Shadow of the Demon Lord review

Rob Schwalb is probably best known for his work on 3rd, 4th, and 5th edition (“new school”) D&D, though he has also worked on many other RPG properties, including Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire tie-in, Warhammer, Witch Hunter, and Numenera. Shadow of the Demon Lord is a solo effort, originally crowd-funded. The short overview is that it is a (dark) high fantasy setting with some innovative and streamlined mechanics, both in the core engine and in the character build system. Like many non-indie games, it does not provide much in the way of referee procedures, instead trusting that you more or less know how to run RPGs already, but in this regard it is no worse than games like D&D 5, the AGE system, or various Fantasy Flight 40K titles (just for a few examples).

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.16.07 PMEngine. SotDL will be easily recognized as a d20 game. The two major resolution systems (attack rolls and challenge rolls) are d20, roll high and represent fictional results at a rather low level of abstraction. For example, attacking with a weapon or climbing a wall. Attacks are d20 plus some ability versus opponent defense (basically, AC). The other resolution system is the Challenge Roll which is a target 10 ability check. For both systems, bonuses and penalties are applied by rolling some number of d6s and taking the greatest result (much like the advantage rule in D&D 5, but only applied to the bonus dice and with more than two dice possible). The positive dice are called boons, the negative banes, and they cancel so that 2 boons and 1 bane reduces to a single boon. This sounds like a fun approach that also restrains potential bonus inflation.

The fast turn/slow turn approach to combat looks promising. Players always get to act first but combat turns proceed in two phases. Player fast actions are followed by enemy fast actions. Then, player slow actions are resolved followed by enemy slow actions. Each combatant only gets to take one action of either type generally, however, so opting to take a slow action (like casting a spell) means that you grant the enemy initiative. This is a rich tactical tradeoff that also obviates the traditional initiative overhead, which in my opinion often does not offer much in terms of gameplay beyond the casino uncertainty of simple side-based initiative as suggested by Moldvay Basic D&D.

Character Build System. There are around 50 pages of class options and that does not include spells (a separate chapter of almost 40 pages), “ancestries” (that is, races), or “professions” (that is, backgrounds). This means that more than a third of the 272 page book is made up of essentially character build options. That may sound somewhat damning to anyone (like me) for whom character optimization feels like homework. However, it’s actually done very cleverly.

Characters don’t have levels. Instead, the group as a whole has a level and there are advancement rules for up to level 10. Player characters begin at level zero and gain a class (“novice path”) at first level which is expected to be at the end of the first session. The novice paths are takes on the classic 4: magician, priest, rogue, and warrior. As characters advance, they gain an expert path at level 3 and a master path at level 7. Extra abilities from each path (and ancestry) factor in regularly as the group gains levels. For example, the advancement that comes from attaining level 6 comes from the expert path that was chosen at level 3. This means the various path abilities are interleaved trough character development rather than sequentially gained, such as with Warhammer style careers or D&D 3 prestige classes. It feels tight.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.22.55 PMMost interestingly, the consideration set of path options explodes at each tier. There are 4 novice paths, 16 expert paths, and 64 master paths. Though there some clearly related sequential choices, there are no prerequisites. A character could be a magician, wizard, necromancer or a magician, wizard, sharpshooter. In all, there are 4096 basic class combinations just considering the paths. Recall that on top of the three paths, there are also ancestries, professions, and spells (for magic-using characters). The paths are laid out in a way that is not intimidating to me (which I rate as a significant achievement considering how I generally react to extensive character build options).

This kind of flexible, cross-archetype advancement was pretty much what I was going for back when I was working on the initial version of Hexagram (prior to The Final Castle), and as far as I can tell is completely realized here. And, it largely avoids the mess created by most multi-classing approaches. So, A+. The slow unfolding of character options is a wonderful example of smart game design that seems like it would serve many kinds of player well.

I have not read the options closely enough to know whether they are exploitable in the sense of being able to create a much more effective character based on rules mastery, but my general impression is that this danger is minimal. I also doubt initial character creation would take more time than Basic D&D. Select an ancestry, roll for or select a few ancestry background details, roll for or select a profession, roll for gear by starting wealth, and you are done. There is a standard battery of personality type questions, but they are really just suggestive and could easily be skipped in favor of just extrapolating based on the other background info or developed in play.

Referee Procedures. SotDL addresses how to run the game in chapter 9 which runs a bit under 40 pages. Most games within the D&D tradition have rather weak or only implied referee procedures, especially in second edition and beyond. Random encounters become relegated to optional subsystems and subservient to satisfying narrative development. Impartial game resolution is often deemphasized or eliminated within this tradition. Instead, fiction-derived and player satisfaction principles dominate, with deference to hero journeys, three-act plots, and ensuring that every player gets a chance to shine.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 3.13.08 PMThe referee guidelines remain mostly within this paradigm. The first part of the chapter is tips about how to use the resolution systems (when to call for a challenge roll, for example). There are some notes about intended theme and how to convey horror, terror, and revulsion at a high, conceptual level. There are some good principles buried within, such as thinking about and planning roughly for at least three adventure conclusions, corresponding to success, failure, and partial success respectively. This approach would ensure that player actions have an effect on the story development which I find more satisfying than predetermined plot.

Apart from the system-specific guidelines though, there is not a whole lot here to distinguish what the referee does from other, related games with one major exception: an event generator called Shadow of the Demon Lord (from hereon, “Shadow” to distinguish it from the name of the game as a whole). The Shadow is a d20 table that generates scenario features reminiscent of Apocalypse World fronts. Basically, the Shadow changes the world in some way, generally creating a looming danger. For example, here is one of the results, Black Sun:

The Shadow eclipses the sun, turning it black. Impossibly, light still emanates from the shadowed disk, but it is brown, sickly, and unwholesome. The sun’s gentle warmth becomes a hellish furnace, destroying life as the landscape becomes a bone-strewn dustbowl.

In addition to setting changes, some Shadow results come with minor mechanical modifications, such as making certain kinds of monsters more difficult, though as far as I can tell that is mostly a sideshow. Most Shadow results are pleasingly substantive and many have further specific tables to help flesh out the results. The Shadow system is useful and does real work for the referee beyond just communicating good advice, which is really the tabletop RPG equivalent of broscience. The system could probably easily be bolted on to other games as an corruption event generator or magic catastrophe table.

It is also worth noting that that advancement scheme is designed around a limited number of sessions (10 or 11) rather than the traditional perpetual RPG campaign. This seems like a good idea to encourage concluding campaigns with a sense of closure rather than seeing them fade away due to waning interest or life intervening (players moving away, and so forth) but such an approach could also be applied to most systems without too much effort.

Setting. As presented, the default setting of Urth is surprisingly high fantasy. I was expecting something somewhat more restrained, or at least thematically consistent. Something like the early entires in the Diablo franchise or perhaps a realization of metal album covers. Instead, the setting is flying castles, institutionalized magic, and demi-humans everywhere. This is a matter of taste, but for me this detracts somewhat from wonder and horror. It feels a bit like someone took all the extra awesome things from the genre toolbox and jammed them into the same setting. Steampunk clockwork! Super-metal demons! Weird west gunfighters! So far, there is little established canon, however, so players should be unlikely to come to a game with very strong content expectations and this could easily be tuned or replaced by the referee. The level of setting detail reminds me of nearby market alternatives such as Numenera. Overall, this part of the book is neutral for me.

Roughly one-sixth of the book is monsters, which are arguably setting content as well, and while some of them are generic, many are creative. They probably deserve more attention in this review, but the post is already running long. I may discuss them more in a future post.

Bottomline. If you are going to have a tabletop RPG with a zillion classes but you do not want it to feel overwhelming to more casual players, this is a good way to do it. Unfortunately, the PDF is not bundled with the hardcopy. Perhaps it is a bit unfair to criticize, but given standard industry practice, this makes me feel like I am being charged twice for the same content. The total cost for me was $46 (hardcopy) + $10 (US shipping) + $20 (PDF) = $76. In the end, I decided that it was worth it to me, but it caused some internal grumbling. You can buy the PDF or pre-oder the physical book here. The physical book has not shipped yet, but Rob confirmed on G+ to me that the binding is stitched (yay!). I will make another note here once I have confirmed that in person. The expected delivery is currently December 2015.

Images used in this post were extracted from PDF screen shots of art in the book that I liked. I do not think all of the art is this good, but there are a lot more pictures not featured here that I also liked.


Test-driving Dungeon World

2015-09-26 11.25.53 dungeon world 640I finally got a chance to play Dungeon World on its own terms (as opposed to just reading and borrowing ideas for D&D). Other than myself and the GM, there were three other players, none of which had ever played a tabletop RPG before (but were familiar with the general idea and had experience with computer RPGs).

In addition to general play impressions, I was also particularly interested in seeing how long and complicated the character creation process would be. My previous experiences with powered by the apocalypse games have been Apocalypse World itself (a whole session, rather complicated) and Undying (a whole session, rather complicated). Since this game was explicitly pitched as a one-shot (or maybe a two-shot), clearly character creation would have to be less extensive, so I was curious if an AW lineage game could also do a more expedited intro naturally.

We had four PCs: druid, bard, paladin, and thief (that was me). As far as I know, the setting was mostly undetermined beforehand, with the exception of a few leading questions used for creating bonds and setting the stage. The main such question was a quest hook, something along the lines of: why does your character want to destroy the Chimaera-Hydra? The Paladin’s answer was that the Chimaera-Hydra had been gathering powerful holy books from many religions which were the key to some dark ritual. My (thief) answer was that the Chimaera-Hydra guarded a fabulous treasure which would allow me to get back my lover who had been tempted away by a rich man. There were lots of other leading questions that I forget right now, but it actually did not take very long. I think it was about 30 minutes.

2015-09-26 15.06.57 dungeon word map 640In addition to this collaborative world-building, we dynamically created the beginnings of a world map using post-its based on the setting questions. I think the GM had previously decided that the Chimaera-Hydra lair was in swampy woods (though that might also have been a result of a question that I am forgetting). The starting area was a trade route in the desert called the Crescent Road. To the south was the Sapphire Isles, which was the home of the druid PC and his order. I had stolen maps and other secrets from the druidic order to gain info about the Chimaera-Hydra, which the bard knew about but had not revealed to the druid PC. The paladin had been consulting with the druids about the theft of holy books when the thief was on the isles and at one point protected the thief (probably before meeting the druid PC, though I forget exactly how that went). The level of background ended up being just about perfect, and pretty much all the details were used in play, though I do not think we ever remembered to roll+bond.

The inhabitants of the Crescent Road were wolf-people and worshiped a wolf-god that was controlled by the druids from the isles. The thief was wanted by the druids so the fiction began in media res as we were trying to enter a city on the trade route. We eluded the guards, fled into the city, and lost ourselves in the crowd, though not before distracting the guards with a dramatic display of druid shape-changing. From there we needed to decide how to reach the swamp of the Chimaera-Hydra, which was south beyond the sea. The three obvious potential routes were to the southeast past a ruined temple of the paladin’s order (which I think was destroyed by the Chimaera-Hydra), south over the sea through the Crescent Isles (where the druidic order ruled), or southwest over the rich man’s estate. The rich man’s illegitimate son was a stableboy who died in mysterious circumstances and also happened to have been the bard’s past lover. (It turns out that if you put five gay guys around an RPG table and share narrative control, 90+ percent of the NPCs turn out to be gay guys.)

Clearly I was not interested in dealing with the druids again. We settled on going southwest through the estate, though not without the help of the thief loading the dice that we rolled to decide the direction after voting yielded an even split between southwest and southeast. The rich man turned out to be a wizard, his estate a flying castle, and his stables were filled with pegasi. My elf lover had somehow been brainwashed or something and once the wizard figured out who we were he attempted to snare us and summoned a fire medusa to kill us while we were trapped in the castle’s great hall.

The combat was smooth (though starting with such high HP always feels a bit strange to me since my reference level has become OD&D’s 1d6). Some highlights include the paladin trying to force the medusa’s gaze away by physically wrestling it and accidentally partially petrifying the bard, the druid rallying the dogs in the great hall as a pack, and the elf lover being totally turned to stone. After defeating the medusa and wizard we had to carry the statue with us since we did not trust him enough to de-petrify him immediately. As a side note, the polyhedral damage dice seem unnecessary (1d6+STR would sufficiently advantage martial classes). The extra game pieces introduce complexity that will likely only be appreciated by someone that takes pleasure from D&D allusions.

2015-09-26 13.42.48 dungeon world 640After the combat, the castle began to lurch sideways and lose buoyancy. (Apparently castles need live wizards to fly. Who knew?) So then we needed to decide whether we wanted to flee and save ourselves (leaving all the castle inhabitants to fend for themselves) or try to fix it. Lore Spouting by the bard (who had informal magical knowledge) revealed that there was probably some sort of magical device at top of the central tower. So we split up with the bard going after that and the rest of us heading to the stables for some pegasi to use as getaway cars. If we couldn’t fix the castle, we figured we could still fly away.

We managed to figure out the required ritual, which required bleeding all over it as a sacrifice of life energy. This also resulted in the duplication of the bard’s consciousness within the castle because the flying depended upon an animating spirit. (This was probably my favorite session development.) That is where the session ended. We didn’t reach the Chimaera-Hydra, but we did end in possession of a sentient mind-linked flying castle and with my disloyal lover reclaimed (though he happened to be made of stone). Details.

One aspect of play that I found somewhat surprising was how the rules facilitated archetypal thief behavior. I am not sure I find this completely positive, considering how disruptive such behavior can be in more traditional games where I tend to prefer teamwork, but I was impressed that the rules when followed had this result. For example, in addition to loading the dice to influence the group’s choice of path to the swamp, at one point when in the starting city, I was tempted to craft wolfsbane (clearly highly illegal in a settlement of wolf-people). I also got the party into trouble after trying to persuade a wolf-youth to become a druid zealot follower. I failed the roll+CHA and was chased over the rooftops by guards. Luckily they were less sanguine about an acrobatic four story drop than the thief and so we avoided a fight, but still. The thief is a trouble-maker.

As I understand it, ideally Dungeon World is intended to be entirely fiction-first, with mechanical resolution of moves always flowing from fictional actions and events. In practice, it seems almost impossible to do this with the Spout Lore and Discern Realities moves. Especially Spout Lore. I can see how Discern Realities could naturally follow from a narration such as searching an area, but Spout Lore is really more an improv trigger. Though the rules place the responsibility on the GM, in practice we handled it more collaboratively.

Overall it ran smoothly and the procedures seemed easy for the new players to understand. The collaborative world building and bonds could easily be overlaid on D&D for a referee that did not want to spend time in more detailed prep and seems lighter than many other procedural alternatives such as running a game of Microscope. It might be difficult to calibrate hazard clues and difficulty by improv, though I think it would be doable with practice (I have certainly improvised fair but deadly traps in OD&D before). An exploration game could possibly be done by roughly outlining some key spatial and structural relationships and then determining the interstices during play. This would allow a sense of impartiality beyond collaborative interchange (though that is a form of discovery as well). By default, the content included in Dungeon World seems to shift the tone and atmosphere toward D&D style fantasy. Resisting that would require extensive preparation (new classes, new moves, etc), though perhaps still not more than required for building settings and dungeons for traditional D&D.


Well-written RPG books

Back in June, Noisms had several posts about writing quality in RPG texts (initial post and his examples of good RPG writing). I was also curious about this empirically, so I created a survey to see what other people thought. I didn’t define well-written but rather left it to the respondents to interpret as they chose. Don’t consider this a representative sample of anything other than people who follow me on Google Plus (and the followers of the several people that reshared the survey link).

The survey asked age, gender, the top five best-written RPG books, the game played most frequently, the game started with, and any general comments about the books chosen.

92 people (mean age = 39.51, standard deviation = 7.84) listed a book in top place. Gender was 88 male, 3 female, 1 other. Almost 100 engaged responses is not bad, though sadly not very gender diverse. I unified different entries that obviously were meant to be the same book (for example: “Dungeon Master’s Guide 1st Edition” and “1e DMG”). Since the format was free-response, unsurprisingly the results were not heavily clustered. 51 of those 92 responses for first place best-written book were unique. The top ten most mentioned titles were, with counts:

7 ad1e dmgd 1e dmg
5 yoon-suin
5 red and pleasant land
5 d&d b/x moldvay
3 dungeon crawl classics
3 call of cthulhu
2 vornheim
2 torchbearer
2 nobilis
2 lamentations of the flame princess

Looking at mentions in all five places, the results move around, but remain largely consistent. Traveller, Deep Carbon Observatory, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay surface while Nobilis, Torchbearer, and Vornheim disappear.

19 d&d b/x moldvay
19 ad1e dmgd 1e dmg
15 red and pleasant land
12 lamentations of the flame princess
8 yoon-suin
7 traveller
7 dungeon crawl classics
7 deep carbon observatory
7 call of cthulhu
6 warhammer fantasy roleplay

The standout trends seem to be toward high-concept settings or adventures (A Red and Pleasant Land, Yoon-Suin), general but coherent rule sets (Moldvay B/X, DCC RPG, LotFP, Call of Cthulhu), and influential, nostalgic classics (the AD&D DMG, B/X, maybe Call of Cthulhu).

71 respondents left general summary comments explaining their reasoning. Everyone who left a general comment also listed at least one book (and most listed all five). Reading through them, I identified six broad categories of concern: usability, evocativeness, mechanics, coaching, personality, and focus. Usability includes both direct, functional prose and also organization. Utilitarian concerns, basically. Evocativeness is about the aesthetic value of the text and communication of setting. Mechanics prizes elegance, preciseness, or innovativeness in terms of the game procedures. Coaching encompasses pedagogy, explaining how a game is intended to work, and theoretical development such as discussion of game concepts. Personality covers a unique creator vision or strong authorial voice. Finally, focus is concern with and strength of theme, tone, or highly specific intended play experience. Some comments counted in multiple categories.

Category n Percentage (n / 71)
Usability 41 58%
Evocativeness 27 38%
Coaching 11 15%
Personality 9 13%
Focus 9 13%
Mechanics 5 7%

Usability and evocativeness are the clear, high priorities, but were not necessarily shared and could be conflicting (such as with dense or extensive flavor text).

Some example comments (all quoted, some partial):

  • Put words to play principles and behavior that I didn’t have words for before. Set tone or setting very well.
  • An abundance of technical information and solid technical writing that prioritises the clarity and accessibility of information over evocative but unplayable flourishes.
  • Ability to entertain while informing, conveying the game information in a genuine and sympathetic authorial voice.
  • Ease of read is not really a factor for me. When I pick up the book, I pick up a manual that needs to teach me how to play the game and those games listed earlier do just that. They are not easy or “good” reads, but they convey the rules in approachable easy to understand manner.
  • They’re all written with clear discussions about what themes the games are exploring and what the mechanics are trying to achieve. Not just, here are some mechs, now go play.
  • They are books vivid in a sense of their world; they are books I re-read for pleasure; they are books I have learned how to be a better writer from reading.
  • Simplicity, clarity, not-up-it’s-own-arse prose, not trying to hard to be different, full of idea springboards.
  • I don’t like many of the rule changes implemented in AD&D 2e, but I have to admit that the core rulebooks are very easy to read and understand, even enjoyable to read. I especially liked the ecologies from the Monstrous Manual.
  • Evocative, dense, treat the reader as an adult with his/her own ideas and thoughts. Reading them makes me want to run them, and makes me think about gaming.

Almost everyone started playing with some flavor of D&D. The top ten answers listed (which made up 71 of 91 responses to this question) were all D&D, the top five being Moldvay Basic, AD&D, Holmes Basic, Mentzer Basic, and D&D (version unspecified). Nobody started with Vampire or other White Wolf game, which is the other major system I might expect.

Concise 5E DMG review

On Google Plus, Paolo asked if the 5E DMG is worth buying.

I can only speak for myself, but (paging through it again right now) this is what I got out of it.

  • Campaign events section is good (can’t think right now if I have seen anything better anywhere else along these lines).
  • Cosmology is okay (but about the same as every other D&D cosmology summary). The 4E DMG might actually be the strongest in this area.
  • Adventure generator is okay (but Matt’s Tome of Adventure Design is better).
  • NPC generator is okay (but Courtney’s On the NPC is better).
  • Villain generator is good.
  • 10 pages of alternative rules is good.
  • The monster creation guidelines is a wasted opportunity for a generator.
  • Random dungeon generator looks approximately equivalent to the one in the AD&D DMG (which you can download for free from WotC’s web site). I haven’t used the 5E one yet.
  • Placing all the writing, story, and plot oriented books in the inspirational reading was a strange choice. For me, such are irrelevant to tabletop roleplaying. Get a copy of Apocalypse World and read the principles there (play to find out what happens, etc).
  • The actual directions regarding what a referee does in prep and in play seem somewhat muddled and poorly organized.
5E DMG page 215

5E DMG page 215

The wizards cabinet picture on page 215 is maybe one of my favorite RPG book illustrations and manages to both have super slick production values and be amazingly atmospheric. I wish the whole book looked this way. Page 262 is notably good also and feels a bit like a slightly more polished relative of Poag’s stuff. There are a few other good illustrations, but in general I find the art disappointing.

I consider the emphasis on rulings to be a good thing for a new referee, but if you are already somewhat experienced that does not matter so much.

I think it’s probably worth buying for the historical value alone, to see where the mainstream game is going and has gone. Also if you are playing anything approaching official 5E (which I am still interested in trying), especially for things like the magic items.

Oh, also the binding is glued rather than stitched, which is unacceptable for a book with a $50 sticker price, especially one that might be used heavily. This is what happens to books with glued bindings (image credit to Gloomtrain‘s Majordomo, Mateo). WotC, if you are reading, I would replace my current set of 5E core books with premium editions were they to have real bindings.

Weapons of unusual size

Young Guts from Berserk

Young Guts from Berserk

Hexagram characters begin with stats rated from 0 to 3, using the arrays I originally developed for Gravity Sinister. (There is a random determination table for players that do not like to bother with making choices.) Then, each level, including first, players choose one stat to improve. The same stat cannot be improved two levels in a row. The max character level is 10, which means that the highest a stat can be naturally is 8 (3 initial + the 5 for every other level increases).

Among other benefits, characters with higher strength scores can wield ever more obscenely scaled weapons. There are three size categories beyond standard: huge, giant, and colossal. They require, respectively, strength scores of 4, 6, and 8, to wield effectively. (Category names are subject to adjustment.)

For normal weapons, strength adds to melee damage, up to +3. Larger weapons can express strength beyond this limit. Huge weapons allow up to +5, giant up to +7, and colossal up to +8. (In general, the max bonus is one less than the ability threshold for the next largest weapon category.) For simplicity, there are no special encumbrance considerations for oversized weapons. Each counts as one significant item. They do, however, cost more to repair (an additional 1d6 * 10 SP per exceptional size category).

Larger weapons retain any type benefits. Thus, a giant axe can express up to +7 melee damage from strength and also provides a sunder bonus to damaging enemy equipment. Oversized missile weapons apply strength to damage rather than perception, but are fixed at +4, +6, or +8, depending on the size category. For example, a huge elephant gun deals +4 damage even if the wielder has 5 strength. Such weapons still use perception for attack tests.

Though this system is designed with big weapons in mind, it would be easy to adapt to enchanted weapons that would only serve worthy warriors (that is, those strong enough or with large enough attack bonus for D&D), and so could be another way to explain and manage the traditional restriction that only fighters can use magic swords.

For AD&D (1E and 2E) ability scores, use the strength damage bonus rather than the Hexagram strength ability. For something like D&D 3E or 5E, use the ability modifier. The mappings are not perfect, but they should be good enough. Some other rulings may be required, given that HP quantities in 3E or 5E are higher that the OD&D standards I tend to assume, so adjust accordingly.

Edit: though above I noted that there are no special considerations regarding encumbrance, I am not fully convinced that is the right way to go. I think as written there may be insufficient incentive for diversity of weapon choices (that is, anyone with high strength would prefer an oversized weapon), which is perhaps uninteresting. I will need to see how this plays at the table, but one potential modification would be for each extra size category to count as a significant item, though I am wary of slipping graduated encumbrance in via the backdoor.


Pursuer's Ultra Greatsword from Dark Souls 2

Pursuer’s Ultra Greatsword from Dark Souls 2

Guts from Berserk

Guts from Berserk

Monster Hunter concept art

Monster Hunter concept art

Cloud from Final Fantasy 7

Cloud from Final Fantasy 7

Saw spear from Bloodborne

Saw spear from Bloodborne

Monster Hunter concept art

Monster Hunter concept art

Bow from Monster Hunter

Monster Hunter concept art


Firelink Shrine from Dark Souls

Firelink Shrine from Dark Souls

In the Afterlands, also called the Quiet Lands, the dead no longer hunger. They abide, mostly content, eternally. Following the Great Conjunction, after death many mortals began to find themselves aware again after death in that spare place. The Afterlands is far in the Southwest, beyond the deserts, and is marked by crisp air, green rolling hills well suited to sheep, and skies so blue they seem to go on forever. Not all dead find themselves waking from life in this place, and none know where the others go, if anywhere. The borders of the Afterlands are marked sporadically by a low, broken stone wall of no more than several feet in height, like the remnants of some previously proud fortification.

Some of the undying dead preserve a sense of self and memories by continuing the habits and practices of life, though to persist they no longer truly need sleep or sustenance. However, those undying dead that neglect such needs slowly lose individuality, becoming more inert, contemplative, and complete in themselves. There are exceptions to this majority. Some feel a nagging lack of completion, unsatisfied by eternity, and journey back into the world seeking what fortune still remains. Others have a consciousness not suited for long reflection, and go mad, hungering for lost vitality. These few hungry dead are driven from the heart of the Afterlands, either east across the desert, or into the caves deep below.

The living are welcome in the Afterlands, as long as they do not cause too much trouble. The pace of undying life is languid and the atmosphere is peaceful, though dangers remain for travelers. After death, emergence in the Afterlands happens in a multitude of ways. Some rise from ponds, at first confused by the water and lack of breath. Some sit up from shallow graves, surrounded by rich loam. Some wake in the warm embrace of cremation ash, flesh already stripped from pale white bones. Many undying dead have found meaning in cultivating these places of emergence. They tend cremation gardens, dig graves, plant tombstones, and inscribe guest lists of those likely to arrive soon using long quills dripping with rare imported green ink.

Adventurers wishing to know an aspect of their uncertain fate may visit the Afterlands and seek out a future ungrave. The undying cultivators know this service is valuable to mortals, and further that it is only valuable if it is valued. Thus, they take payment for this service. By seeking out an ungrave, an Adventurer will wake upon death as a skeleton in the Afterlands, bereft of all gear, but retaining memories and experience.

Though the conjunction of the material world with this afterlife is strongest in the realm now known as the Afterlands, pockets of afterlife can be found scattered across other lands. Afterlands expatriates sometimes tire of the exploration life and decide to settle down, but for whatever reason choose not to return to the lands west of the sands. Such emigrants may build and tend their own cremation kilns or ungrave cemeteries. Given that they are often mistaken for the hungry dead, such establishments are usually hidden. It is possible to stumble upon them or seek them out given knowledge of the signs. An Adventurer can even dig their own ungrave with a Gravedigger’s Shovel, or leave an offering at the ash pits surrounding a cremation kiln. Such ungraves work just like those in the Afterlands, though they lack the permanence of the true Afterlands.

Gravedigger’s Shovel. To make a temporary ungrave, spend a Haven Action and dig a shallow grave with a Gravedigger’s Shovel. A gravestone slowly rises from a properly formed ungrave. After use, a Gravedigger’s Shovel becomes a mundane shovel. Cost: 200 SP.

Cremation Kiln or Ungrave Cemetery. For a small fee, an undying attendant will fashion a permanent ungrave in this Afterlands outpost. Cost: 500 SP per Adventurer Level. (Similar services in the Afterlands proper cost 250 SP per Adventurer Level.)

The gear of a fallen and abandoned Adventurer will generally remain together, either left on the corpse or taken by a monster, for at least a few Haven Turns. However, if not recovered promptly, all bets are off and items may sold, traded, lost, or destroyed.


Mysidia from some Final Fantasy game

Mysidia from Final Fantasy IV

The greatest known college of magicians was founded thousands of years ago by the long-dead conqueror Alexander as a gift to his magician lover Hephaestion. Alexander’s dynasty collapsed after several generations, but the school thrived, accumulating all the sorcerous knowledge that mortals could structure, systemize, and preserve in magical taxonomies.

However, attendance in latter days has dwindled as fewer applicants could pass the stringent entrance exams, developed by some long dead master and now operating autonomously. Currently, most of the school is no longer occupied by mortals, with only several smalls wards housing the Magicians and their few pupils. The rest of the academy is sprawling halls filled with ignored and forgotten spells. Lacking proper oversight and maintenance, the spells, often lonely, now rule the far parts of the Alexandreum as dwimmers.

Legend has it that any spell ever harnessed by mortal minds (and some that have imagined themselves into existence) can be found somewhere in the Alexandreum. Many, however, have become uncooperative in their isolation. Though it is against the rules to enter the cordoned-off parts of the Alexandreum, in practice it is not hard to sneak in, and adventurers have been known to venture within seeking spells and other treasure.

So strong has the power of mortal authority over reality become within the grounds of the school that not only can divinities and their supernatural agents not affect the school, it does not even exist for them. Though covenanted adventurers may use boons within, deities are remote and unreachable. Spirit Points only replenish during Haven Turns spent in the mundane outskirts of the Alexandreum, a small area of coach houses intended for travelers and visiting merchants.

The appearance of the Alexandreum can be a surprise to new visitors, who often expect soaring and fantastic architecture in keeping with the wonder of a school for magicians. The outer district is highly traditional, with separate spired towers for each robed master and squat dormitories for apprentices. The grounds between are landscaped and crisscrossed with paths tracing out arcane geometries interspersed with gentle streams crossed by low bridges. Closer to the heart of the school the towers give way to low, ominous archive piles along with archaic groups of standing stones, often in abstract and disquieting patterns. Below lie the twisting tunnels and mineral-shielded experimentation chambers of the abandoned wards.

Magicians can consult the archive catalog, still maintained in the outer district, for directions to particular spells, though addresses so obtained can sometimes be difficult to interpret. However, sometimes it takes the master archivist several haven turns to locate the relevant information (which is convenient, given that the referee may need to map and stock that particular dungeon area).

Hexagram crafting

Several times over the past few years I have tried to create a Diablo style loot and gear generator that would work elegantly with a traditional tabletop fantasy game. This is hard, and I have not yet come up with something that I find satisfying. It is hard largely because I feel torn between writing something overly general and something overly specific. Ideally, such a generator should interface with the setting monsters, but then those need to be nailed down and the generator becomes less useful to any other setting that deviates from the setting implied by those monsters. That realization leads to a turn back toward generality, which tends to be too schematic and not particularly atmospheric.

VRA 1 mentioned the old 3E era tabletop supplement Diablo II: Diablerie which has such a generator. It is actually not bad. The prefix-item-suffix approach has potential and the volume of content alone is enough to create interesting sounding item names. Many (though not all) of the attached mechanics, however, are mostly just numerical inflation. Bonuses to attack, bonus HP, etc. It could be used, but would require so much at the table ruling and interpretation that it almost does not feel worth it.

So I have decided to try approaching the problem from a different angle. Rather than building the generator beforehand, instead I will build a game system that will build such a mechanism naturally as the campaign progresses. This sidesteps the problem of bland generalness versus specific atmospherics completely. The first time a component such as a mineral or monster part is used for crafting, a particular augmentation becomes associated with that component. Augmentations can either be taken from a list of examples or improvised using that list as guidelines to appropriate power levels. Harvesting monster parts takes one Dungeon Turn. The material and augmentation will also be added to the general gear generator table. I still sense a small amount of hand-waving here, but I think this is close enough to a workable mechanism that the remaining details will naturally reveal themselves through play tests. I can see this easily applying without fuss to just about anything, even things like gems, leading to an interesting gamble: sell that ruby for coin, or have it forged into some piece of gear?

Power inflation should be possible to keep in check through a combination of the always operative gear degradation rules (all items not made of adamant still have at least a 5% chance of being damaged during use depending on quality rating) and abilities that refresh only during haven turns. For example, I could see adding a lightning burst augmentation which would allow an adventurer to add a die of lightning damage to one successful attack per excursion.

Crafting is something you pay a Haven NPC to do for you during a Haven Turn. Though I would not say no to a player that wanted to take a crafting Expert Skill such as Smith or Brew, I am not going to include it as an option in the text because 1) I suspect (though am not sure) that it would feel suboptimal compared to skills usable within a dungeon and 2) really I am not trying to write Shopkeepers & Spreadsheets.

Specifically (now for the player-facing Haven rules):


Repair: To repair a Damaged item, pay a smith 1d6 × 10 coins. Once a particular repair cost has been determined, it will not change on subsequent Haven Turns.

Forge: To forge a weapon or piece of armor from special materials, pay 1d6 × 100 coins and consume the materials.


Brew: To brew a concoction from special materials, pay 1d6 × 100 coins and consume the materials.

Smiths and Alchemists can each carry out up to 1d6 tasks per Haven Turn.

Copernican Sovereignty principles

I am going for several things with Copernican Sovereignty both in the setting and with the rules.

Copernican Elect (Gunka no Baltzar)

Copernican Elect (Gunka no Baltzar)

The setting is not supposed to be gonzo in the genre-bending sense, but it does shift aesthetic and technological registers dramatically between campaign regions. The lowlands controlled by the Copernican Elect serves as a kind of metropole in contrast to the adventurous hinterlands. The style of these two areas is thus intended to be different. I see the Elect with a vaguely Napoleonic or even Axis styled militaristic demeanor, though not mapped to any particular Earth culture. The more extravagant Elect may present themselves in a fantastic and less conventional manner. Ideologically, they are half scheming Roman patricians building family dynasties and half messianic modernists. They have managed to subdue the gods and harness their power for mortal benefit and certainly this is Progress with a capital P. Many “monsters” in the lowlands are creations shaped from god-matter or artifacts powered by god energy, such as the multi-hued Dractonothopter airships or the giant Panzer armor suits piloted by Copernican Knights.

Adventurers (Final Fantasy Legends)

Adventurers (Final Fantasy Legends)

The simultaneous existence of different levels of development, with adventurers coming from the wild side, is something that deserves a separate post. I want to emphasize that the Elect are not supposed to serve as an evil empire. Though particular members of the Copernican Elect may be adversaries, I could just as easily see them as allies or patrons to adventurers.

In terms of game details, though I have been using some monster books, I do not plan to use any modules. This is approximately the inverse of my last few campaigns, where I often used adapted modules but made up most of my own monsters. I want to focus on building more original dungeons from the ground up. Also, I want to play test the Hexagram rules, and parts of the setting have been tuned for that purpose. For example, I would be lying if I said that the setting backstory of embodied divinities was not largely influenced by my desire to have many gods available for the covenanting rules.

Copernican Elect (Aldnoah.Zero)

Copernican Elect (Aldnoah.Zero)

This brings me to the gods of the setting. If you have been reading my sporadic notes, you may have noticed that I am using many historical deities. For example, both Hades and Osiris are likely wandering around the setting somewhere (and likely at odds, given that they both claim to be lord of the underworld). Part of this is me wanting to use Deities & Demigods as a monster manual. This approach is also influenced by the unapologetic abandon with which many anime and manga drop different cultural elements into a blender. In terms of setting metaphysics, the Great Conjunction merged many or all deific conceptions with material reality, including potentially those from other possible realities. Which is to say, Hades does not imply an identifiable Greece analog within the fictional world. In general, I prefer syncretic fictional cultures over direct references. Though I realize the practical benefit of being able to say Fantasy Japan (or whatever), with a few exceptions (like Hyboria or the Warhammer Old World) I tend to find that kind of setting less interesting.

Adventurers (Final Fantasy 3)

Adventurers (Final Fantasy 3)

This is a lot of telling rather than showing, and I hope the various principles come out more naturally within setting materials as I develop them, but I find it useful to state these things directly both to use as personal guidelines and to give players a sense of what key to play in.

Boons of Ares

One of the base features of the Copernican Sovereignty setting is that characters can form covenants with any god to gain access to the deity’s boons. Clerics begin covenanted, but other characters may opt to form a covenant during play (though no more than one), if they have an exceptional Devotion* (3 or higher). Each god has a specific set of aspect-relevant boons.

Here is a list of boons from Ares, war god.

  • Recruit: weapon becomes hovering minion (L1, A1**) until end of combat.
  • Withstand: cancel up to 1d6 incoming damage (reaction)
  • Smite: add 1d6 damage to successful blow
  • Fortify: a failed morale check becomes a success
  • Persevere: slain combatant fights for one extra round***
  • Arm: conjure a mundane weapon (persists until next resource result)
  • Ignite: wreath weapon with magic fire (persists until end of combat)
  • Encourage: allies inflict +1 damage this round due to war drums

Given the multitude of deities, it would be impractical to create boon lists for every potential god. However, they can easily be created as needed using the existing King of Life boons as guidelines.

* Devotion is one of the six abilities in Hexagram and is kinda sorta like charisma.

** L1, A1 means level 1, armor 1. Traditional equivalent stats are roughly HD 1, AC as light armor.

*** For best effect, the boon caller should shout Fight On!

Daniel Sharman as Ares in Immortals (2011)

Daniel Sharman as Ares in Immortals (2011)