Thursday 31 March 2016

New B/X Class: the Deep One Hybrid

Everyone wants to be a Deep One really! Swim all day, pray to Cthulhu all night, study forbidden secrets from before time, live forever, maybe run your own cult... What's not to like?

All together, now: Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn...

(I promise my next post will actually be about Central Asia again!)

Deep One Hybrid, from Pathfinder Bestiary 5.

B/X Class: The Deep One Hybrid

To-Hit, Hit Dice, Saves, Weapons and Armour: All as per Fighter.

Experience Per Level: As per Magic-User.

Natural Swimmer: At level 1, you can swim at the same speed you can move on land, and hold your breath for a number of minutes equal to your Constitution score. You have webbed feet.

Water Breather: At level 2, gills open on the sides of your neck. You can now breathe freely underwater.

Innsmouth Look: At level 3, your eyes become huge and bulging. You can now see perfectly even in very low light (although not in total darkness).

Teeth and Claws: At level 4, your teeth become long and sharp, and your hands warp into claws. You can do 1d4 damage in melee even when unarmed.

Oceanic Adaptation: At level 5, your skin becomes rough and scaly, and your body bulks out with the masses of blubber and muscle required for existence in the ocean depths. You gain +1 AC, and inflict +1 damage in melee due to your increased bulk and strength. By this point you look like a total freak, and may want to consider investing in some very big hats and coats.

Blessing of Hydra and Dagon: From level 6 onwards, you gain spell-casting abilities equal to those of a Cleric of half your level, rounded down. (You don't gain any other cleric abilities: just the spells.)

Lord of the Seas: At level 7, you gain the ability to command the creatures of the swamps and seas. This functions as per the Chaotic cleric ability Command Undead, except it applies to aquatic and amphibious creatures instead of undead. This ability does work on intelligent creatures such as Bullywugs, but they get a save vs. spells to resist it.

Command the Formless Spawn: At level 8, your Lord of the Sea ability also allows you to command unintelligent slime and ooze monsters. 

Call the Cult: At level 9, you intuitively reach out through your dreams to nearby unstable individuals, calling them together to form a cult of which you are the leader. Over the next few weeks, 3d6 crazy people (a mixture of 1st-level fighters, thieves, and magic-users) will arrive, and serve you with fanatical loyalty. Whenever one dies, an equally crazy replacement will turn up 1d3 weeks later. Each time you go up another level you gain another 1d6 cultists.

The Sea is Calling: At level 10, you hear a song in your dreams that calls you to a holy place in a sunken city at the bottom of the sea. If you follow it, and complete the hazardous journey successfully, you undergo a final metamorphosis in which you shed the last remnants of your humanity. You cease to age, become immune to disease, and will live forever unless killed by violence.

Image by Dan Moore

Tuesday 29 March 2016

Sir Gawain Goes Hexcrawling

I was preparing an extract from the 14th-century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for a class the other day when I suddenly realised that it's basically a description of a rather aimless D&D hexcrawl. Gawain is on a quest for the Green Chapel, but he doesn't know where it is except that it's 'somewhere in the wilderness of Wirral'; so all he can do is blunder about from hex to hex, fighting monsters and having random encounters, until finally he's reduced to praying for outright divine intervention. He even sleeps in his armour like a proper D&D character!

Here's the text. Original Middle English on the left. My (painfully literal) translation on the right. 

Middle English Text
Literal Modern Translation
He made non abode,
Bot wyȝtly went hys way;
Mony wylsum way he rode,
Þe bok as I herde say.

He made no stop,
But manfully went on his way;
Many tiresome paths he rode,
As I have heard the book say.

Now ridez þis renk þurȝ þe ryalme of Logres,
Sir Gauan, on Godez halue, þaȝ hym no gomen þoȝt.
Oft leudlez alone he lengez on nyȝtez
Þer he fonde noȝt hym byfore þe fare þat he lyked.
Hade he no fere bot his fole bi frythez and   dounez,
Ne no gome bot God bi gate wyth to karp,
Til þat he neȝed ful neghe into þe Norþe Walez.
Now rides this hero through the realm of Logres,
Sir Gawain, on God’s behalf, though he thought it no game.
Often alone and friendless he lodged at nights
There he found not before him the fare that he liked.
He had no friend but his foal by forests and downs,
And no-one but God to talk with on the way,
Until he had almost come into North Wales.
Alle þe iles of Anglesay on lyft half he haldez,
And farez ouer þe fordez by þe forlondez,
Ouer at þe Holy Hede, til he hade eft bonk
In þe wyldrenesse of Wyrale; wonde þer bot lyte
Þat auþer God oþer gome wyth goud hert louied.
And ay he frayned, as he ferde, at frekez þat he met,
If þay hade herde any karp of a knyȝt grene,
In any grounde þeraboute, of þe grene chapel;
And al nykked hym wyth nay, þat neuer in her lyue
Þay seȝe neuer no segge þat watz of suche hwez
of grene.
All the isles of Anglesey he kept on his left side
And fared over the fords by the forelands
Over at Holy Head, until he had landed
In the wilderness of Wirral; there very few lived
That loved either God or man with good heart.
 And always as he fared, he asked the people that he met
If they had heard any talk of a green knight
Or of the green chapel in any place thereabout; 
And all replied that, no, never in their lives
Had they ever seen a man of such a hue
Of green.
Þe knyȝt tok gates straunge
In mony a bonk vnbene,
His cher ful oft con chaunge
Þat chapel er he myȝt sene.
The knight took strange roads
On many a rough bank
His mood often changed
Before he saw that chapel.

Mony klyf he ouerclambe in contrayez straunge,
Fer floten fro his frendez fremedly he rydez.
At vche warþe oþer water þer þe wyȝe passed
He fonde a foo hym byfore, bot ferly hit were,
And þat so foule and so felle þat feȝt hym byhode.
So mony meruayl bi mount þer þe mon fyndez,
Hit were to tore for to telle of þe tenþe dole.
Sumwhyle wyth wormez he werrez, and with wolues als,
Sumwhyle wyth wodwos, þat woned in þe knarrez,
Boþe wyth bullez and berez, and borez oþerquyle,
And etaynez, þat hym anelede of þe heȝe felle;
Many cliffs he climbed over in strange countries,
Far asunder from his friends, lonely he rode.
At each ford or water where the hero passed 
It was strange if he found not a foe before him, 
And that so foul and fell that he was forced to fight.
So many marvels in the mountains there the man found,
It would be tedious to tell of the tenth part.
Sometimes with serpents he warred, and sometimes with wolves,
Sometimes with wild men, that lived in the cliffs,
Both with bulls and bears, and at other times with boars,
And giants, that assailed him from the high fells;
Nade he ben duȝty and dryȝe, and Dryȝtyn had serued,
Douteles he hade ben ded and dreped ful ofte.
For werre wrathed hym not so much þat wynter nas wors,
When þe colde cler water fro þe cloudez schadde,
And fres er hit falle myȝt to þe fale erþe;
Ner slayn wyth þe slete he sleped in his yrnes
Mo nyȝtez þen innoghe in naked rokkez,
Þer as claterande fro þe crest þe colde borne rennez,
And henged heȝe ouer his hede in hard iisse-ikkles.
Þus in peryl and payne and plytes ful harde
Bi contray cayrez þis knyȝt, tyl Krystmasse euen,
al one;
Had he not been doughty and stern, and served God,
Doubtless he would often have been dead and slain.
But war tried him not so much that winter was not worse,
When the cold clear water fell from the clouds, 
And froze before it could fall to the earth.
Nearly slain by the sleet he slept in his irons
More nights than enough on naked rocks,
Where the cold burn ran clattering from the crest,
And hung high over his head in hard icicles.
Thus in peril and pain and plights full hard
Through the country wanders this knight, until Christmas eve,

Þe knyȝt wel þat tyde
To Mary made his mone,
Þat ho hym red to ryde
And wysse hym to sum wone.
The knight well that tide
To Mary made his plea,
That she would direct his riding
And lead him to some home.

(Spoiler: She does! And that's when the real adventure begins...)

Monday 28 March 2016

Condensation in action: from 600-page AP to 3-page hexcrawl!

So, after moaning about the tendency of Pathfinder Adventure Paths towards massive and needless bloat, I'm going to give an example of what I think they are good for. I've just finished skimming my way through the 600 pages of the Kingmaker adventure path, which is Paizo's attempt at doing a sandbox: they don't do it very well, with railroad tracks laid down all over the place, but as usual there's some good material scattered through them here and there. I reckon that if you cut all the fiction, the railroaded plot arcs, the interminable stat blocks, the poorly-thought-through mass battle and domain management rules, the needlessly huge map, and all the boring encounters, it's possible to cut those 600 pages down into a pretty good 3-page hexcrawl set in a single decent-sized forest. 

So here it is. All the encounters are adapted from Pathfinder's Kingmaker Adventure Path, by Hitchcock, McCreary, Vaughan, Spicer, Nelson, and Pett. The hexmap is my own work. Feel free to borrow any or all of it for your own campaigns!

Kingmaker Rewrite

Hook: The PCs have been sent by the king to explore the monster-haunted forests on the southern edge of his kingdom. If they can find some resources worth exploiting and clear out the worst of the monsters, he's promised to grant them a fief in the area as a reward.

Hexes are 6 miles across. * denotes the presence of a treasure hoard at this location. ** denotes the presence of a major hoard.

0000: An inn run by a middle-aged couple, currently being squeezed by the bandits at 0100. They offer a reward to anyone who can drive the bandits off.

0001: A nest of tiny (1' high) evil fairies living in tunnels under a huge old tree. They're at war with the kobolds at 0002, and have stolen their holy statue.

0002*: An abandoned silver mine inhabited by a tribe of kobolds, who believe that their tribal gods will destroy them unless they can get their idol back from 0001. There are growing tensions between the tribe's chief and their 'shaman' - actually a gnome wizard who was accidentally polymorphed into a kobold, and is now trying to destroy the tribe from within. If the kobolds were cleared out the mine could easily be made profitable again.

0003: This grove is the home of a friendly dryad and her satyr lover.

0004*: A ruined and overgrown temple, guarded by a huge bear. The bear is possessed by the insane spirit of the temple's last priest, and thus defends the place with all the intelligence of a (crazy) human.

0005: Hunting ground of a 'scythe tree', an intelligent, evil magic tree which wanders around impaling people with its sharp branches. The dryad at 0003 would love to see it destroyed.

0006: Ruined abbey haunted by the ghost of a mad rose gardener. He fell in love with a water nymph and trapped her in a water clock, hoping that she would one day agree to marry him; she didn't, and they're both still there. She knows the location of a powerful magic sword which is hidden nearby.

0100: A camp of bandits preying on passing travellers. Their leader is a slightly crazy young woman with a hatchet and a very dark sense of humour. They answer to the bandit lord at 0102.

0101: A radish field tended by the kobolds at 0002, who can often be found in the field, gorging themselves silly.

0102**: A ramshackle fort inhabited by bandits. The bandit lord is usually drunk, and almost never removes his enchanted helmet, which is carved in the shape of a stag's head. His lieutenant is sick of outlaw life and will betray him if given half a chance. The bandit lord's father, once cruel and abusive but now elderly and infirm, is kept locked in the basement; he knows druidic magic, and serves as the group's healer. The ground around the fort was once a burial ground for the unclean dead, and only the bandits know which parts are safe to walk through: just blundering about is a great way to get eaten by zombies.

0103: The home of an even madder hermit, the younger brother of the one from 0301, who lives there with his pet lynx. He has the portrait of their mother, but won't give it up without a fight.

0104: An overgrown statue of an ancient god of the hunt. If cleared and consecrated by a cleric, it will bestow a blessing upon anyone who offers up a sacrifice to it.

0107*: A witch whose house is surrounded by magical, animated thorns, tended by mutated three-armed giants.

0202: A camp of loggers cutting down valuable timber, currently plagued by misfortune due to the meddling of the nixie at 0203 and trying to work up the courage to go and kill her.

0203: The lair of a nixie, who has taken a dim view of the loggers wrecking her home and is using her magic to interfere with their work. She is protected by two charmed loggers.

0204: A small lake inhabited by giant frogs.

0205*: An ancient barrow-mound, still haunted by a barrow-wight. Within, carved stone faces breathe out black mist upon intruders, sapping the life-force of the living.

0301: The lair of a mad hermit. He likes to be left alone, but would very much like to retrieve the portrait of his mother stolen by his brother after their final argument years ago. (His brother lives in 0103.) He is something of an alchemist, and offers payment in potions.

0303: Frog-man village. Their leader has been charmed by the naga at 0503, and is trying to persuade them to take bloody action against the human settlers.

0304: Swamp haunted by bog mummies, the fallen priests of some ancient witch goddess.

0401**: A small fort surrounded by a meager settlement. The lord of the fort has recently taken a new mistress, much to the displeasure of his wife, who has just invited her brother – a powerful wizard – to stay with them as a long-term guest. The lord's best warrior has recently gone missing. (He’s being held captive by the witches at 0502.)

0402: A woman, the last survivor of her smuggling gang, is camping out here by the river. The rest were hanged by the lord of the fort in 0800 and she is eager for revenge.

0403: The lair of a solitary frog-man, exiled from the village at 0303 after making an unsuccessful challenge for leadership. Would welcome new friends.

0404*: Haunted tower on an island. At night, ghosts flicker around its fallen walls in the form of glowing balls of light.

0406: A dream from another world presses closely against this reality, here, manifesting as nightmares, hallucinations, and glimpses of immense black wings that blog out the sky. Spending too long here is a good way to go crazy.

0407**: A great serpent curls around the base of this ruined manor. Inside it, time is unreliable; mirrors reflect people who aren't present, and it's full of voices from people who haven't been there for years, or won't arrive for years to come. Some rooms seem newly-furnished, while others appear thousands of years old. A staff of ghosts act as servants and guards. Six eyeless nymphs roam the corridors, weeping tears of blood from empty sockets. The queen of the house is a mad nymph sorceress who visits nearby people in dreams, leaving them with locks of her hair that drive them to deeds of madness and passion and grief. The sword from 0006 is made from her own rejected heart, and possesses great power when wielded against her.

0502*: The tomb of an ancient hero, converted into a makeshift shrine by a coven of three witches. They have abducted a local warrior and are using a combination of magic, the influence of the hero's intelligent sword, and old-fashioned brainwashing to persuade him that he is actually the hero reborn, come to help them reclaim the land for their horrible old religion.

0503*: Lair of a vicious swamp-dwelling naga. She has charmed the leader of the frog-men at 0303, and if she is killed (or persuaded to release him from her spell) then he and his tribe will become much less aggressive.

0504: Tribe of lizard-men who worship the ghosts at 0404, believing (incorrectly) that they are the spirits of their ancestors.

0505*: Cave inhabited by a gang of ettercap. Webbed up among their victims are the remains of a prospector, with a map showing the location of the gold deposits in 0606.

0603: A wandering giant, usually drunk, looking for berries suitable for making moonshine with.

0606: The rocks here contain substantial deposits of gold ore, although only an expert or a dwarf would be likely to notice it while just passing through.

0700: There was a bridge here, but the bandits from 0102 burned it down and drowned the bridge-keeper after stealing his accumulated toll-money. Now if anyone rings the bell, his waterlogged corpse comes shambling out of the water. Only killing the bandit lord in 0102 and throwing his body into the river will put his soul to rest.

0702: Small village in a clearing. The villagers are secretly cultists of the ancient witch-gods, and maintain a hidden shrine beneath the headman’s house.

0705*: Valley full of gigantic, ancient grave markers, eroded to the point of illegibility. It is protected by a zombie cyclops, preserved by ancient magic, whose badly-decayed mind is tormented with fragmentary memories of some kind of ancient cyclops empire which may or may not have actually existed.

0706*: A huge troll lairs in a ruinous house with his six black saber-toothed tigers. Severed heads hang by their hair from spikes around his home, candles flickering in their mouths and eyes. He seeks a human bride.

0800*: A fort, the base of a minor frontier lord. If the PCs look like they're actually close to establishing a viable claim in the area he'll invite them to a tournament at his fort, and use their absence as an opportunity to send his soldiers to seize all their holdings.

0901: A herd of wild horses, led by an intelligent talking magical horse, once the steed of a dead druid.

0903: An abandoned village, with tracks leading south.

0904**: The tomb of an ancient undead cyclops wizard, recently awakened by an incautious treasure-hunter from the village at 0903. He's enchanted all the villagers and led them down into his tomb, where he's eating the brain of one villager a day in order to absorb their memories and learn more about this strange modern world he's woken up in.

0906: A 30' tombstone engraved with tens of thousands of names, guarded by an immense four-armed giant and surrounded by perpetual snowfall regardless of the season.

Saturday 26 March 2016

The Noble Art of Adventure Design

[Warning: spoilers for the Pathfinder modules Wake of the Watcher and House of the Beast below.]

So, recently, I've been reading through a stack of old Pathfinder adventure paths. The system is far too complex for my tastes, and the modules are always enormously padded, so I do a lot of skimming; but inside some of these baggy sixty-page monsters is a tight, punchy twelve-page adventure screaming to get out. Others, however, really do just feel like 50+ pages of nothing; and this blog post is my attempt to puzzle out both why this is, and why so few people seem to mind.

As a project in RPG adventure writing, the sheer scope of the Pathfinder Adventure Paths has probably never been equalled. One module per month for over a hundred months, all set in the same setting; seventeen-and-a-half campaigns and counting, each one going from level 1 all the way up to level 15 or beyond. It's all in there somewhere: wildernesses and dungeons, sandboxes and railroads, mysteries and murder-fests, ninjas and pirates. From my perspective, they can veer from 'almost usable as written' into 'completely worthless' and back again from one module to the next, but the editors and authors don't seem to recognise the shifts. My surprise is not that they don't happen to share my tastes in adventure design - why should they? - but that they seem to regard modules which, to me, seem so qualitatively different from one another as effectively interchangeable.

Two modules I read recently cast the matter into sharp relief: Wake of the Watcher, and House of the Beast. On the surface, Wake of the Watcher looks like much the more promising of the two: it's a Lovecraftian bonanza set in an Innsmouth-style village, featuring everything from crazy cultists to the Hounds of Tindalos, while House of the Beast is basically just a ruined temple full of gnolls. Wake of the Watcher is ostensibly an investigation, whereas House of the Beast presents itself as a straightforward kill-the-baddies dungeon bash. And yet Wake struck me as much the weaker of the two; so much so that while I'd happily run a scenario based on House (although not using the Pathfinder ruleset), I'm honestly not sure that there was anything in Wake which I could salvage for use in one of my own games. After some reflection, I think it mostly comes down to one factor: their relative levels of dynamism vs. stasis.

This sorceress never does seem to have any luck. Image from Wake of the Watcher.

Wake presents what, on paper, is a highly unstable situation: necromancers, Cthulhu cultists, Deep One knockoffs, Mi-Go brain-stealers, a haunted mansion, and a backwater village that's being deliberately kept in the dark about exactly where all the girls they keep giving up for 'fostering' are ending up. (Like The Hook Mountain Massacre, the module tries to avoid following through on its own premise here: by the time the PCs find the missing girls, they're all dead, so no-one actually needs to engage with the consequences of a lifetime of sexual exploitation.) But instead of throwing it all down in one huge storm of violence and horror and chaos and leaving the PCs to reap the whirlwind as best they can, the module assumes a completely linear approach: first the PCs go to the cult's temple and kill everything, then they go to the mansion and kill everything, then they go into the Deep One lair and kill everything, and finally they go to the Mi-Go base and kill everything, ultimately having a big fight with a big monster in order to get their hands on whatever damn thing it was they were looking for in the first place. The same sense of stasis pervades the individual encounters: most of the monsters just wait in their rooms until the PCs arrive, at which point they attack on sight and fight to the death. The whole thing reminds me of a World of Warcraft dungeon: a series of set-piece encounters positioned along a linear corridor. The locations might be impressive, the visuals might be cool, the fight might be challenging, the backstory might be good... but there's no free will, no room to manoeuvre, no chance to get off the rails. The only meaningful decisions to be made are tactical ones.

House, in contrast, presents what looks like a very stable and boring situation: there is a ruined temple, it's inhabited by gnolls, it's run by the Gnoll King, you need to kill him, the end. But scratch the surface, and there is so much stuff going on! There's been a recent slave revolt: one band of escaped slaves are currently hiding in an outbuilding, while another is barricaded into the tunnels under the temple. The shaman of a nearby troglodyte tribe, allied with the gnolls, has had his identity stolen by an evil shape-changing genie; the trogs have just found the body of their real shaman, and they are furious. The genie has no real loyalty to the gnoll king, and is using his disguise as cover for his attempts to find a secret treasure chamber hidden somewhere beneath the temple. The gnolls are living in fear of some strange whispering creature which is killing them one by one: this is actually a crazy goblin who thinks he's on a mission from God, and who assumes that the PCs have been sent to help him fulfill his sacred duty to kill the gnoll king. Every part of the situation is balanced in a kind of precarious equilibrium, just waiting for some outside influence (i.e. the PCs) to come along and push it all over into chaos.

Here she is again, in House of the Beast, clearly seconds away from yet another wardrobe malfunction...

The same sense of teetering on a tipping-point extends down into the individual encounters. The gnolls have captured an enormous scorpion to use as a source of poison, but they have no way of controlling it; if released it attacks the first thing it sees, and as a result it's obviously a resource waiting to be exploited by clever PCs. The gnolls are using giant, bad-tempered mutants as shock troops, but can only keep them in line by giving them regular sedative injections: I can think of a whole bunch of ways to exploit this just off the top of my head. (Swap the sedatives for poison! Swap the sedatives for stimulants! Pour their entire sedative supply out of the window! Drop the sedatives into the temple's water supply!) Of course, if your PCs are feeling uninspired, then any or all of these can become straightforward combat encounters: kill the goblin, kill the mutants, kill the scorpion, kill the trogs, and so on ad nauseam. But come on: giant angry mutants kept in line with sedative injections? If your PCs can't find a way to exploit that then I'd start to wonder whether they're even trying!

Now, these two ways of designing adventures seem to me to grow out of very different assumptions about what a session's play is supposed to look like. Wake clearly assumes that the point of the game is set-piece combat encounters, in which a group of powerful PCs with a range of special abilities attempt to overcome various groups of powerful enemies with special abilities of their own. Within this playstyle, the kind of dynamism which appears in House is actively undesirable, because it messes up the balance of the encounters: where's the fun in testing your tactical abilities in battle with a bunch of mutants if you've already rigged the outcome by tricking their handlers into accidentally poisoning them? If this is your paradigm, then the task of the adventure designer is simply to present you with a suitable sequence of appropriately challenging fight scenes, along with some pretence of a narrative to string them all together. House, on the other hand, seems to expect PCs to treat the game-world as a world, and to engage with it in a much more fluid and dynamic fashion. Like most OSRians, I prefer the latter; but what I'm slightly bewildered by is the fact that the editors and authors of Pathfinder don't really seem to recognise the difference at all. They sort-of understand the difference between railroads and sandboxes, and write about it in their module introductions, even if they're not very good at actually writing the latter. But they really seem to think that 'here is a place full of monsters, now go and kill them all' is functionally equivalent to 'here is a place full of seven kinds of craziness existing in precarious balance, now go and start poking things and see what happens', and that strikes me as a little odd.

Whenever I come across something in a Pathfinder module that I might like to use, I make a note. 'Ruined castle full of degenerate bird-men, ruled by a demon who fancies himself as a playwright and spends all day forcing them to stage his nonsensical dramas', for example, or 'opium-addled spider wizard seeks ancient knowledge from demon's library in the dungeon below, but can no longer distinguish between memories and hallucinations'. Weird little scenes which can be dropped into adventures with a minimum of fuss in order to create a good, memorable encounter, which could unfold in any number of directions based on the actions of the PCs, but are likely to be colourful and fun no matter what ends up happening. The better modules, like House, give me maybe eight or nine of these. The worse ones, like Wake, give me none. I can write my own dramatic combat scenes. Dramatic combat scenes are easy. 'The PCs are stranded on a burning boat when, suddenly, ninjas attack!' I could have thought of that myself, thanks. I'm much less sure I'd ever have come up with the demon playwright and his cast of degenerate bird-man 'actors' - and that, ultimately, is what I'm looking for in a published adventure. I just wish that Paizo could be as clear about which of their modules are dynamic situations as opposed to strings of set-piece fight scenes as they are about which of them are railroads or sandboxes.

And while I'm making wishes, I also wish they'd stop putting in trash fights and filler dungeons. Those are super lame.

And get that poor sorceress some underwear!

'Fifteen levels in and we still haven't found any? Not even a bra? Come on...'

Tuesday 22 March 2016

New B/X Class: The Goblin

Image by Althwen.

Everyone loves goblins, right?

This post isn't really based on any specific 'version' of goblins, except insofar as it assumes them to be sneaky and grubby and vicious and usually mad. Warhammer, Pathfinder, and Magic: the Gathering have all been big influences.

I would rather have one of these guys in my party than a goddamn elf any day. 

The Goblin

To-Hit, Hit Dice, Saves, Experience Per Level, Weapons and Armour: All as per Thief.

Darkvision: Goblins can see perfectly in the dark.

Goblin Quirks: Starting at level 1, pick one Quirk from the following list. Pick an additional Quirk each time you advance a level. Goblins get quirkier and quirkier (read: more and more spectacularly deformed, freakish, and insane) the longer they survive!

The quirks you can choose from are as follows:

  • Arson: By spending 1d6 minutes examining a building or object, you can intuitively work out what the most effective way to destroy it with fire would be. You gain a +4 bonus to saves against fire attacks.
  • Beast Affinity: Pick one of the following creatures: giant bat, giant rat, giant spider, or wolf. You have an intuitive rapport with such creatures, and they won't attack you except in self-defence or when really, really hungry. If you encounter such a creature with a number of hit dice equal to or less than your own, you can try to press it into service as a mount by spending 1d6 hours 'taming' it and making a Charisma roll. If you succeed, it will let you ride it for as long as you keep it well fed, but if you fail then it attacks you once and then runs off. 
  • Biter: All those hours spent filing your teeth has finally paid off! You have a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth, which you can use to chew through wood, ropes, etc. Instead of making a weapon attack, you can bite for 1d4 damage. 
  • Bouncer: You can jump a distance equal to your full height straight up from a standing start. You take half damage from falling. 
  • Coward: You gain a +4 bonus to AC whilst running away screaming.
  • Crazy Reflexes: Your body constantly jerks around in unpredictable ways, giving you an AC bonus equal to one-quarter of your level, rounded up. 
  • Filth Eater: You can survive on a diet of just about any kind of organic matter. You gain a +4 bonus to saves against poison and disease.
  • Goblin Fu: As long as you have both hands free, you can attack by hysterically clawing and chewing at people, inflicting 1d6 damage on a successful hit. If you also have the Biter quirk, this increases to 1d8.
  • Hyperactivity: Once per day per level you can go completely hyper for 1d6 rounds, moving at twice your normal speed and attacking twice per round. 
  • Lunatic: Your mind is so warped that it's very difficult for other people to control. You gain a +4 bonus to saves against mind-affecting powers and spells. Also you are crazy, but frankly you were probably crazy already.
  • Mimic: You can perfectly mimic the voice of anyone you have heard in the last 24 hours, but can only maintain this mimicry for a maximum of 1d6 minutes per level before breaking down into fits of hysterical giggling. 
  • Mushroom Mystic: Pick one first-level Magic-User or Cleric spell. You can cast this spell once per day, but only whilst stoned out of your head on hallucinogenic mushrooms. 
  • Persistent Freak: Once per day, when reduced to 0 HP or less by an attack, you may draw upon your weird resilience to instantly regain (1d6+1 per level) HP. If this is sufficient to take you above 0 HP, then you simply get back up again the following round. 
  • Poison Spit: Your saliva is so poisonous that you can envenom any edged weapon by licking the blade. The next person stabbed with it must save vs. poison or suffer 1d6 days of horrible, incapacitating sickness, which begins 1d3 hours after they are stabbed.
  • Rat Head: You're a rubbery little freak, and as long as you're not wearing inflexible armour you can squeeze your whole body through a space half the width of your own head. This is super freaky to watch.
  • Sneak: As long as you're not heavily burdened, you can move as soundlessly as a cat. 
  • Spider Climb: As long as you're not heavily burdened, you can swarm up walls and crawl along ceilings like a fucking spider. This ability won't work on completely smooth surfaces.
  • Stab Frenzy: When you successfully hit someone in melee with a dagger, you may immediately attempt to stab them again, with a -1 penalty to hit and damage; if you hit then you may attack a third time (with an additional -1 to hit and damage, for -2 total), and so on until you either miss, hit but inflict 0 damage, or kill them. You can only use this ability while screaming and gibbering incoherently.
  • Substance Abuse: You gain +1 to-hit and damage in melee whilst drunk and/or high. 
  • Swarm King: You have a swarm of pet vermin of some kind (rats, spiders, centipedes, etc), which either follow you around or are carried with you in a sack. On your command they can be ordered to swarm people, who then suffer a -1 penalty to attack rolls, damage, and AC for as long as they're covered in swarming vermin. (They don't get a save against this, but the effect ends if they find a way of getting the swarm off them: jumping in water, for example.) You can also use them for anything else you think a swarm of vermin would be useful for, but you can't give them any command more complex than 'go over there' and 'come back'. Your swarm is big enough to engulf up to one person per level. 
  • Twitchy: Whenever you are surprised, you have a 20% chance per level of spotting the danger just in time. (At level 5+, this effectively makes you impossible to surprise.) You only sleep 1d4 hours per night, but never seem to suffer any ill effects as a result.
  • Vandalism: You have a near-supernatural ability to destroy inanimate objects. As long as you're bashing things hysterically while screaming your head off, you gain +4 Strength for the purposes of breaking things only. 
'Goblin Wardriver' illustration by Chippy.

Thursday 17 March 2016

Bone Witches of the Cold Desert

Frozen corpse of a Bactrian camel, Gobi desert, Mongolia. Image from BBC Natural History.

Of all the regions through which the Great Road passes, this is perhaps the harshest. The desert burns by day and freezes by night: the dunes glitter with frost in the moonlight, and in winter the sand is covered with drifts of snow. The wind flings mingled sand and ice into the faces of travellers as they trudge across the desert, their garments crusted with frost; greenery is scarce, and horses and camels must forage on needle grass as best they can. The clans who inhabit the Cold Desert must combine all the hardihood of both the steppe and desert peoples, enduring heat and cold, hunger and thirst, jealously guarding knowledge of the scant and secret pastures upon which their livestock depend. The boldest of them ride fearsome Storm Worms into battle; and when the traders come they guide these great beasts up to the edges of the caravans, demanding bribes in exchange for keeping their monstrous mounts at a safe distance. Faced with these twenty-foot horrors, their bodies crackling with electricity, most caravans are happy to pass over a tribute of strong drink and warm clothing in order to keep the beasts at bay.

So life in the Cold Desert is possible, albeit demanding; but the land is constantly offering up proofs that it truly belongs to the dead. As the sands are blown back and forth by wind and storm, they expose the bones of great beasts jutting from the rocks, the remains of long-dead monsters from some previous age of the world; fossilised rib-cages a man could sleep in, vertebrae one could use as stepping-stones, gigantic reptilian heads, and limbs ending in murderous claws. An unseen presence broods over these ancient bones of stone: the spirits of the Cold Desert seem to take a special interest in the places where they lie, and indeed some speculate that the spirits of this desolate region are none other than the ghosts of the great beasts themselves, eternally watching over the wasteland which became their tomb. The Cold Desert tribes conduct all their most sacred rites under the gaze of these fossilised monsters, and revere them as the guardian spirits of the land.

Fossil skull excavated in the Gobi desert. (Source here.)

Given their ritual significance, it is held to be an act of extreme impiety to damage or desecrate these fossilised remains. Some greedy souls do so anyway, in order to sell them to passing caravans, as they command high prices among the scholars of far-off cities; but many experienced caravan-masters refuse to have anything to do with this trade in fossils, as more often than not the spirits of the land seem to object to it, heaping all manner of misfortunes upon those who dare to carry their bones away. Rarer and more dangerous are those individuals who seek the bones not for enrichment, but for personal power, seeking to claim the spiritual energies which lurk within them for themselves. Known as Bone Witches, these men and women practise a corrupt form of shamanism, using the fossils in their possession to compel the spirits which inhabit them to do their bidding. The Cold Desert tribes hate and fear Bone Witches, hunting them down and feeding them to the Storm Worms whenever they get a chance; but in the Wicked City the practise flourishes amongst those wealthy enough to afford the ancient fossils it requires, and a few Cobweb families have even financed their own expeditions into the depths of the Cold Desert in order to bring back as rich a haul of such skeletons as possible.

The Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi Desert, famous for their fossils.
Most Bone Witches are taught their unholy craft by another Bone Witch, but if one is a shaman already then it is possible to teach oneself the basics given a decent supply of fossil bones to study over the course of (20 - your Wisdom score) months. From this point forwards, any fossilised bones of dinosaurs and megafauna you manage to retrieve from the Cold Desert (and maybe a few other places elsewhere in the world) may be tapped as sources of power. After spending 24 hours meditating on such a fossil (during which your spirit beats the spirit within it into submission), you may use it as if it was a magical item, as follows:

  • Fossilised bone wielded as club or staff: Counts as a +2 weapon.
  • Fossilised dinosaur tooth or claw wielded as dagger: Counts as a +3 weapon.
  • Fossilised bones glued to the sides of a bow or gun: Counts as a +1 weapon.
  • Fossilised bones used as thrown weapons: Grant +2 to-hit and inflict 1d8 base damage.
  • Fossilised bones stitched to fur or leather armour: Counts as +2 armour.
  • Fossilised bones glued to a shield like the spokes of a wheel: Counts as a +1 shield.
  • Fossilised tooth worn as an amulet: Grants +1 to all saves.
  • Fossilised skull worn as a helmet: Grants +3 to all saves.
  • Fossilised dinosaur egg bound to body and worn over heart: Grants +2 HP per level, which are lost immediately if the egg is removed. (This may prove fatal if you're already wounded.)
  • Almost-complete fossil skeleton: If a Bone Witch is lucky enough to be able to excavate a fossil skeleton with its skull, spine, and limbs all mostly intact, then after binding it to them in meditation they may animate it and force it to do their bidding. They must fuel this process with their own life-energy, however; animating a man-sized or smaller skeleton costs 1 HP per day, animating a horse-sized skeleton cost 1 HP per hour, animating an elephant-sized skeleton (e.g. a woolly mammoth) costs 1 HP per minute, and animating anything larger than this costs 1 HP per round. Skeletons thus animated may act as mounts, fighters, or beasts of burden, but cannot communicate in any way. The Bone Witch may cause them to de-animate at will. 

Only Bone Witches may benefit from these items: for anyone else, they are just so many useless chunks of fossilised bone. Wearing or wielding them around Cold Desert clansmen is a good way of getting yourself fed to the Storm Worms.

Saturday 12 March 2016

War Masks of the Wolf Khans

Persian 15th century mask from the Persian Exhibition in Poland.:

I've written before about how the Eurasian steppe eats history. Nations lie lightly upon it, crossing the plains like wind or shadows, leaving few traces: and even when they do build cities or monuments, it only takes a few generations of neglect to reduce them to a handful of grassy mounds scattered across a million square miles of wilderness, difficult to find even if one happens to know where to look. The once-great Confederacy of the Cuman and Kipchak Khans, known to the West simply as Cumania, is a case in point. For more than three hundred years they ruled an empire the size of Western Europe, stretching from Hungary to the shores of the Irtysh River; but then the Mongols rode west and, well, everyone knows what happened to people who tried to get in the way of the Mongols. Soon there was very little left to show that Cumania had ever existed at all.

Like many Central Asian peoples, the Cumanians revered wolves - 'Wolf' was a title of honour amongst them - and so, in ATWC, I'm simply going to call the fallen empire based on them the Realm of the Wolf Khans. Every D&D setting needs a great lost empire, and they fill this niche nicely: everywhere you go was probably ruled by the Wolf Khans, once, until a newer and hungrier empire tore them down. Where did this ancient tomb complex come from? The Wolf Khans probably built it. Why is there a ruined city out in the middle of nowhere? One of the Wolf Khans probably used it as his court. Why are we going into this insanely dangerous dungeon? In order to find the war mask of one of the Wolf Khans. You do want his war mask, don't you?

You see, the Cumanians wore masks into battle.

Replica Kiptschakischer mask helmet from the 13th century, Archaeological Museum Krakow.:
Modern replica of a 13th-century Kipchak helmet with war-mask.

In ATWC, these masks are the one thing about the Wolf Khans which everyone still remembers. Everyone other than scholars might be very unclear about where they came from and which language they spoke and whether they were good kings or bad kings; but everyone knows that they wore masks, and that these masks contributed to their prowess in battle. The secret of making them was lost when the Wolf Khans fell (although it is speculated that powerful spirit-pacts were involved), and an intact war-mask which once belonged to a Khan or to one of his Wolves can now command very high prices.

The simplest of these were soldier's war-masks, which the Wolf Khans mass-manufactured by the thousand. These look pretty much like the mask in the image above, and so many of them were made that they're not that uncommon, even today; they're the kind of thing you might find being worn by a prosperous mercenary captain or bandit chief. They fill the wearer with wolfish agility and ferocity in battle, granting them +1 to-hit and damage. Long-term usage tends to leave the wearer with a strong craving for a meal of raw, red meat.

Reconstruction of the Polovtsian warrior (Cuman/Kipchak) - The first half of the XIII century. Materials burial in Kovalam, South Kiev region.:
Cumanian warrior in 13th century wargear. Note the mask.

Much rarer, and much more valuable, are the officer's war-masks, which resemble more elaborate and decorative versions of the war-masks used by common soldiers. Officers were less expendable than the men they led, so their masks were also provided with defensive enchantments; they grant a +1 bonus to-hit and damage, just like the soldier's masks, but also grant a +1 bonus to AC and all saves. They are much prized by steppe chieftains and other individuals of high net worth who must, none the less, occasionally expose themselves to the rigours of battle.

Kipchak "face mask" helmet:
Another Kipchak helmet with war-mask. Note the crazy moustaches.

Rarer still, and worth a small fortune, are the war-masks of the Khan's Wolves. 'Wolf' was a title bestowed by the Khans upon their greatest war-leaders and champions, and upon their most faithful bodyguards and companions; their masks were suitably magnificent, decorated with silver and gold, and forged with stern and majestic expressions to inspire reverence amongst their followers and strike fear into their enemies. These have all the same effects as officer's war-masks, but they also grant +1 morale to any soldiers personally led by the wearer, and impose a -1 penalty to the morale of all enemies able to see its terrible steel visage. Anyone who wears one for any length of time will find themselves responding to challenges with growls and staredowns, and gains a quite unnerving ability to emit blood-curdling howls, audible for miles across the steppe.

This one's actually Iranian, but you get the general idea.

Rarest and most precious of all were the war masks of the Khans themselves. Only twenty-three of these were ever made, one for each reigning Wolf Khan; each was buried with its wearer, and as the Wolf Khans, like most steppe kings, took great pains to keep the locations of their tombs secret, most have never been found since. Each is worth a king's ransom, for as well as all the abilities of a Wolf's mask, the war-masks of the khans blessed their wearers with the ability enter a trance state in which they could perceive and communicate with the world of spirits at will; furthermore, all but the mightiest spirits seem to regard their wearers with respect bordering on awe, and always offer them advantageous terms on spirit bargains. Before he vanished into his tower, the Wicked King often wore a mask which at least looked very much like the war-mask of one of the Wolf Khans, and possibly its powers helped him to establish his reign over the Wicked City. Then again, perhaps he just wanted people to believe that he could command the spirits at will...

One final note: the Wolf Khans, like the historical Cumanians, took it for granted that whenever a great man was buried, his most trusted lieutenant would commit ritual suicide in order to accompany him into the afterlife. So, along with the inevitable balbals, anyone planning to rob one of their royal tombs had better be ready to take on one hell of an undead guardian first...

Kipchak/Cuman warrior:

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Monsters From Central Asian Mythology 8: The Hortlak

Still getting to grips with Google plus. Sharing posts seems to be a good way to boost their visibility, but I don't want to flood anyone's G+ feed by sharing a heap of old stuff all at once. I'll probably just share a post every day or two until all the ones that people other than me might actually care about are out there...

Anyway. More Central Asian monsters. As was probably obvious from my last post, I've been doing a bit of reading up on Turkic vampires. There are a lot of vampire-type creatures in the folklore of Central Asia, and I don't think it's any kind of accident that the Balkans, the region of Europe most famous for its vampire mythology, is also the region which has historically been most heavily affected by the influx of peoples from the Central Asian steppe: Transylvania itself has the dubious honour of having been conquered by peoples of Central Asian and Turkic origin no less than five times, having been variously overrun by the Huns, the Avars, the Bulgars, the Magyars, and finally the Ottoman Turks. They brought their vampire legends with them; and these, mingling with indigenous local traditions, gave rise to the body of vampire lore upon which Dracula and its imitators would ultimately draw.

Now, of all monsters, I think that the vampire is one of the ones which has suffered most from standardisation. The vampires of Balkan folklore are weird, ambiguous creatures, not properly distinct from witches or werewolves or ghosts, but in modern media they've been defined to death: everyone knows what their rules are, how they work, what they look like, how to kill them, and so on. Faced with the variety of Central Asian vampire folklore, then, I'm inclined to embrace its variousness rather than simply picking one version and running with it. By accepting that every case is different, the resulting beasties can play a whole range of roles in games, from ravening cannon-fodder all the way up to creepy boss monsters.

So: the Hortlak.

People die, but they don't always stay dead; and sometimes, a day or a week or a year after their deaths, they climb back out of their graves. This isn't a joyful resurrection, like when a shaman finally manages to coax a sick person's spirit back into their body; this is something that isn't supposed to happen, and no good can come of it. It usually results from the tampering of malicious spirits, and a properly-conducted funeral carried out by a shaman or holy man is usually enough to stop it from happening, provided the dead person's relatives don't do anything foolish like allowing a cat or dog to jump over the corpse before burying it; but if the individual dabbled with dark forces during life, there's simply no way to be certain that they'll stay in their graves. Best burn them to ashes to be sure.

The Hortlak is a person who has come back wrong. Something is missing inside them, some part of themselves that didn't come back with them out of the grave: some fragment or fraction of their soul that sank down into the underworld and remained there, unable to escape the grip of the Men of Iron and Bone. Because of its absence, they are always hungry. There is a hole inside them that they can never fill.

They can take many forms. Some can pass for human; others look like the corpses they are, or else their bodies are rendered deformed and bestial by the force of the unholy hunger within. Some are shapechangers; some are bodiless spirits, although they must still remain close to their corpses and vanish if they are destroyed. Some retain their previous intelligence, while others are mad or mindless; some feed upon raw flesh like animals, while others suck blood, or else drain life force by their very presence. The only thing that they all have in common is their hunger. It drives them. It dominates them. It will not let them rest.

To create a Hortlak, pick or roll randomly upon each of the following tables:

Physical Form (Roll 1d8)
  1. Shambling corpse, ghastly to look upon.
  2. Bestial and deformed, with grotesque and animalistic features.
  3. Beautiful and seductive; resembles a more beautiful version of the person they were in life.
  4. Ruddy and bloated, with a swollen stomach.
  5. Looks human until you see it feed.
  6. Bodiless spirit; cannot go more than 100' from its body, and burning its corpse destroys it. Can create poltergeist activity within a 50' radius.
  7. Takes the form of an animal, such as a cat or a dog.
  8. Shapechanger: can change its appearance at will, or adopt the form of any animal of horse-sized or smaller.
Intelligence (roll 1d6)
  1. Mindless. Just shambles around, looking for something to eat and howling.
  2. Bestial. Has the intelligence of a predatory animal, and behaves like one.
  3. Crazed. Has human intelligence, but its mind is in tatters, and it constantly says and does bizarre and disturbing things.
  4. Addict. Has human intelligence, but when a source of food is present it can only maintain self-control for a maximum of 1d10 minutes before simply launching itself forwards and attempting to devour it.
  5. Eccentric. Has human intelligence and good levels of self-control, but has a variety of odd mannerisms and phobias which it is unable to repress.
  6. Complete. Has the same level of intelligence that it possessed in life, and is fully capable of laying careful plans for how best to obtain its next meal.
Method of Feeding (roll 1d4)
  1. Eats raw flesh. Will gorge itself upon carrion. Has a disturbing habit of shoving small live animals into its mouth.
  2. Drinks human blood. Tears its victims open with its teeth.
  3. Drain life-force by touch. Anyone it touches loses 1 HP per round of skin-to-skin contact.
  4. Drains life-force by proximity. Anything that remains in its company for more than a few minutes will start to feel weak, tired, and confused, and will suffer from horrible dreams.
Supernatural Abilities (roll 1d6 - roll more than one for particularly powerful Hortlak)
  1. Enormously strong: +3 to-hit and damage in melee.
  2. Iron-hard skin: gains +4 AC.
  3. May turn invisible at will.
  4. Can hurl objects around with telekinesis.
  5. Breathes fire - target takes 2d6 damage, REF save for half.
  6. Can fly through the air in the form of a ball of flame; regains its normal shape when it lands.
Lesser Hortlak: AC 12 (tough skin) or by armour if humanoid, 2 HD, to-hit +2, bite (1d6 damage) or by weapon, FORT 14, REF 14, WILL 14, morale 9, 1 supernatural ability.

Greater Hortlak: AC 14 (very tough skin) or by armour if humanoid, 4 HD, to-hit +4, bite (1d8+1 damage) or by weapon +1, FORT 12, REF 12, WILL 12, morale 10, 1d3 supernatural abilities.

Hortlak Horror: AC 18 (iron-hard skin) or by armour +4 if humanoid, 7 HD, to-hit +10, bite (1d8+4 damage) or by weapon +4, FORT 9, REF 9, WILL 9, morale 10, all supernatural abilities. (Bonuses from 'Enormously strong' and 'Iron-hard skin' already included in statline.)

Finally: everyone should read The Hortlak by Kelly Link. It's 10,000 words long, but it's worth the time it takes to read!

Monday 7 March 2016

Two poems by Google Translate

On the Xortlaq, or Azerbaijanese Vampire

The death of the person who is difficult 
is thought to be more common. 
I stayed in the eyes of the world. 
The fact that out of the grave, he died 
(presumed dead) 
is not enough to explain the burial. 

On the day of the burial

tombs of the people in some parts of Turkey and scary "vampire" and "xortlaq
believed in the existence of the creatures. 
The evils of his time, 
the people who deal with a break shot and gossip resurrected after death. 
Supposedly the grave at night, 
wandering around the shroud to the people who angers them tease each creature, 
fast run, 
horseback ride, 
weapons use, 
to beat a man loves a man miss, 
can attack the houses, 

the road can be cut.

(Source: Google translation of page 'Xortlaq', in the Azerbaijani Vikipediya. Some sentences removed and line breaks added; one instance of 'they' replaced with 'the', but text otherwise as per the original.)

The Ubir

The large-headed, long-tailed creature. 

Fire erupting from the mouth. 
As can remain dormant for days, even months, also wants 
to be able to fly. 
I do not fear anyone. 
Contagious disease that spreads around.
What if it finds space? 

Ubir opened the tomb of a dead beats nail. 
Wants to enter the picture. 
Wolf or wild dog, disguised as sheep fabrics. 
Gathered at a mountain, kidnapped people and places. 
For lack of a deceased one should be under fire. 

More Romania and Moldova, the Turkish topluluklarınca is used in the sense of the vampire. 
Fin Ugor similar soyleyislerle their people takes place. 
Live in a terrible human being captured. 
Ubir in someone who is starting to look like him, insatiable dinner. 
But it remains too weak to eat. 

Tatar people "in the eyes of the battlefield itself insatiable Ubir as" 
There is a saying. People get up at night to eat Ubırlı seeking 
transformed into a ball of fire in the chimney 
could not find the food to other people's interests and players. 
Ubir just can not get tired of fire, 
evil, greedy, devouring creature. In addition, Leslie fed. 
At any moment, cat, dog, 

or you can go dressed as a beautiful girl.

(Source: Google translation of page 'Ubir', in the Azerbaijani Vikipediya. Some sentences removed, with line breaks and one question mark added: text otherwise as per the original.)