Sunday, 24 October 2021

Game-enhancing powers, game-ruining powers, and yet more magic items

I've been running OSR D&D more-or-less weekly for over five years, now, with a heavy focus on exploration, problem-solving, and diplomacy. Combat happens, but I learned early on that the kind of combat power-ups that most later D&D editions obsess over were almost irrelevant: when most fights are either one-sided ambushes or desperate fighting retreats, the shift from 1d8 damage to 1d8+2 damage is really not that big a deal. My players regularly forget which magical weapons their PCs are carrying. What they never, ever forget is exactly who is wearing the Ring of Invisibility to Undead. 


FORGOT WHO WAS WEARING THE RING.

Whether in the form of magic items or spells, I've tended to give my PCs access to lots of utility magic, in order to enable the kind of improvisational problem-solving on which such games thrive. But there's utility and then there's utility, and a power with too few limitations can quickly break a game. Previous games, for example, taught me the hard way that giving PCs high-speed at-will flight is a genie that's really hard to get back in its bottle once released, trivialising everything from difficult terrain ('I fly over it') to tripwires and pressure plates ('I fly over it') to melee-only enemies ('I fly over it and kite it to death'). And the Team Tsathogga game taught me that even the humble Charm Person could become hard to manage once the PCs had enough spell slots. ('We hide in the bushes and cast Charm Person on him twelve times! One of them's bound to work!')

Of course, these problems are context-dependent. A more superheroic game could probably have taken both flight and mind control in its stride. (Although maybe not: every Exalted game I ever played in ended up crashing and burning due to the difficulty of challenging PCs with near-unlimited powers of mobility, persuasion, information-gathering, and stealth.) But assuming you're after something resembling traditional fantasy, in which 'a castle' or 'a troll' is a dangerous but solveable problem to a clever and well-equipped party of adventurers, then here are my notes on the kinds of powers that make for good, enjoyable problem-solving tools, as well as the kind that can easily spoil things for everyone unless counterbalanced by significant downsides or limitations, and a handy list of magic items to go along with both... 


The Good Stuff - abilities that facilitate creative and intelligent play

  • Levitation: Slow, vertical-only flight. Allows for all kinds of ingenious problem-solving but requires careful set-up, not particularly useful in combat, and generates hilarious mental images, especially if you allow levitating characters to be moved horizontally by party members pulling them along on ropes from below!
  • Invisibility: This might seem very powerful, but if it genuinely is only invisibility - meaning that you still make sounds, leave scent trails, make footprints, etc - then there are so many potential failure points and counter-measures that it's more likely to be used as an ingenious component of a cunning plan rather than as a slam-dunk victory condition. Partial invisibility (e.g. you still cast a shadow) is even better. 
  • Illusions: The power to create intangible visual and/or audible illusions enable more demented ingenuity than just about any other ability. Endlessly flexible, and the lengths that PCs will go to in order to make sure no-one reveals the trick by just touching their illusionary treasure / monster / whatever are the stuff that truly insane PC plans are made of.
  • Tunnelling: Magical dig-through-stone-walls tunnelling can often short-circuit scenarios, especially in dungeon environments, but having a character with the ability to burrow through sand and loose dirt at semi-realistic speeds opens up all kinds of unorthodox approaches to break-ins, getaways, etc. 
  • Light and darkness: These are good, flexible powers with a wide variety of uses relating to stealth and detection, most of which require a bit of set-up if PCs are going to get the most out of them. (If you're going to use darkness to cover your escape, how will you see while inside it?)
  • Disguises: Powers that let people disguise their appearance to match someone else's are a particularly interesting form of illusion, because the potential pay-off is so large but the dangers of detection are so high. I feel that these are best when they perfectly mimic appearance but only appearance: when it comes to mimicking voice, gait, mannerisms, knowledge, etc, the PCs are on their own!
  • Movement effects: Things like Jump, Spider Climb, etc - powers that let you get into places you normally couldn't reach. Allow problems to be approached from unusual angles, often quite literally. 
  • Environmental manipulation: Things like creating heat, cold, fog, rain, etc - not inherently beneficial in and of itself, but capable of creating a new situation which cunning PCs may be able to turn to their advantage!
  • Construction abilities: Essentially a subtype of environmental manipulation - the ability to e.g. rapidly reshape earth, construct barricades, etc. Anything that lets PCs reshape an area on the fly and thus shift the spatial dynamics of an encounter. 
  • Water breathing: Like tunnelling, water breathing abilities open up new opportunities for getting into and out of places, and allow locations to be connected together in new ways via underground rivers, water pipes, etc. 
  • Enhanced senses: Things like enhanced hearing, the ability to see perfectly in poor light (not total darkness), the ability to follow scents like a bloodhound, etc, opening up new and unexpected avenues for acquiring information. 
  • Communication abilities: The more things your PCs can interact with, the better. Let them talk to monsters. To animals. To rocks, plants, corpses, water, air... As long as whatever they're talking to is not guaranteed to be useful or co-operative, giving them more opportunities for communication can only enhance their options for creative problem-solving. ('OK, how do we bribe the trees into helping us?')
  • Temporary intangibility: The trick is to not pair this with invisibility, by either making it ghost-style phantom projection, or literal gaseous form. It then creates an interestingly asymmetric situation - you can see and be seen, but can't affect or be affected by anything you're seeing. Can be used either for scouting or for one-way infiltration - you can walk through the walls to get in, but then how are you going to get out?
  • Very specific immunities: Complete immunity to fire, for example, or to falling damage. Abilities like these may be intermittently useful in combat, but they also allow situations to be approached in completely different ways. ('So I'll fly over the castle in a hot air balloon, jump out, drop a thousand feet down into the courtyard, and then open the gates from the inside...')
  • Limited telepathy: Things like the ability to sense someone's emotions, or read their surface thoughts - just enough to give the PCs an exploitable edge in social situations without having to worry about every mystery collapsing on contact.
  • Emotion control: Genuine mind control can easily become an 'I WIN' button, but the ability to scale up a specific emotion requires much more care to use effectively. 'I can make people feel really angry' is not, in itself, likely to solve many problems, but can easily be a component in such solutions...


The Bad Stuff - abilities that short-circuit play without significant limitations

  • Unlimited flight: Trivialises too many kinds of obstacles and opponents, especially if it comes with perfect manoeuvrability as well. If you want to give your PCs access to flight, try to build in some serious limitations. 
  • Unlimited intangibility: Genuine walk-through-walks-style at-will intangibility tends to trivialise information gathering, infiltration, escape, theft, etc - everything except combat, essentially.
  • Mind control: This includes 'super charisma' powers of the 'I'm just that persuasive!' variety. Anything that means PCs can simply steamroller interactions with NPCs rather than having to actually work out how to befriend or manipulate them is likely to lead to much less interesting play. 
  • Mind reading and lie detection: Short-circuits any kind of investigation or mystery and makes diplomacy much less interesting. 
  • 'Sniper' attacks: Very powerful, very accurate, very long-range attacks can make for very one-sided, non-interactive combat scenes, and thus for very boring gameplay. This can easily become an 'everything looks like a nail' situation. 
  • Unlimited information effects: The ability to commune with near-omniscient beings, for example, or powerful divination effects that always return accurate answers. It's usually OK if PCs are allowed just one question, but if this is a power they have repeat access to then it becomes very hard to maintain any kind of mystery, or even ambiguity. 
  • Speed/mobility effects: When confronted with any kind of enemy, one question the PCs are always going to ask is 'can we just kite it to death?' This is a fair question, but if the answer is always 'yes' then the temptation to resolve every possible encounter in exactly the same way becomes very strong. I'd thus advise caution in granting mobility effects that allow PCs to engage opponents without ever allowing their opponents to engage with them: speed effects, for example, that let them move at full speed while still attacking. It's fun the first time, but it can become very boring very fast.

1d20 magic items for ingenious problem-solvers

  1. Mat of Levitation. Anyone sitting cross-legged on this threadbare prayer mat can levitate at will by concentrating. If they stop concentrating for any reason then they fall. Only vertical movement straight up or down is possible. 
  2. Ring of Near Invisibility. Anyone wearing this ring becomes invisible, but still casts a shadow. The ring itself does not become invisible, and may be spotted floating around by alert observers.  The ring does nothing to mask the wearer's scent, sound, or footprints.
  3. Amulet of the Mole. This amulet permits its wearer to dig tunnels through sand or dirt (not stone) like a mole, at a rate of 5' per minute. Tunnels will only be wide enough for the person who dug them to crawl through on hands and knees. It does not grant any ability to see in the dark. 
  4. Hatpin of disguise. Prick someone with this pin hard enough to draw blood, and the next time you place it in your own hat or hair you will take on their physical appearance until it is removed. (This is a visual illusion only, so if e.g. they have a beard and you don't then anyone touching your chin will realise something is amiss.) Your clothes and voice remain unchanged.
  5. Armbands of the ape. Anyone wearing these chunky brass bangles gains the ability to climb and brachiate like an ape or monkey, rapidly scampering up trees or walls and swinging easily from branches, ropes, chains, etc. Wear them as anklets and you can swing by your feet, instead. 
  6. A random weather bag.
  7. A random emotion bag.
  8. Tree Phrasebook. This enchanted book allows you to talk to trees... sort of. Reading from it gives you enthusiastic-tourist levels of ability to understand and be understood by trees, mostly by making alarming groaning noises with your throat. It does not make trees inherently well-disposed towards you, though they can be bribed with fertiliser or threatened with fire. Similar books may exist for communicating with rocks, rivers, etc. 
  9. Thought interceptor earring. If anyone within your line of sight thinks a really big thought (e.g. 'OH MY GOD I LOVE HIM SO MUCH' or 'I WILL FUCKING KILL HIM') while you are wearing this earring, then you will 'hear' it as though it had just been shouted into the ear to which the earring is attached. Such thoughts are 'spoken' in the wearer's own voice and it will not always be apparent whom they are coming from, though context will often make this obvious. If you're in a whole crowd of people all thinking really big thoughts (e.g. a panicking mob trying to escape a fire) then the effect is simply deafening. 
  10. Torc of water breathing. This golden torc is decorated with engraved gills. Wearing it allows the wearer to breathe underwater. It does not provide any swimming abilities, or the ability to see in the dark. 
  11. Cloak of limited flying. Once per day, this bright red cloak permits its wearer to fly rapidly for 1d10 rounds - this ability is triggered by simply leaping into the air. The user is unaware of how long the duration is, and will only know the magic has stopped when they start dropping out of the sky. 
  12. Ghost juice. Drinking this potion causes you to temporarily die and become a ghost for 1d6 hours. During this time you are intangible, allowing you to float around and walk through walls, but you are not invisible, and are clearly recognisable as a ghostly, ghastly version of yourself. You can talk during this time, though your voice is thin and tends towards wailing. You are immune to non-magical damage for the duration, and cannot cause physical harm to anyone else. At the conclusion of the effect you are sucked back into your body and return to life. 
  13. A double-edged potion.
  14. Divine Pass Note. Write a single factual yes-no question on one side of this enchanted papyrus, wait five minutes, and turn it over. God will have written YES or NO on the other side. Shortly afterwards, the note will spontaneously combust. Anyone trying to use this item to learn things that Man Was Not Meant To Know will find that they spontaneously combust, instead. 
  15. Acoustic Amulet. Wearing this amulet enhances your hearing tenfold, allowing you to listen in on conversations thousands of yards away. Any kind of loud noise that occurs nearby while you are wearing them will be painful if not deafening. 
  16. Hammer of the survivor. This worn construction hammer is stained with zombie blood. As long as suitable construction materials are available, it allows stockades and barricades to be constructed at twenty times their normal speed. 
  17. Magic Feather. As long as this feather is gripped tightly, no fall from any height will cause any damage to the holder. 
  18. FX Box. Looks like a complicated wind-up music box with a directional speaker. A wheel on the side can be set to any one of dozens of options (e.g. 'thunder', 'sounds of battle', 'screaming', 'birdsong', 'suspicious conversations', etc). When the crank is turned, the selected sound will be heard emanating from the place that the speaker is pointing at for as long as the user carries on turning the handle.
  19. Black Breath Choker. Wearing this onyx choker allows the wearer to exhale huge clouds of blinding darkness, which completely block all light and dissipate like smoke (meaning that they'll vanish much more quickly in a high wind or similar). Each exhalation exhausts its power for 1d6 minutes. The choker does not grant the ability to see through darkness.
  20. A bag containing 2d4 items from this list.


Sunday, 26 September 2021

Magic bags and the things inside them

I've always thought that Aeolus's bag of wind from The Odyssey would be a great item for a D&D campaign. It's a bag with a wind inside it: point it in the right direction and open it to blow your ship across the sea, or knock your opponents down, or blow out a fire, or whatever. The effect is powerful enough to be useful, but specific enough to force players to think about how to turn it to their advantage, and the fact that it's a one-use item means you don't need to worry about the PCs suddenly upending your whole campaign setting by generating winds on demand. 

I reckon that the same principle could be applied more broadly. What other intangibles could a magician put inside a bag?

Category (roll 1d3)

  1. Weather bag.
  2. Emotion bag.
  3. Abstraction bag.



Weather Bags (roll 1d8) - When opened, these create a localised weather effect in a radius of 1d10x100 feet around the bag, which lasts for 1d6 hours. (The wind bag is an exception - see below.)

  1. Blizzard bag: Cold to the touch, and shakes and shudders violently. When opened a whole blizzard bursts out, filling the surrounding area with screaming winds and freezing, blinding gales of snow. Visibility drops to almost nothing, flying is impossible, and surfaces will be rapidly covered with snow and frost, making them very slippery and difficult to cross for anyone who isn't moving very slowly and carefully. 
  2. Cold bag: Cool to the touch - you could put it in a crate to make a crude refrigerator, or make a tiny hole in it to release a steady stream of ultra-cold air. Opened all at once it releases a burst of intense cold, enough to make a scorching desert feel pleasantly cool, or a temperate day feel like an arctic night. (If it's already an arctic night, you'll be in instant-death-from-hypothermia territory.) As well as the obvious effects on living things, the sudden drop in temperature may freeze nearby water and cause surfaces to become slippery with frost.
  3. Fog bag: You could make a pinprick in the side and use it for spooky dry-ice-style mist effects, but if this bag is opened a huge cloud of fog will pour out, reducing visibility in the surrounding area to almost zero. Good for covering escapes and other acts of stealth.
  4. Heat bag: Warm to the touch - you could use it like a hot water bottle on cold winter nights, or make a tiny hole in it to release a steady stream of heat powerful enough to cook or burn with. Open it all at once and it releases a burst of intense heat, enough to make a polar ice waste feel temperate, or a temperate day feel utterly unbearable. (If you're already in the tropical heat, it will raise temperatures to unsurvivable levels.) As well as the obvious effects on living things, the sudden increase in temperature may melt nearby ice or cause nearby water to evaporate, and will create a powerful localised air current - after all, hot air rises!
  5. Rainstorm bag: Moisture continually osmoses through the fabric - handy if you have something you want to keep moist. Make a tiny hole in it and water will trickle out: the total amount you can get out of it is finite, but it's many, many times larger than the bag could possibly physically contain. Rip it open and a drenching, monsoon-style rainstorm bursts out, cooling and soaking everyone within the affected area, massively decreasing visibility, and extinguishing open fires. Surfaces will be slick and slippery within minutes, and if there's nowhere for all the water to drain off to then localised flooding will soon ensue. 
  6. Sunlight bag: A faint glow emanates from between the closely-woven fibres of this bag, equivalent to soft candlelight. Make a hole in it and a beam of strong, bright sunlight emerges that you can use like a flashlight, or as an anti-vampire laser. Pull it open and hot, bright, dazzling sunlight pours out, floodlighting the whole area as though under a noonday sun, making stealth difficult and potentially causing temporary blindness in areas shifting rapidly from dark to light.
  7. Thunderstorm bag: Shakes violently and makes loud rumbling noises. In most respects this is just a noisier version of the rainstorm bag, but if you pull it open you get flashing lightning and deafening thunder as well as just rain, making it extremely hazardous to anyone standing on top of tall objects and/or waving conductive objects around.
  8. Wind bag: Trembles continuously. Poking a hole in it causes a strong stream of air to pour forth - potentially useful for blowing out flames, for example. Opening it fully causes a powerful gale-like wind to pour out of the bag for the duration. Unlike all the other weather bags, this wind does not simply create an environmental effect in the area around the opener: instead it is directional, with wind continuing to blow outwards in whichever direction the bag is pointed, allowing it to be used to propel ships across water, used as a weapon to knock people over, etc. Once the bag is opened there's no way to shut it again - the wind will just keep blowing out until it's exhausted. 


Bag of Emotion (roll 1d10) When opened, these create a localised mood effect in a radius of 1d10x10 feet around the bag. Anyone within the affected area when the bag is opened must save or be affected by the relevant emotion for the next 1d6 hours. Many would make good missile weapons as long as you can be sure of them bursting on impact.
  1. Bag of anger: Anyone affected will be filled with irrational rage for the duration. The tiniest setbacks or disagreements will prompt screaming arguments and howls of fury, minor provocations will lead to fistfights, and serious insults or challenges are likely to provoke lethal violence. 
  2. Bag of confidence: Anyone affected will be filled with irrational confidence for the duration. This isn't insanity - they won't believe they can do something impossible, like fly or breathe water - but will tend to make people very, very reckless. Rank amateurs will gleefully attempt tasks that they would normally leave to trained professionals, while experts will throw all their normal caution to the wind. These effects can be helpful - e.g. to give someone with social anxiety the confidence to speak publicly - but will always tend more towards 'manic overconfidence' rather than 'calm self-belief'.
  3. Bag of curiosity: Anyone affected will be overwhelmed by curiosity. What's behind that door? What does that lever do? Why does that guy always look pale whenever anyone mentions snakes? Very occasionally, this can be a good thing, prompting people to solve puzzles and unravel mysteries they would otherwise have left untouched. More commonly it will lead to broken friendships at best ('What did happen on that night you told me never to ask about?') and broken limbs at worst. ('I wonder what happens if you push the button marked 'do not push'?')
  4. Bag of envy: Anyone affected will have their feelings of envy and resentment magnified manifold. This makes most social interactions enormously difficult: even something as simple as handing out jobs will cause intense bickering as people argue over all the ways in which they are being unfairly slighted. Anything that would normally cause envy anyway (e.g. seeing someone else with something you powerfully desire and/or believe should be rightfully yours) may well lead to acts of theft or violence. 
  5. Bag of fear: Anyone affected will be consumed with overwhelming anxiety, convinced that something absolutely terrible is about to happen. Even minor stressors (e.g. someone jumping out unexpectedly) will cause screaming and cowering, while something that would normally be scary (e.g. a fire, a battle) will prompt either fainting or panicked flight.
  6. Bag of friendship: Anyone affected will be filled with warm, fuzzy, happy feelings, like the kind you get after three or four drinks with really good friends. Enmity or hostility will still be regarded as such, but any kind of friendly behaviour will be enthusiastically reciprocated, even when it comes from complete strangers. Those affected will also be much more trusting than they normally would be. 
  7. Bag of guilt: Anyone affected will be consumed with guilt over every shameful thing they've ever done. If they're already feeling guilty about something, then the amplified feeling will be so powerful that it may prompt dramatic confessions, spectacular attempts at restitution, or even suicide attempts. Otherwise it will just make them really miserable and self-involved, too caught up in beating themselves up over everything they've ever done wrong to notice much of what is going on around them, and too crippled by self-loathing to accomplish anything more than the most basic and routine tasks for the duration. 
  8. Bag of sloth: Anyone affected is overwhelmed by feelings of laziness. Every task is carried out in the most half-assed fashion possible. Every corner that can possibly be cut will be. (Depending on exactly what they're currently doing, this may be extremely dangerous!) They will still try to protect themselves against immediate threats, but will never do more than this: they will not, for example, pursue a fleeing enemy.
  9. Bag of happiness: Anyone affected will feel happy. Really, really happy. Singing and dancing and laughing for no reason levels of happy. Negative emotions (e.g. fear, depression, anger) will simply vanish. Pain or exhaustion don't go away, but become nothing that can't be handled with gritted teeth or the aid of a rousing song. The effect is really, really enjoyable, and highly addictive. 
  10. Bag of misery: Anyone affected sinks into utter misery and despair for the duration, unable to do anything much except sit and weep about how unhappy they are. If threatened with immediate harm they will still try to protect or defend themselves, but are unlikely to be very good at it. 


Bag of Abstraction  (roll 1d10)

  1. Bag of darkness: Opening it a little bit is like dimming all the lights in a room, which may be handy if you're currently trying to sneak around. Opening it all the way releases a cloud of impenetrable magical darkness that persists for 1d6 hours.
  2. Bag of dreams: Opening this bag a crack will let a dream slip into your head, good for 1d3 hours of pleasantly surreal lucid dreaming. Ripping it open will force everyone within 1d6x10 feet to save or be plunged into a hallucinatory dreamworld for the next 1d6 hours, during which they can perceive reality only dimly, as though half-asleep. Suffering physical pain or damage will wrench them awake. 
  3. Bag of energy: Just letting out a little bit is enough to remove the fatigue of an hour's hard labour. Opening the whole bag will cause everyone within 1d10x10 feet to race around like rabbits on speed for 1d6 hours, after which they must save or crash spectacularly for the next 2d6 hours. 
  4. Bag of ideas: Just a sniff from this bag is enough to give you new ideas, allowing a reroll on Intelligence rolls or similar. If the whole bag is opened, everyone within 1d10x10 feet must save or be overwhelmed by too many ideas, spending the next 1d6 hours frantically trying to scribble down notes, build prototypes, etc. (Note that this doesn't grant any skills you don't already possess, just new ideas for how to use your existing ones.) They will still protect themselves if threatened, but will otherwise be lost in worlds of their own for the duration. If they have the ability to write down or otherwise record their ideas then they will each find 1d10 really good ones buried amongst all the gibberish after they finally come down from their intellectual high. 
  5. Bag of motivation: Inhaling a sniff of vapour from this bag is enough to motivate someone to push forward through hours of boring, difficult, and/or exhausting labour, but watch out - if the bag ever bursts, everyone within 1d10x10 feet must save or suddenly find the motivation to do whatever it is they've been putting off for their whole lives, which probably means they all instantly run off to take up singing or confess their love to their childhood crush or whatever.
  6. Bag of pain: This is a nasty one - even touching it hurts a bit. You can release it onto someone a trickle at a time as a form of torture, or throw the bag to unleash a cloud of incapacitating agony, forcing everyone within 1d6x10 feet to save or drop to the floor screaming in pain for 1d20 minutes. They can still try to defend themselves, but will do so with greatly reduced effectiveness.
  7. Bag of pleasure: Sniff a bit for an instant high, or throw it to make everyone within 1d6x10 feet save or drop to the floor in blissed-out stupefaction for 1d20 minutes, during which time they will do nothing but smile vacantly and maybe quiver a little. Anyone who wants to be affected can voluntarily fail their save.
  8. Bag of sickness: Not the airplane kind: instead, these are create by medical magicians, who pull the diseases out of their patients and place them inside these bags. If opened, everyone within 1d10x10 feet must save or become seriously ill, spending the next 1d20 days mostly bedridden by pain, fever, nausea, vomiting, and various other unpleasant (though not life-threatening) symptoms.
  9. Bag of stupidity: Created as a by-product of magical intelligence-enhancing rituals, during which wizards deliberately suck out their own stupidity and seal it away in enchanted bags. If the bag is opened or broken, everyone within 1d10x10 feet must save or have their effective Intelligence and Wisdom halved for the next 1d6 hours. 
  10. Bag of time: Who doesn't need more time? Opening it just a crack will allow a few more seconds to slip out between one minute and the next, which can be crucial when performing exacting tasks under pressure. Opening the whole bag will release a bubble of compressed time with a radius of 1d10x10 feet: from inside this bubble the world outside appears to be frozen for the next 1d6 hours, whereas from outside everything that happens in the bubble during those hours appears to occur instantaneously. Nothing from inside the bubble can leave the bubble until the compressed time has elapsed. 

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Local gods and the spiritual technology of rulership

There's a legend about the Battle of Brunanburh, at which King Aethelstan confronted the allied kings of Scotland, Dublin, and Strathclyde in 937 AD. Before the battle, one of Aethelstan's soldiers was lying sick: he happened to be a Devonshire man, so in his sickness he prayed to his local saint, the martyr St Nectan, to heal him. That night he had a vision of St Nectan, and in the morning the sickness was gone and he was well enough to fight.

The interesting bit isn't the healing: it's what happened next. The Devon man told everyone about his miraculous recovery, and soon word reached King Aethelstan. Aethelstan was understandably nervous about the coming battle, so he asked the soldier which saint it was who had proven so receptive to his prayers. The soldier told him about Saint Nectan, and assured him that Nectan was always swift to intercede on behalf of those who had faith in him. Aethelstan prayed to St Nectan, won the battle, and was a generous donor to the cult of the saint thereafter.



Just think for a moment about what this sequence of events implies about Aethelstan's mindset. He's king of a sparsely-populated nation made up of hundreds of scattered communities, each with their own local shrines and saints and martyrs and holy wells, most of which have never been heard of by anyone outside their local area. He takes it as given that these saints are capable of interceding with God on his behalf, and that some of them are more likely to do so than others, but crucially he doesn't know which ones. The obscure hermit-saint revered in some provincial village might turn out to be exactly the guy you need to pray to in order to resolve a major national crisis. Working out who to pray to under which circumstances isn't a matter of set dogma, established long ago and handed down by recognised authorities: instead, it's a work in progress, to be figured out by trial and error. Building up a working knowledge of all your national saints, and cultivating suitable relations with their respective cults, becomes a potentially important element of kingship. 

This is a mindset that would, I think, have made intuitive sense to the Tengriist and Shamanistic cultures in the history of Central Asia, for whom the question 'which spirits have authority here?' was one that every nomadic people had to confront regularly as they roamed from place to place. It would have made sense to the Romans, for whom working out which set of local gods to buy off was an integral part of the process of conquest. It is, however, a mindset that seems to be very rare in D&D and associated games, where most fantasy religions seem to have completely codified understandings of the sacred rather than the more experimental approaches that have historically been so commonplace. This strikes me as a bit of a pity - there's so much more gaming potential in the latter!

Imagine if, instead of being a fully worked-out institutional religion like counter-reformation-era Catholicism, your cleric's faith was something closer to Aethelstan's version of Christianity, a hacky work-in-progress always subject to revision based on the latest discoveries. A huge amount of your adventuring could be motivated simply by the desire to learn more about different local gods or saints or spirits, which you would do by visiting lots of different shrines and making lots of different offerings just to find out which ones work best. In a world where most people stick close to home, worshipping their local gods, an adventuring cleric who's been all over the place could become a real asset simply because of their breadth of spiritual experience. ('Actually, my liege, over the mountains they have a saint that they pray to in exactly this sort of situation...') 


Probably the easiest way to represent this mechanically would be to have knowledge of certain spiritual practises grant access to new cleric spells. In most cases these spells might only be available to clerics who'd actually gone to the trouble of visiting whatever remote shrine they are associated with, but sometimes just knowing the name and rituals of the associated god or saint might be enough. Imagine the prestige to be gained in being the cleric who brings such knowledge back to their cult centre and thus unlocks a new spell not just for themselves, but for their entire religion!

And it works for quest-givers, too. Obviously every ruler is going to want to have the latest, sweetest spiritual technology on their side. Obviously they'll want to aggressively investigate rumours of holy sites, obscure shrines, sacred springs, and so on, in the hope of giving themselves and their clergy an edge over their rivals. Everyone knows about all the most famous gods and saints, so they just cancel out: the real advantage is to be gained from being the first one in on a hot new discovery, and they're almost always going to come from way out in the hinterlands, or someone would know about them already. Of course it's going to fall to your party to make the long, dangerous journey through the wilderness to the half-ruined shrine of some obscure local spirit or hermit, so that your cleric can check whether they have enough spiritual mojo to be worth adding to the national liturgy.

Just think of the adventure opportunities!


1d10 local god adventure opportunities

  1. The king wants to develop a new industry, but because it's not been historically practiced in his kingdom he doesn't know who the appropriate gods/saints/spirits are who oversee these things. Your job is to go to some foreign land where this trade is already established and surreptitiously steal all their knowledge about how best to honour, petition, and placate the relevant spiritual beings, all without giving away the secret of the king's economic plans. You'll get a bonus if you can learn the secret rites their guildsmen carry out behind closed doors!
  2. In your grandfather's day there was a weird old hermit living in the mountains. Now people are claiming to see him in their dreams and there are rumours of miracles occurring near the remote cave where he once lived. Your job is to get out there, try to work out if he really has become a legitimate god/saint/spirit, and - if he has - find some way to integrate him into the local religion. (Maybe a shrine could be built in his cave? Or maybe you could find his bones and take them to the local temple as holy relics?)
  3. The king is trying to integrate a recently-conquered frontier region into his kingdom, and he needs someone to do a spiritual survey. Your job is to roam from shrine to shrine among a resentful and rebellious population, cataloguing their local gods/saints/spirits and working out which of them, if any, might be worth adding to the national cult. 
  4. Old chronicles speak of a god/saint/spirit who once bestowed powerful blessings upon their worshippers, but its cult centre has long since fallen into ruin, and no-one remembers the rites by which it was once honoured. Might there be something out there worth salvaging? You'll have to voyage though the wilderness to its abandoned shrine and start making experimental offerings to find out!
  5. The king has a major project planned and he needs as much sacred mojo as possible. Your job is to visit the shrines of the relevant gods/saints/spirits, obtain their sacred items and holy relics by whatever means necessary, and bring them to the capital to ensure the project's success. Naturally, you can expect the locals to violently resist the removal of their treasures.
  6. As 5, but from the other side. A bunch of thugs with a royal warrant just rode into your local shrine and carried off the relics of your local god/saint/spirit to the capital, claiming that the king needs them more than you do! Now your community looks to you to steal them back, and to establish a new, secret shrine where they can be safely kept in future.
  7. The king is planning to hold a major religious festival to bring the blessings of heaven upon his newly-built navy. It's going to cost him a fortune, and he needs to be sure that he's getting the maximum bang for his buck. Your job is to roam the remote storm-wracked islands and pirate-haunted headlands where all the best gods/saints/spirits of the sea seem to have their shrines, and find out which ones are most worth honouring in the festivities. Expect every single priest you meet to try to hustle you about this.
  8. There's been a disaster - but all the priests insist that they've been carrying out their ceremonies perfectly! Clearly some unknown god/saint/spirit is offended - but which one? Your job is to divine which obscure spiritual entity has been neglected, make a pilgrimage to their remote place of power, and make whatever offerings they require in order to slake their wrath before the kingdom suffers even further calamities.
  9. Sometimes the god/saint/spirit you need to pray to has their holiest shrine in a really inconvenient place, like the other side of a monster-haunted wilderness or the middle of an enemy kingdom. Your job is to undertake the perilous journey there to make offerings on behalf of your king, so that he can win their favour for his latest scheme.
  10. Out in the wilderness the remains of some forgotten shrine to a god/saint/spirit have been discovered, but no-one recognises the names carved on its ancient stone. Is it holy or unholy? Does power still reside here, and if so, is there enough of it to make it worth re-establishing whatever vanished cult once built this place? Best do your research first: trial-and-error offerings may risk causing offence that your kingdom can ill afford...

Saturday, 14 August 2021

Elements of incongruity

I've written before about the dangers of simply doubling down on the same ideas ad infinitum, leading to extremely one-note characters, settings, and situations: barbarians primarily characterised by their barbaric barbarism, rogues notable for their roguish roguery, and so on. Not only does this tend to make scenarios more boring on a conceptual level, it often also leads to less satisfying actual play. If the Pyromantic Fire Coven of the Burning Flame Witch are totally all in on fire magic, then once the PCs have developed viable anti-fire-magic countermeasures they really have no reason to respond to each thing the Coven throws at them with anything other than 'the same again, but more'. But the best play thrives on complexity, on situations fraught with tensions and contradictions that the PCs can get their claws into and turn to their advantage. 

One easy way to create this is to ensure that each creature, community, organisation, or whatever includes at least one element of incongruity. This is the wrinkle in their otherwise smooth conceptual facade: the thing that not only makes them more interesting and memorable, but also provides hooks for more nuanced play, making them resistant to the overconfident and vulnerable to the well-prepared. 

So here are some examples. To come up with one for your next NPC or faction, try rolling 1d3 and 1d6...



Incongruity type (roll 1d3)

  1. Incongruous character trait.
  2. Incongruous individual.
  3. Incongruous nature.  

Incongruous character trait. Children's fiction uses this sort of thing all the time. ('It turned out that the dragon secretly loved dancing!') This sort of thing can serve to trip up players who make over-hasty assumptions about how such characters will behave, while also providing resources for those who bother to get to know them properly, allowing them to be more easily befriended or manipulated by the PCs.

Assign an incongruous trait by rolling 1d6:

  1. Incongruous belief. This person has one sincere and deeply-held belief that could not easily be predicted from their general worldview or ideological position. Maybe an otherwise-rational person has one superstition they take really seriously, and cannot be argued out of; maybe an otherwise-conservative traditionalist has one topic on which they have surprisingly liberal views, or vice-versa. An important sub-type is the incongruous moral position, whereby an otherwise-decent person turns out to harbour some horrible prejudice or moral blind spot, or a seemingly-wicked or amoral person turns out to have at least one moral line they genuinely will not cross.
  2. Incongruous personality trait. This person has one character trait that is apparently out of keeping with their social role. Immense personal vanity is predictable among aristocrats, but perhaps more surprising in an orc raider; tremendous interpersonal aggression might be common among street thugs, but is more unexpected in a librarian. They may have found a way to make this trait work for them - maybe the librarian has terrorised all his rivals into submission! - or it may form a barrier that they need to work around in order to fulfil the role expected of them. 
  3. Incongruous interest or hobby. This person is fascinated by something unexpected, like an absent-minded sage turning out to be a bare-knuckle boxing enthusiast, or a brutal ogre who actually has a deep and genuine appreciation for music. They may be ashamed of this interest and keep it secret, which will only make them more eager to share it with non-judgemental fellow enthusiasts.
  4. Incongruous background. This person wasn't always the way they are now. Maybe they've experienced a massive rise or fall in social status (e.g. the street thief was actually born into a noble family, or vice versa), or maybe they've undergone some huge cultural shift, moving into a religious, cultural, or ideological position very different from the one they originally held. They consequently possess a body of skills and knowledge incongruous with their current position - that street thief may actually have a surprising knowledge of aristocratic etiquette left over from their privileged childhood!
  5. Incongruous relationship. This person maintains a relationship (personal, familial, or romantic) which connects them to a sphere of life otherwise remote from their own. Maybe the bandit chief's sister is the city archivist. Maybe this weird, smelly hermit was once the baron's childhood friend. The relationship means a lot to both parties, even though they might feel some embarrassment about it. 
  6. Incongruous ambition. This person has always aspired to something utterly different to their current life. Maybe they wanted to pursue a very different career, like a sailor who always wanted to be an artist instead, or vice versa; or maybe they harbour a secret crush on someone from a very different social sphere, and dream of running away with them and living happily ever after. Depending on context, this ambition may be something they talk about all the time, or something they keep carefully hidden. 



Incongruous individual. When it comes to individuals in groups, lots of RPG adventures tend to go for the 'chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce' approach: so if the group are violent savage, their leader or champion will be notable for being even more savagely violent. But you can get much more mileage out of having a difference, instead: something that sets them apart in kind rather than just degree, a difference which can serve as a source of strength or as a wedge to drive them apart. Assign an incongruous individual by rolling 1d6:

  1. Incongruous ideology. The group all do the same things - they wouldn't be much of a group, otherwise - but one of them does them for different reasons to the rest. Maybe, in a band of outlaws otherwise motivated by greed, one actually sees their criminal activities as a way to strike back against the unjust social order. Maybe most of the soldiers are fighting because they actually want to win the war, but their commanding officer is only here to pursue a private vendetta, or out of a sense of religious obligation. Whatever the split is, it's not enough to stop them from working together on a day-to-day basis (or they'd have gone their separate ways ages ago), but it might well come to the forefront in moments of crisis. 
  2. Incongruous quality. One person in the group is just much better or much worse than the rest in some significant way. Maybe the thieves are mostly mere brawlers... except for one of them, who's the best knife-fighter anyone's ever seen. Maybe the hobgoblins are hardened warriors... except for one of them, who's someone's little brother out on his first campaign. Either way around, this difference probably arouses a complicated mixture of positive and negative feelings in the others: unusually strong characters will be regarded with mingled respect and envy, while unusually weak ones may be viewed with a mixture of protectiveness and resentment.
  3. Incongruous culture. One individual in the group has a very different social or cultural background to the rest. Maybe they're part of a different ethnicity (or a different species, in a fantasy setting); maybe they follow a different religion, or were born into a different culture or social class (e.g. one member of a band of aristocratic rakehells who was actually born poor, and is extremely self-conscious about it). This difference may be a source of strength, providing skills and knowledge that the group would otherwise lack, but can also be a source of tension that scheming adversaries may use to pry them apart. 
  4. Incongruous ability. One individual in the group has some surprising ability that the others lack: a scholar in a band of beggars, a skilled diplomat in a gang of orcish raiders, a talented huntsman in an office full of bureaucrats, etc. For fantasy games this may also take the form of a magical talent. 
  5. Incongruous virtue. One person in the group has some important positive quality - e.g. mercy, loyalty, tolerance, courage, compassion - that the rest of them lack. This virtue can't be something that gets in the way of the group's day-to-day activities - a pirate who refuses to steal isn't going to be a pirate for long - but may well surface at crucial junctures, when one member of the group unexpectedly breaks from the rest to take some kind of moral stand.
  6. Incongruous vice. One person in the group has some important negative quality - e.g. sadism, cowardice, deceitfulness, addiction, greed - that the rest of them lack. Depending on the context, this vice may be something they perform openly or something they try to keep secret, but it's a big enough part of their personality that anyone who observes them closely is likely to pick up on it. As with virtues, such vices are particularly likely to reveal themselves at crucial junctures, when one member of the group abandons or betrays their comrades or otherwise gives way to their worst impulses. 


Incongruous nature. The character is not who they seem to be. The face they present to the world is a performance, but their true nature is very different to what they pretend, and at moments of crisis the real them shines through. Their true nature could be anything as long as it's sufficiently distinct from their public facade, but to pick one that'll work for almost anyone, roll 1d6. (And, yes, these are all Natures from the old World of Darkness system...)

  1. Covert monster. Whatever the person pretends to be, the reality is far worse. If they pretend to be good, it's sheer hypocrisy. If they pretend to be normal, it's protective camouflage. If they pretend to at least be loyal to their mates, then they're actually just waiting for the right time to sell them out. Everything they do is actually intended to multiply their opportunities to benefit themselves at other people's expense. Even the things that seem most benevolent. Especially the things that seem most benevolent. 
  2. Covert caregiver. Whatever this person appears to be, they're actually a real softy at heart. They might still do harmful things, but it's only because they believe in tough love, or because they hope that the ends justify the means, or because they're trying to protect their friends or to teach you a lesson. At the end of the day they will always try to nurture their allies and minimise harm to their enemies, although they might pretend otherwise for appearance's sake. 
  3. Covert conformist. This person only acts the way they do because they feel it's expected of them. They might appear to be cruel, or kind, or artistic, or scholarly, or shy, or whatever... but it's all just a show, a performance for other people's benefit. Put them in a different social context and they'd act completely differently. Put them in no social context and they might even start the long and painful process of working out what they want, instead. 
  4. Covert judge. This person is actually a moralist at heart. They might pretend to be anarchic or forgiving or amoral or nihilistic, but secretly they are always, always judging. Everything they do is secretly a test, even when it's disguised as an act of mercy or sadism or hedonism or indifference, and when it comes right down to it, the way they treat you will depend on the secret score they've been chalking up for you in their heads this whole time. 
  5. Covert child. This person never really grew up. They can manage a passable performance of adulthood, including pretending to have proper adult motivations, but underneath it's all just childish curiosity and clinging and tantrums and I WANT THE THING NOW! Such characters will often gravitate towards substitute parent-figures, although they'll usually claim that these relationships are romantic or political or professional, instead. 
  6. Covert idealist. This person really, seriously believes in some kind of big ideal: Freedom, Justice, Faith, Honour, that sort of thing. They probably don't make a big deal of it, because they know most people will either laugh at them or assume they're lying, but when push comes to shove they are actually, genuinely willing to kill or die for their ideal, in a fashion that is likely to be equal parts inspiring and terrifying.



Incongruity in Action: the Backwood Bandits

Let's apply all these possibilities to that most uninteresting of fantasy cliches, the bandit gang. Hopefully it will be clear how any or all of these could lead to more interesting actual play! (And yes, if you wanted to, you could apply all eighteen at once...)
  • Boring version: The bandits are robbers who live in the backwoods. Their leader is the biggest, meanest robber of all.
  • 1.1: The bandits are, in their own idiosyncratic way, deeply religious. They refuse to rob on holy days, and will not harm members of the clergy.
  • 1.2: The bandits hate lying. They may kill and rob you, but at least they'll be totally honest about it.
  • 1.3: The bandits love music. Their rousing sing-alongs echo through the backwoods, and they'll go out of their way to steal musical instruments and kidnap musicians.
  • 1.4: The bandits actually started out as a bunch of university drop-outs who took to robbery after being expelled. For a band of forest-dwelling robbers they're a surprisingly learned bunch.
  • 1.5: The bandit chief is in love with a local cleric, whose temple he's been surreptitiously visiting by night, though both men are deeply conflicted about the relationship.
  • 1.6: The bandits actually intended to become legitimate merchants - the robbery was just intended to raise enough capital to start a business. But one thing led to another and now they're all wanted by the authorities and stuck living in a wood...
  • 2.1: Most of the bandits are just in it for the money, but one of them really believes that robbing people is her holy duty, and that she is the instrument of heaven's vengeance upon an unjust society.
  • 2.2: One of the bandits is so much better at woodcraft and archery than the others that it's positively obnoxious. All her comrades hate her.
  • 2.3: One of the bandits is a goblin, who acts as the group's scout, but is acutely conscious that the others will never really regard him as one of the gang.
  • 2.4: One of the bandits has natural magical talents, though he's totally untaught and has little control over how they manifest.
  • 2.5: One of the bandits is totally committed to the gang, and would happily lay down her life for them. (They would never dream of doing the same for her.)
  • 2.6: One of the bandits is an awful alcoholic, unable to resist the lure of alcohol even when he knows that he really should.
  • 3.1: One of the bandits is a sociopathic monster who is just biding her time, waiting for the chance to sell out her 'friends' and escape with all the loot.
  • 3.2: One of the bandits always secretly tries to make sure that no-one on either side gets hurt during their robberies - he claims his motives are purely pragmatic, but actually he just genuinely hates cruelty and violence.
  • 3.3: One of the bandits only got roped into a life of crime because of peer pressure. He talks a lot about the love of freedom and the injustice of the law, but would happily resume a blameless life of honest labour if given half a chance. 
  • 3.4: One of the bandits is secretly testing the rest of the gang to see if they're truly worthy of her loyalty, willing to dedicate her life to them if they pass, or to betray them to the authorities if they fail.
  • 3.5: Beneath his ferocious exterior, one of the bandits is secretly a mass of insecurities, clinging to the bandit chief for reassurance in a world he's never really learned to understand or deal with.
  • 3.6: One of the bandits is an absolute true believer in personal liberty, and would rather kill or die than accept any kind of restriction or restraint. 

Saturday, 26 June 2021

Publish or Perish: d100 reasons your wizard had to drop out of academia and become an adventurer instead

My department has been interviewing for new academic posts this week - and as I contemplated the mountain of incoming job applications, the vast majority of them inevitably doomed to failure, I found myself thinking about D&D wizards. Becoming a D&D magic-user clearly requires a specialised education, and yet many of these highly-educated wizards end up as expendable dungeon-crawling adventurers. This suggests to me that D&D wizarding, like modern academia, is probably a profession in which supply and demand are badly out of balance, with many aspiring magi competing over every institutional post. 

In situations like these, gatekeepers proliferate like weeds. There are lots of qualified applicants for every position, so having long lists of arbitrary hoops to jump through helps to winnow them down to a manageable level. (If half of them don't even know about the hoops, so much the better!) A lucky few will master all the formal and informal rules of the profession well enough to get one of the coveted seats around the high table at Wizard College. The rest have to settle for a life spent casting Magic Missile spells on goblins, instead. 


So where did it all go wrong for your magic-user? Why are they shivering in a dungeon instead of dozing in a nice warm corner of the Senior Common Room? Why are they plotting how to sneak past a troll, when the only plotting they wanted to do was about how to get a seat on the college wine committee? Roll 1d100 to find out!

  1. Your deep and subtle knowledge turned out to be no match for your terrible exam technique.
  2. Disastrous relationship breakdown just before finals scuppered your chances of a top grade. At the time you thought love was more important. You were wrong.
  3. You coasted through your education, getting by on natural talent, until you finally hit a subject you couldn't master at first glance and discovered you had never acquired any actual study skills. 
  4. You joined a drinking society in your first week at college. You finally sobered up shortly after graduation, which in retrospect was probably a bit late.
  5. You proudly declared your support for one faction in an ongoing intellectual controversy, only to discover that the people assessing your work all adhered to the other side.
  6. You were too busy doing part-time work to pay your extortionate college fees to actually do any studying.
  7. You foolishly prioritised mastering your subject over making the right connections while at college.
  8. Hosting ever-more-legendary college parties seemed like a great idea until you got expelled for setting fire to the accommodation block.
  9. A senior academic took against you and failed all your assignments out of spite.
  10. Impenetrable university bureaucracy meant that a minor clerical error on your part somehow led to you failing on a technicality.
  11. You unwisely took the advice of your tutors at face value and studied the subjects that you, personally, found most intellectually stimulating, not realising that you were rendering yourself unemployable until it was too late.
  12.  You got really into student politics, and were too busy organising protests and having intense conversations with sexy young radicals to do any actual studying. 
  13. You became fascinated by avant-garde theory, and denounced your tutors as a bunch of obscuratist authoritarians too old and scared to recognise the true brilliance of your ideas, which in retrospect may not have been the best way to open the first paragraph of your dissertation.
  14. Discovered too late that you'd enrolled in a low-status college whose degrees no-one really took seriously. 
  15. The one topic you'd revised for most carefully didn't come up in the paper.
  16. You suffered a massive panic attack in mid-exam, destroying your prospects in a single horrible hour.
  17. You devoted yourself to the fearless and objective pursuit of truth and enlightenment, regardless of where it might lead you. Turns out it led you to some very, very low grades.
  18. The exciting new theory on which you wrote your thesis was discredited shortly after you submitted it. 
  19. You staked everything on making a big breakthrough, but someone else got there first.
  20. Your academic supervisor was exposed as a fraud and you were tainted by association. 
  21. Your tutor stole all your ideas and took all the credit.
  22. You unintentionally offended your tutors by turning down too many social invitations, and discovered too late that none of them would write you references.
  23. Your hazy grasp of academic referencing conventions led to your whole dissertation being failed for plagiarism. 
  24. Your breezy, irreverent, informal presentation style made you stand out in all the wrong ways.
  25. You were written off as a hopeless case when you forgot to wear full academic dress to your first formal dinner.
  26. You didn't find the real library until it was much too late.
  27. You made the wrong friends at college, and subsequently discovered that all your applications for funding kept being mysteriously rejected.
  28. It turned out that scholarship you were counting on was not, in fact, a sure thing.
  29. How were you supposed to know that was a secret society handshake?
  30. Invited to dinner with the professors, ordered the wrong wine, career dead in five minutes flat.
  31. Fell asleep and started snoring loudly in the middle of a very boring lecture by a very famous visiting academic. 
  32. Sent to a conference as a representative of your college, completely fucked up your paper, tutors loathed you for making them look bad and failed you in revenge. 
  33. Tutored by an affable drunk who gave you brilliant grades for everything. You believed you were a genius until you met the real competition.
  34. Just because the invitation to meet the Master says it's optional doesn't mean it's actually optional, idiot!
  35. Went to the wrong lectures.
  36. Used the wrong archives.
  37. Cited the wrong sources.
  38. Spoke at the wrong conferences.
  39. Competed for the wrong prizes.
  40. Sent manuscripts to the wrong publishers.
  41. Collaborated with the wrong academics.
  42. Applied for the wrong kinds of funding.
  43. Held visiting fellowships at the wrong colleges.
  44. Chose the wrong referees. 
  45. Wore the wrong shoes to interview.
  46. Used the wrong honorifics when greeting the Master. 
  47. Said what you really thought about the Master's taste in painting while he still wasn't quite out of earshot.
  48. Came from the wrong town.
  49. Went to the wrong school.
  50. Spoke with the wrong accent.
  51. Worshipped at the wrong church.
  52. Patronised the wrong tailor.
  53. Had the wrong opinion about that new play everyone was talking about.
  54. Spent too much time working.
  55. Spent too little time working.
  56. Didn't get the right permissions.
  57. Mentioned the wrong people in your acknowledgements.
  58. Took the same drugs as everyone else, but made the major faux pas of admitting that you took them.
  59. Walked on the grass without permission.
  60. Fought back when viciously attacked by the college cat.
  61. Passed the port right at High Table.
  62. Dared to complain about the food.
  63. Using long strings of on-trend content-free buzzwords may have sufficed to get you shortlisted, but oh God it did not play well at interview.
  64. Did so well as a poorly-paid teaching assistant with no job security that the faculty decided to just carry on exploiting you forever. 
  65. Couldn't compete with the research resources available to much better-funded rivals.
  66. Staked everything on a brilliant job opportunity without realising it was only ever meant to go to the inside candidate.
  67. Loyally followed your boyfriend/girlfriend to a new city, without realising that everyone at college would forget all about you the instant you left town.
  68. Turned down a safe job to follow up a tip about a more prestigious post elsewhere. You didn't realise that you'd only been invited to make up the numbers until you saw the rest of the shortlist, and by then it was too late.
  69. Just because they say they want your 'honest feedback' doesn't mean you should actually tell them the truth!
  70. All those 'unmissable research opportunities' turned out to be unpaid, and you eventually ran out of family money. 
  71. Used as an expendable catspaw in some kind of esoteric power struggle between two senior academics.
  72. Took a few years out and found that the field had moved on without you.
  73. Framed for academic misconduct by an ambitious rival who wanted to remove you from the competition.
  74. The professor you gave up your old post to work with was undoubtedly brilliant twenty years ago, but these days he's just senile.
  75. Applying for high-status posts made you look over-ambitious.
  76. Applying for low-status posts made you look desperate.
  77. Application letter was much too long and nobody read it.
  78. Your interviewer was your grandfather's college rival fifty years ago and still takes the feud extremely seriously.
  79. Your work was too traditional and it made you look boring.
  80. Your work was too non-traditional and it made you look unsafe.
  81. Panicked in the interview and just started babbling.
  82. Couldn't think of anything clever to say when the interviewer asked: 'And now, do you have any questions for us?'
  83. I think you'll find that that term is now considered highly offensive.
  84. No, of course we don't mean anything by it when we say it. Don't you have a sense of humour?
  85. Insufficiently active in defending the college during the latest town vs. gown riots.
  86. Failure to attend sporting fixtures shows unpardonable lack of college spirit.
  87. Insufficiently aggressive salary negotiations meant that your 'dream job' left you a pauper.
  88. 'Yes, I can see that your work is terribly clever. But has it had any public impact?'
  89. 'Is it relevant to current government priorities?'
  90. 'Does it have any commercial applications?'
  91. 'How does it fit into our college strategy?'
  92. Oh God you should have researched this place more thoroughly before you said that in your interview.
  93. How were you supposed to know they hated each other?
  94. Citing too little existing scholarship made you look ignorant.
  95. Citing too much existing scholarship made you look derivative.
  96. Your first book received a devastating review in the field's leading journal and your career never recovered.
  97. It took you years to work out that the reader was rejecting all your articles because he wanted you to send them to his journal, instead!
  98. Failed to keep pace with changing intellectual fashions.
  99. You were stupid enough to believe them when they said that the dinner wasn't part of the interview.
  100. Learned too late that the college tiddlywinks society was the real key to success all along. 

Monday, 21 June 2021

Escape from the Ghoul Queen!

This post is about a situation that arose in a recent session. One of my players suggested that I post it, and I thought it might be of interest as a case study of in-game problem-solving.

The situation was as follows: the party had arranged a meeting with the fearsome Ghoul Queen, in order to negotiate future trade arrangements with her people. The meeting was to take place a few miles from the ruined city she ruled over, one hour before dawn. The PCs really wanted to meet with the Queen, but they were also aware that she was very, very dangerous, and they needed to have an escape plan that would allow them to flee the meeting in case she decided to abduct or murder them, instead.

Image by Sam Kennedy

The Problem Stated:

  • The meeting takes place in a blasted, rocky desert, with quite a lot of cover.
  • The Ghoul Queen is accompanied by a large retinue of ghouls, numerous enough that fighting them is not a realistic option. 
  • The Ghoul Queen is known to have hidden dozens of ghouls in concealed pits around the meeting area, so simply running is likely to be difficult - the ghouls will pop out and grab anyone who tries to flee. 
  • Ghouls are relatively weak individually, but have paralytic claws, so anyone attacked by a whole bunch of them is going to end up paralysed. They have no effective missile weapons.
  • Ghouls have a sharp sense of smell, and can see in the dark.
  • Ghouls hate sunlight, and will retreat underground at dawn.
The party's resources
  • Two clerics, whose spells include Detect Evil, Light, and Levitation (self only, long duration, permits vertical movement only). One of these clerics is a crab mutant who can breathe underwater.
  • Three magic-users, whose spells include Illusion (visual only, lasts as long as the caster continues to concentrate), Ghost Sound (creates audio effects, lasts as long as the caster continues to concentrate), Agility (boosts dexterity), Spider Climb, Gaseous Form (self only, short duration), and Gust of Wind. 
  • Five fighters, skilled in archery, riding, tracking, stealth, camouflage, and concealment.
  • One ratman, who can see in the dark and has an even better sense of smell than the ghouls.
  • Three trained giant rats, saddled and ready for use as mounts or pack animals.
  • A ring of invisibility to undead. (Does not conceal smell.)
  • An amulet that grants perfect night vision as long as the moon is in the sky.
  • A bag of half-rotten internal organs.
  • Quantities of rope and strong metal wire.
  • Survival gear: tents, bedrolls, supplies, etc. 
  • One spyglass.
  • An animated prison block, 20' cube on stompy stone legs, which the PCs can crudely steer using an undead lizard-monkey on a fishing rod, but which makes huge amounts of noise and stops dead at random and unpredictable intervals.
  • One preternaturally intelligent trained raven. 
Take a look through the lists. Think about the situation.  How would you solve it?


Here's what the party did. 

  • Step 1: Two fighters ride out stealthily on giant rats and conceal them behind rocks several hundred feet from the meeting place, well outside sniffing distance. 
  • Step 2: Two magic-users smear themselves with offal from the bag, making themselves smell intensely distracting to ghouls. The clerics, meanwhile, wash themselves to minimise their scent as best they can. 
  • Step 3: One of the clerics puts on the ring of invisibility to undead.
  • Step 4: One of the magic-users casts Illusion and Agility on the non-invisible cleric - Illusion to make it seem as though there's no-one there (an illusion of empty ground), and Agility to allow them to move more stealthily.
  • Step 5: The two clerics and two magic-users go to meet with the Ghoul Queen, although the ghouls only see the two magic-users: one cleric is invisible, one is covered by illusions, and the smell on the magic-users is strong enough to distract the ghouls from the smell of the unseen clerics. Each cleric carries a blanket and a rope.
  • Step 6: As they reach the meeting spot, the two clerics quietly cast Levitate. They then levitate straight up until they are hovering, unseen, above the meeting, holding blankets in their hands. 
  • Step 7: One magic-user conducts the negotiations while the other concentrates on keeping the levitating clerics hidden behind an illusion of empty night sky.
  • Step 8: When the Ghoul Queen gives orders for them to be seized, the magic-users both cast Gaseous Form, passing harmlessly through the grabbing claws of the ghouls, and drift straight upwards until they reach the levitating clerics.
  • Step 9: The magic-users rematerialise behind/on top of the levitating clerics, clinging to their backs and shoulders. The clerics shake out the blankets so that each cleric holds the bottom of their blanket and each magic-user grabs the top, holding them vertically in front of them like sails. The ghouls swarm below, but are unable to attack them while they are airbourne.
  • Step 10: The magic-users cast Gust of Wind spells directly into the blankets they are holding and cling on for dear life as they, and the levitating clerics they are riding on, are propelled hundreds of feet through the air until they are vertically above the spot where the fighters and the giant rats are hiding. The ghouls pursue, but the PCs have a substantial headstart.
  • Step 11: The fighters break cover and ride out to meet them. The clerics let go of the blankets and each drop one end of their coil of rope, which the fighters catch and tie onto the saddles of their giant rats.
  • Step 12: The fighters spur on their giant rats and ride away from the ghouls as fast as possible, heading east towards the rising sun, dragging the levitating clerics behind them on the ends of their ropes, each one with a magic-user still clinging onto their backs and shoulders.
  • Step 13: Dawn begins to break and forces the ghouls to abandon the pursuit, allowing the PCs to circle back to their main camp under the cover of daylight. By evening they are many miles away. 
The players were pretty happy with this triumph of lunatic ingenuity. I bet there were other solutions possible, though. They didn't even use the raven in this one.

Feel free to post your own solutions in the comments below!

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Condensation in Action 10: Wrath of the Righteous

Part 10 in an irregular series where I take bloated Pathfinder adventure paths and try to prune them into something more useful. Previous Condensation in Action posts can be found here:



Wrath of the Righteous was Paizo's attempt to write a high-level campaign. Normally their adventure paths top out at level 15, but this one goes all the way up to level 20, as well as awarding the PCs additional power boosts in the form of 'mythic tiers' along the way. If you think this sounds like a recipe for disaster, you'd be right. D&D has always had three basic tiers - levels 1-3 for scrappy underdogs, levels 4-8 for tough, capable fantasy heroes, and levels 9-14 for epic heroes and domain level play - and has tended to really struggle to imagine what adventures are supposed to look like beyond that point. (Tellingly, most of the original classic module series like Dragonlance and Queen of the Spiders topped out at level 14.) What are you meant to do once you've outleveled the dragon at the bottom of the dungeon?

Most of Wrath of the Righteous is very boring: just standard-issue dungeon crawling with much, much higher numbers. The situations quickly start to get ridiculous: the PCs are strong enough to take on dungeons full of demons by book 2, so all that books 3-6 can do is fill their dungeons with ever-bigger demons. One late-campaign dungeon has guards who are fourteenth-level demonic clerics made of locusts riding ancient black dragons. In any other campaign, just one of these guys would be a terrifying end-boss whose dark schemes threaten entire nations. In this one whole groups of them just sit around like glorified security guards, keeping an eye out for intruders and waiting for the over-levelled PCs to wander past and kill them all. 

This hexcrawl is what I was able to salvage. About half of it comes from the appendices rather than the adventures proper!


Context: This adventure takes place on a militarised frontier zone, where a crusading military order maintains a string of fortified settlements along the edges of a demon-haunted region of deserts and jungles, blighted by the release of unholy energies a century ago. (The order was founded in response to this event, and has had the same leader, Queen Galfrey, ever since.) Recently, stories have been emerging from the jungles of some kind of magical and/or industrial undertaking by the region's most prominent demon-cult, the Templars of the Ivory Labyrinth. Armies fare poorly in the jungles, and Queen Galfrey is in the market for a team of disposable, deniable scouts willing to brave the warped lands of the south and work out what's going on before it's too late...

A Note on the Military Situation: The land north of the jungles is notionally controlled by Queen Galfrey, though the border is porous, and beasts and cultists from the south sometimes slip across. The jungles are inhabited mostly by monsters and cultists, too few in number to meet the crusaders on the field of battle, but amply capable of whittling down military expeditions who enter their territory. Over the last century the crusaders have several times advanced as far as the southern coast and claimed 'victory', but the jungles are impossible to hold and they have always ended up retreating, leaving nothing but abandoned forts and temples in their wake.


Hexes are 12 miles across.

  • 0000: This broken-down old town is sinking into the swamps, and has been abandoned by all but its most misanthropic inhabitants, who are increasingly coming to resemble the toads that infest its rotting buildings. One among them is a master astrologer, an expert in predicting all kinds of ill-fortune, but the only thing he wants is to be left alone. If he could be persuaded to cooperate, his divinatory abilities would provide one way to navigate the ivory labyrinth at 0104.
  • 0001: This shadowy, bat-haunted town is run with psychopathic violence by its despotic governor, who has reduced its people to a state of abject terror. In truth, she, in turn, is a mere pawn of the cabal of vampires who secretly run the town, using its cowed inhabitants as food stock. The vampires are no friends to the Templars, whose victory would ruin their comfortable living arrangement, and could be convinced to ally with the PCs if they were persuaded that the threat against them was serious enough. (Such an alliance would, however, obviously need to be kept secret from the crusaders.)
  • 0002: In this tower lives a crazed cavalier, a defector from the crusades, who believes the victory of the demons is inevitable and hopes to win their favour and attention by committing random acts of pointless villainy. The townsfolk of 0001 hate and fear him, but their governor is in no hurry to apprehend him, as his depredations are a good excuse for all manner of restrictions and curfews.
  • 0003: A succubus lairs in this desecrated chapel. She is served by a band of charmed warriors - mostly ex-crusaders - who believe her to be a holy goddess, and will gladly lay down their lives in her service.
  • 0004: These mountains conceal a ruined and accursed city, among whose shattered buildings can be found an ancient library of stone tablets containing many secrets otherwise lost to the outside world, including maps of the Ivory Labyrinth at 0104 (which was built by the same vanished race who constructed this city). It has no guardians, but its curse afflicts all who discover it with psychotic and murderous jealousy, meaning that expeditions that stumble across it tend to self-destruct long before they bring word of it to the world beyond.
  • 0005: This blasted ash waste is the origin-point of the demonic taint that afflicts these lands. The earth here trembles with magical energy, and the air is full of demonic whispers. Anyone remaining here too long will be tainted in body, mind, and soul. 
  • 0006: The jungles here are roamed by a filth spirit who takes the form of a woman made of mud, rising from foul-smelling seepage of its rivers and caves. She is furious about the mining activities of the Templars in 0105, which are polluting 'her' waters with all kinds of weird magical run-offs, and will gladly assist in any efforts to shut them down. 
    • 0100: These marshy hills are collectively known as the Moonbog. They are dotted with huddled settlements, who live in fear of the werebeasts who roam the moors by night.
    • 0102: Hidden in these hills is a trap-filled dungeon of iron and stone - the stronghold of a cruel demon, the Razor Princess. She is served by a demonic murderer with the head of a stork, who abducts victims for her and drives them through her deathtrapped mazes so that their blood might lubricate her cruel machines.
    • 0103: The jungle here is roamed by a flayed, headless angel, once an ally of the crusaders, now a victim of the Templars. It attacks intruders with its still-blazing sword, its body continuously spurting gouts of boiling, sulpherous blood over anyone who comes too close.
    • 0104: Here stands the Ivory Labyrinth itself, a vast subterranean maze paved and walled with ancient bones. It is inhabited by primitive humanoids who have dwelt there for centuries, but who have recently been enslaved by the Templars, who have claimed the place as a site sacred to their demonic patron Baphomet. The labyrinth is very confusing, mostly due to the demonic magic that infuses it, and navigating it successfully is almost impossible without very good scouts (such as the Pitlings at 0401), magical aid (such as the Stalker's Crossbow from 0205 or the divinations of the astrologer at 0000), or a map (such as the one at 0004). The Templar leadership are all demoniacs, who willingly invite demonic spirits into their bodies, and spend most of their time in states of entranced spirit-possession. Their champion wields an enchanted golden scimitar, which once belonged to the wife of the antipaladin from 0404.
    • 0105: Here, deep in the jungles, the Templars have begun mining enchanted crystals from the magic-saturated earth. Their mine labourers are demonic minotaurs, who use their immense strength to hack their way through the rock. The more of these crystals they mine, the more demonic spirits their leaders will be able to call down into their bodies. If left unchecked for too long, they will become powerful enough to sweep away the crusaders once Queen Galfrey finally meets her death. 
    • 0107: Here a demonic sorcerer dwells with his herd of man-eating aurochs. He is notionally allied with the Templars, but is happy to turn a blind eye to visitors as long as they bring offerings of human flesh for his herd.
    • 0201: This manor house is home to a noble family, supposedly subjects of Queen Galfrey, but secretly loyal to the Templars. Building a labyrinth in their own home was a bit impractical, so instead they settled for a hedge maze, consecrated by unholy stone bull's heads buried beneath its corners. Unbelievers who try to navigate it find themselves becoming confused, their bodies growing heavy, their skin scratched by branches and opening in hundreds of tiny wounds that never, ever stop bleeding. By the time they reach the centre of the maze, where the family wait for them, they're ripe for slaughter.
    • 0204: This ruined temple is full of maggots that constantly squirm across its floor, spelling out heretical prayers with their writhing bodies. If intruders enter, the maggots twist themselves into the shape of unholy runes instead, blasting all those who gaze upon them. Beneath the temple are tunnels made from heaving, cancerous flesh, continuously fed upon by vermin. At their heart meditates an awful cleric made of locusts, the servant of an ancient demon lord of vermin. If he is still alive after the Templars are defeated, he will lay claim to their abandoned places of power and start calling forth horrible insect monsters, laying the foundations of a new demon-cult to replace them.
    • 0205: This Templar stronghold is guarded by obese naked undead armed with scythes, who have the power to cause bloody wounds to open upon all those they gaze upon. Within dwell a nest of cultists who have amputated their own feet and replaced them with enchanted brazen hooves, the better to resemble their demonic master. If their stronghold is invaded they attack in a kicking, trampling mob. One of them wields the Stalker's Crossbow, whose wielder will always be able to find the last person wounded by it.
    • 0302: This frontier camp is the current base of Queen Galfrey. Galfrey swore at the very start of the crusade to vanquish the demons or die trying: she is now over 100 years old, her life prolonged at crippling expense by alchemical means. Utterly weary of her life of endless warfare, she has developed a not-so-subtle death-wish, and has begun provoking new battles mostly in order to give herself a chance to die in them. (It hasn't worked yet because people with alchemically-enhanced bodies and a century of combat experience and are very difficult to kill.) Morale in the camp is low, as the soldiers resent being made to risk their lives in unnecessary battles. They have been secretly infiltrated by an agent of the Templars, Hosilla, who is here posing as a knight from a minor (and fictional) noble house. If the queen actually does manage to get herself killed, Hosilla will hasten back to the Ivory Labyrinth at 0104 and tell the Templars to call down as many demons as they can and strike as soon as possible, while the crusaders are still reeling from her loss. If the mine at 0105 has not been disabled yet, they will probably win. 
    • 0304: The trees here exude a sticky sap into the poisonous, swampy waters below. Anyone who ascends into the canopy is set upon by monstrous bird-creatures, who attack in screeching flocks
    • 0307: Here the jungle is torn open by vast rifts inhabited by warped and troglodytic humanoids, who roam ceaselessly searching for prey. 
    • 0401: This massively fortified clifftop city is the stronghold of the crusaders. The cliffs beneath are riddled with caves and tunnels inhabited by the 'pitlings', deformed descendants of the original crusaders who found their children were born warped by the weird energies to which they had been exposed during their campaigns. The people of the city regard the pitlings with scorn, but the pitlings still revere their warrior ancestors, guarding the graves of their crusader forebears and nurturing a pathetic loyalty to the state that rejected them. They are hardy and stealthy and can see in the dark, making them perfect scouts for any attack on the Ivory Labyrinth at 0104.  
    • 0404: The jungles here are inhabited by giant slugs and dire crocodiles. On its poisoned rivers floats an enchanted barge, pulled by a great skeletal serpent, and manned only by a freezing undead antipaladin as cold as his own frozen heart. He wields a terrible icy halberd, which freezes the blood of all those it wounds. He will curtly question all those who pass if they have seen his wife, who vanished into the Ivory Labyrinth years ago: anyone failing to give a useful answer will receive an icy death, instead. If touched or wounded by her scimitar (see 0104), his heart melts and all his unholy powers desert him.
    • 0405: Deep in these jungles lies a hidden chasm, apparently bottomless, whose walls are lined by the immense fossilised bodies of dead demon kings from ages past.
    • 0502: In this town, the people long ago started to adopt the talking animals that occasionally wandered from the forests, keeping them as pets and messengers. Unfortunately for them, the animals are demon-tainted and delight in defamation and slander, with the result that the whole town is now a tangle of feuds, scandals, and misplaced attempts at revenge. (In particular, everyone is convinced that their neighbours have something to do with all the children who have been going missing recently - in fact these have been taken by the inhabitants of the house at 0503, frequently with the connivance of the talking animals.) The people are highly resistant to the idea that their animal companions are anything other than loyal and adorable. 
    • 0503: High in these gloomy mountains stands a huge house in which kidnapped children tend to a great clockwork mechanism of obscure significance, guarded by cloaked, silent figures and clanking automata who hunt down any who try to escape. What, if anything, the machine actually does is deeply unclear.
    • 0504: A succubus inhabits this mansion, beset by besotted admirers longing for her favour or even acknowledgement. Most starve to death in her courtyards, or kill one another in desperate attempts to win her attention and prove their devotion. Only the most exceptional displays of talent or prowess will suffice to win an audience. 
    • 0600: This steep mountain valley echoes with distant, half-heard songs. (These come from a tragic ghost who haunts its slopes, but finding her is extremely difficult.) It leads to a smug little town, bright with mirrors and loud with bells, whose vain inhabitants are notionally loyal to the crusade but actually care nothing for the outside world. It would be a good source of mirrors with which to torment the rat-demon at 0603.
    • 0601: This town is a prison-colony, to which convicts are set from throughout Queen Galfrey's domain to work as slave labourers, mining gems from the hills. (These are the kingdom's most profitable export.) Because slaves are so much more profitable than corpses, many captured low-level demon cultists have been sent here, and their teachings are spreading covertly among the convicts. If the flow of gems from the mines was disrupted then the crusaders would soon be unable to afford Queen Galfrey's ruinously expensive life-extension potions, and she would wither and die within a year. 
    • 0603: This ruined town was built by the crusaders during one of their expansionist phases, only to be abandoned when the tides of war turned. Now it is infested by flocks of fiendish vultures, and roamed by a ghastly knife-wielding rat demon that hates and fears its own reflection. A band of mad knights camps nearby, utterly unreconciled to the town's abandonment and determined to reclaim it regardless of what it may cost them (or anyone else). 
    • 0604: This ruined shrine is inhabited by a deeply confused demon, who unwisely preyed upon a priestess of the goddess of dreams. The priestess linked their minds as she lay dying, and now the demon has a head full of someone else's emotions and memories and is having a massive identity crisis. She still has her demonic instincts towards cruelty, but her new human feelings mean that she feels revolted by them. If her newly human side was carefully nurtured she might be guided along a path of repentance, but any kind of severe stress will cause her to have a massive breakdown and start lashing out. 
    • 0605: Here a boiling river pours out of the mountains and runs through the jungle to the sea, terminating at a beach of powdered bone.
    • 0607: This graveyard island is surrounded by shipwrecks, driven upon its shores by the regular floods and hurricanes that beset it. It is the home of a powerful ghoul, the Coffin Groom, who feasts upon the drowned dead.
    • 0701: This ghost town was abandoned when its well ran dry. By night it is haunted by the walking corpses of the parched and vengeful dead. 
    • 0704: This desert is inhabited by gigantic scorpion-human hybrids, who know ancient spells capable of calling armies of mummified demons up from their crumbling tombs to do their bidding. They greatly predate the conflict between the crusaders and the Templars, but have been stirred up by the energies released at 0005. If the taint could be lifted from the land they would go back to sleep.