens, and astral projection can give you a chance at attacking the creature. But that's a post for another time.


Phototaxi: Make a Magic saving throw. On a failure, you must do a full movement towards the mothlight. You can do a single action if you succeed on another Magic saving throw. When you reach the tendrils, each turn you lose 1d6 intelligence. When you reach 0 INT, you become brain dead.

I like jellyfish. This also makes the third monster I've made inspired by the way a Pokemon looks.

The first two being Nincada and Mimikkyu