Friday, March 30, 2012

What Dangers Will be Found in the Snake Museum?

For those of you involved in my G+ game this evening, here's some information you might find useful.

The Snake Museum is a ruin sheathed in creamy jade. The collection of domes rests atop a broad, gently sloping hill. It's a known haunt of the dreaded white apes who sneak out at night to prey upon the spidergoat herds of the simple villagers who live nearby.

There are two known entrances into the Snake Museum. The main entrance on the eastern side, atop a brief flight of steps, was once sealed by a pair of massive doors. Those doors have long since vanished, and this is the preferred exit and entrance of the white apes today. One of the domes on the northern side of the complex has collapsed. While the break there is strewn with rubble, the entrance is nearly for three men abreast to march into the ruin.

Among the rules we'll be using tonight are Shields Shall be Splintered and a variation on my old Table of Death & Dismemberment:



2 or lower

instant death (decapitated or other grevious wound).


fatal wound (gutted, stabbed through lung, broken back, etc.) die in 1d6 turns.


severed limb (DM's choice or roll randomly) will die in 3d6 rounds unless tourniquet applied, wound cauterized with fire, or Cure Serious Wounds cast (CSW used for this will not restore lost hp).


weapon in use broken (if not magical) or armour damaged raising the PC's AC by 2.


knocked out for 2d6 rounds, unless wearing a helm. With helm, only stunned for 1 round.


stunned for 1 round, unless wearing helm. With helm, only knocked down.


knocked down.


no effect.


a surge of adrenaline returns 1d4 hit points per every other level (1d4 at 1st and 2nd, 2d4 at 3rd and 4th, etc.) At the end of the combat, the adrenaline drains away, hit points are reduced to zero, and the PC faints for 2d6 rounds.

Monday, March 26, 2012


Sphere of the Shattered Autarch

Adrift upon the Seas of Fate, the Sphere of the Shattered Autarch is a ball roughly 85 miles in radius (giving its surface roughly the same square footage as the British Isles). While it is a disturbingly tiny sphere, its curvature obvious to any creature standing upon it, it exerts as much gravity as a far larger world. It bobs and tumbles slowly upon the Seas of Fate, with half its volume submerged when the seas are relatively calm. By slowly rolling in the Seas, the Sphere creates a facsimile of a day-and-night cycle. All land on one side of the water line is lit nearly as bright as day by a sky full of brilliant, rainbow-hued nebulae. The other side is shrouded in a deep mists and shadow. The line between them does look, to both sides, like the surface of the Seas, but passing through it doesn’t make you wet (though the fogs on the mist side are sometimes thick enough that standing in them long enough will make you soggy).

In ancient times, the Sphere was the battle-barge of a world-plundering Autarch who would descend on unsuspecting populations and unleash the hordes dwelling upon his sphere. It is said he met his fate when he fell madly in love with Tiamat. While wooing the Mother of Wyrms, she rubbed him down with honey-garlic glaze, slow-roasted him, and devoured all of him save his heart, which she still keeps as a trophy in a jar of translucent alabaster.

Population Centers

There are two inhabited port cities on the Sphere, at the poles of the sphere. Both have a large dock facility that sticks out at right-angles from the sphere. To those docking at such ports, ships “on the other side of the sea” appear to be upside down, their keels pointing towards the heavens. Stepping off the docks and onto the sphere reorients “down” as towards the center of the sphere.

The larger of the Sphere’s two port cities, Axis is metropolitan by ancient standards with a population of roughly 18,000 individuals. Due to the necessities of the port facility, the buildings at the center of Axis, mostly warehouses and sailors’ dives, are low and long buildings, while the taller towers and spires are out along the edge of the city. It serves as a port and refuge for those sailing the Seas of Fate. The gambling dens and vice halls of Axis are comprehensive in their offerings, but can be expensive, especially if a stranger appears to be wealthy or willing to spend coin freely. The Moon-Beasts have a compound near the port as well, and their agents occasionally roam the streets, scooping up drunks and others who have partied a bit too heartily for employ in their black galleys.

It’s also seen as neutral ground for gods and their minions. Axis doesn’t have temples so much as embassies from untold numbers of gods and godlings, and it’s said that some of its streets don’t actually exist on the Sphere itself, but penetrated the multiverse in various dimensions. Thus, it’s not entirely unheard of for people to stumble into Axis from other worlds without realizing what’s happened.

Finally, Axis houses a massive library. The Library of Axis is fashioned from marble and roofed with gleaming red orichalcum. The sphinx who guards and keeps the library is not very welcome of random visitors, however, and just earning access to the labyrinthine stacks can be a trial in itself.

The sewers of Axis are said to open to the ancient catacombs of Axis, where the heroes of the Autarch’s plunderers were laid to rest. Hundreds of would-be heroes descend into the sewers every year, and most are devoured by baby dragon turtles. More discerning treasure-hunters seek their fortune in the nearby Ziggurat of Ravens, assuming they can find a way in.

On the opposite side of the sphere from Axis is the port village Antipodes. The village is always shrouded in thick mists, no matter which side of the water line any particular street happens to be on. It has a third of Axis’ population and is generally considered much less urban and refined than Axis. Its tentpole industries are harvesting cabbages and raising spidergoats in the surrounding hillsides. More adventurous souls use Antipodes as a base of operations for exploring the nearby Snake Museum, an ancient ruin currently overrun by white apes.

Other Spots of Interest

At various spots along the Sphere’s equator are thick jungles of towering mushrooms, thick drifts of moss and mildew, and pools of bubbling smuts. While it’s believed that these places of devoid of traditional treasures, the sorcerers of Axis will sometimes pay adventurers to journey into them to retrieve certain spores or caps for their experiments.

The Sphere sports three of these: the Alabaster Pleasure Dome a few days journey from Axis, the Jade Pleasure Dome opposite the Snake Museum from Antipodes, and the Onyx Pleasure Dome hidden in one of the fungoid jungles. None have any obvious entrances. It’s rumored that underground passages must allow access from beneath, and that each is crammed to brimming with the Autarch’s ancient spoils.

Shrouded in crystal snow, the Winter Palace is carved from green ice. Just beneath the surface of the ice can be seen all manner of bizarre and terrifying creatures, frozen in various positions of lurking or pouncing menace. While the upper levels were plundered long ago, in a few spots the ice is clear enough that lower levels can be seen. None have yet found a way to descend to the palace’s dungeons yet.


Joceyln the cabbage-growing peasant has had a VISION. The slitherous ST. SERPENTOR has come to her IN A DREAM and told her to GO FORTH! and retake THE SNAKE MUSEUM from the fiendish WHITE APES that therein dwell, so that it may be consecrated as a monastery in HIS name. She seeks fearless companions to aid her in this worthy quest, and to share in the TREASURE!

The expedition will take place on Saturday Friday 7pm Eastern / 23:00 UTC on Google Plus. The game is run under the FLAILSNAILS conventions. Jocelyn is a 1st level Labyrinth Lord character built with Stuart Robertson's Paladin subclass. I'll be running a bastard version of Moldvay/LL, with Shields Shall be Splintered, some variation on the Table of Death & Dismemberment, and whatever tickles my fancy at the time. Characters above 3rd level will be handicapped.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Verisimilitude: It Doesn’t Work That Way

I’m willing to go along with some of what Rick Moran says about the trouble with selling a Barsoom movie to an audience, but not this:

Besides, everyone today knows that there is no life on Mars, could never be life on Mars, thus destroying the premise of the movie from the outset. And since most of the potential movie-going audience had no preconceived notions of the source material, and had no treasured memories of being swept up by the narrative, most of the audience ended up at sea — caught between wanting to suspend belief and their own realistic assumptions about Mars. In the end, how could you ignore what your own eyes have shown you about the Red Planet? We’ve had rovers exploring the surface of Mars for more than a decade.

Uh-huh. And James Bond movies flop because submersible undersea bases make no sense. Star Wars was a flop because we know explosions make no sound in space, and spaceships don’t swoop around like aircraft. How many times have we seen the facade at Petra used in a movie? And how many people have walked out of a theater because they knew that was tourist attraction in Jordan, and not where the movie-makers were trying to say it was, or what it was? I’ll bet you could count ‘em all on one hand.

But that’s the way verisimilitude works. It says, “Ok, we’re going to do this one crazy thing that we both know ain’t real. Just go with it, and we’ll have fun.” Really good fantasy and sci-fi then goes with that one change and follows through on the rational consequences: Han Solo can tell the difference in the sound of lazer blasts from asteroid collisions, James Bond needs a car that can transform into a submarine, and John Carter enjoys incredible strength and the ability to leap over tall tharks in a single bound while on Mars.

People watching Heroes had no trouble with accepting the idea of ordinary people being imbued with super powers. Those who enjoyed Lost didn’t nit-pick over all the insane crazy things that happened on the island, even when no explanation was quickly offered. Heck, that was almost certainly one of the big draws for the viewership (ditto X-Files). Modern audiences are well acquainted with the bargain of verisimilitude. You can tell when it’s being used poorly (Avatar - link NSFW) and even then lots of folks will give it a pass.

Photo by Arian Zweger.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

GURPS: Coming to a D&D Game Near You!

I keep running across articles and comments written by folks who seem utterly perplexed by what the 5e team is saying about D&D Next. How can you have one-hour games that finish even one combat and 4e-style grid maneuvers? How can the game appease both folks who want OSR-style fantasy fucking Vietnam and precious-snowflakes who will never die to mooks and random chance?

C’mon, folks, they haven’t exactly been cagey about this. They’re going to build a bare spine of a game and then give you modules to build your own personal campaign from. Want race-as-class? Great, here are some dwarf, elf, and halfling classes to slot into your campaign. Your neighbor wants race and class to be separate? Great, here’s some race modules they can slot in instead.

But what, then, goes up the cry, will be the default game? I can’t say for certain, but if they’re going to do everything they claim to be setting out to do, I imagine it’ll be so bare-bones as to be neigh unplayable. It’ll be stats, BABs, saves, and that might be all of it. Every class, race, spell, etc would be part of a module. Every campaign will be unique, nobody will use all of it, and everyone will be talking in bizarre shorthand about how their campaign works (“D&D w/Core4 cls, no hlf or gnm, hrdcr dmg.”)

Assuming they plan to take it to this extreme, the really interesting question will be how they plan to publish supplements and adventure materials that would cover every available style. Perhaps they don’t? Maybe they’ll just focus on core books and settings that provide more slottable rules modules?

All their surveys certainly seem to point to this idea. The more diverse (or fractured, take your pick) the community reveals itself to be, the more this option looks like the logical next step. Though this doesn't address comments that a 1e-sytle fighter and a 4e-style fighter can play at the same table. That just sounds like a recipe for disaster. So I’m willing to entertain the notion that I’m completely wrong here; my track record with predictions for 5e has been notoriously bad so far. ;)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Moebius Ended

Art by Loopydave.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Hex Mapping Part 20: The Politics of Hex Crawling

So, the PCs are all eager to head into the wilderness. You've got it mapped out, you have your random tables at hand, and you're ready to rock-and-roll.

What next?

Traditionally, the most defining feature of a hex-crawl is resource management. The further the PCs get from civilization, the better the rewards and the cooler the encounters. But the further they also have to go to replace consumed supplies, destroyed equipment, and lost mounts and hirelings. There's an obvious solution to this problem: the PCs can get their supplies from the monsters.

Sure, they can pillage and plunder their way across the landscape, but that only works so long as they encounter groups that are relatively easy to defeat in battle. And that's not what I'm talking about here.

Unless you're running the sort of game where monsters are the physical manifestations of an ambient and utterly evil malevolence, they'll have functioning communities and economies. These might be really small communities and extremely basic economies; I'm thinking my goblin tribes are 200 to 600 individuals with fairly advanced neolithic tech. But they sell the PCs arrows, mounts, and food, while the tribe's shamans can provide extremely basic (ie levels 1-3) magical services.

Once your players have made that leap, things can get really interesting. Clearly, there's conflict between the various monster groups on the island I've mapped out. In the east, we have goblins vs. lizardfolk vs. orcs vs. bullywugs. But there's no reason you can't make it more granular. Maybe the individual goblin tribes don't always get along well. As the old saying goes: me against my brother; my brother and me against my cousin; me, my brother, and my cousin against the stranger.

A variation on Zak's Connections Between NPCs Diagram from Vornheim is great for this sort of thing. You can scale it up for allied nations of villages, or down to cliques among the females in a single village.

Generally, you want to move from the micro to the macro in this. In the first village the players attempt to deal with, maybe they'll get involved in a fight over the chieftainship of the village. After that, they could improve their relations with the new powers-that-be by championing that village against another. And then help cement an alliance of goblin villages to thwart raids by lizardfolk slavers...

For your part, don't be thinking more than one or two opportunities ahead. Scatter a few opportunities before your players and let 'em play with the ones that interest them. It's usually not worth it to try to guess what the players will do; they'll frequently surprise you. Look at what happened, who benefited and who got a bloody nose, and build the next set of opportunities on that.

And always keep an eye on the horizon. Who are the monsters the players are dealing with dealing with in turn? How can you draw the attention of the players out towards the next line of hills, across the next river? You're weaving an interconnected world here, not telling a village-of-the-week story. Always be tossing out links to the big picture, or having macro concerns affecting micro challenges.

Art by Arthur Rackham.