Biological imagination

Orc Stain is a book by James Stokoe put out by Image Comics during the period from 2010 to 2012. There were only seven issues, and the story was left unfinished. Thank Pearce for drawing my attention to this during some G+ conversation about comics. Though this post is image-heavy, I have barely scratched the surface. Similar quality can be found on average at least every second or third page.

There is so much raw creativity here it is hard to know where to start. The protagonist orc One-Eye has a knack with a hammer. He can see faults in just about anything, and knows exactly where to hit and with how much force in order to make something fall apart.

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The detail work is amazing (pencil example from the author’s blog). The entire series is cast in a distinctive green, purple, magenta, red palette which is like seeing the world through a bruise-tinted lens.

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The best part though? It is the amoebic, organic quality to everything. This extends from the depiction of tools and technology to the texture of everyday objects. Birds are axes. Safes live. An orcish telephone is a person strung up like a puppet who transmits information over cables by twitching (or something).

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The raw and sometimes gory action goes down smoothly because of the humor. This is no grimdark mire. Similarly with sexuality. The orcs have love nymphs in bondage and their currency uses petrified genitalia. That’s right, there is plenty of orc dick to be seen here and the funny thing is that it’s so skillfully woven into the setting, story, and humor that it doesn’t seem excessive or out of place. When you read it, it’s just like: yup, orcs.

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Bowie the poison thrower (clearly played by Helena Bonham Carter)

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Though the series is premised on inverting fantasy cliches, it does not accomplish this by presenting traditionally monstrous creatures as misunderstood and unfairly vilified, as is often done. Orcish culture as shown is rather terrible, but amusingly and endearingly so, even when (sometimes especially when) it veers off into absurd cruelty and ultra-violence.

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On Twitter, on November 15th of this year, the author wrote that he had finally finished inking issue 8, so it looks like there is hope that Orc Stain has not been completely abandoned, though it probably makes sense to calibrate expectations due to the rate of release so far.

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You can buy issues digitally from Comixology, which is what I did. Because of the Image policy on DRM, this also means that you get unencumbered PDF versions in addition to the “guided view” feature available in their native reader (which is quite nice).

Highly recommended if you like anything you have seen here even a little bit.

Deep Carbon Observatory exordium

Western Europe after the treaty (source)

Western Europe after the treaty (source)

Following is the background I put together for a historical situating of Deep Carbon Observatory which I am running in person. One session down so far.

The year is 1713 and the War of the Spanish Succession was just settled by the Treaty of Utrecht. Great Britain, Portugal, the Dutch, and others successfully prevented France from consolidating a hold over Spain. The Faerie courts (unbeknownst to most common folk) meddled throughout the process, but seem to have vanished, not sending delegations to the final treaty negotiations. The Unseelie Twilight Prince had been seen as friendly to the British while the Seelie Summer Queen threw her lot behind the French. At the same time, strange Swiss machines were surfacing on battlefields and in other locations. British intelligence has tracked Swiss supply to the remote Lock River valley in the Low Countries. However, in the market supply of these Swiss devices seems to have ceased, and British spies report that the valley has flooded.

A group of infamous adventurers called The Crows, previously in the employ of France but now disavowed, have already been reported in the area. You are part of a privateer expedition financed by the British Crown. Your primary objective is to investigate the flood to find out if something has happened to the supply of materials used by the Swiss machinists, who had a relationship with the British. The secondary objective is to kill or (preferably) capture The Crows. As per standard privateering arrangements, all treasure or valuables discovered may be kept as spoils. Machines and armaments are to be kept out of the hands of the French Dynasts at all costs lest the fist of Tyranny descent upon the continent.

You need not be British, but if you are not you are most likely mercenaries included in the continental expedition.


Rules are Lamentations of the Flame Princess with the following modifications:

PCs begin at level 3. Increased funds for characters starting above level one is given on page 8 of Rules & Magic. In addition, you will begin with a retainer/attendant, which is a zero level character. If your main character dies, you can either continue playing as this retainer, or make a new character at your option.

Demi-human classes may be selected but should be re-skinned as humans (a halfling could be recast as a scout, and so forth).

Magic-users are renamed Occultists and may be either members of the hermetic order or hedge magicians. There are also Diabolists, but these worshippers of The Adversary are not available as PCs.

Clerics are renamed Rosicrucians and are members of an esoteric society dedicated to furthering the machinations of Heaven.

Non-occultist, non-fighter characters have an attack bonus of 1/2 level (round up).

XP will be awarded for treasure recovered as standard, and also for the completion of objectives (capture/killing of The Crows, furthering the aims of your current British patrons, and so forth). No XP will be awarded for combat or killing in general, however.

Reloading uses the firearms skill. This has a base of 1 in 6 for all characters, modified by attack bonus. To reload, spend a combat action, succeed on a dexterity check (1d20 less than or equal to score), and succeed on a firearms skill check. A firearms skill check may also be used to clean a fouled weapon (spending an exploration turn to make the check), or other firearms-related tasks.

The overloaded encounter die will be used for timekeeping.

Appropriateness

In class, a point made about subject quality: a sample is good if it is appropriate to the question being asked. You cannot legitimately criticize a study for “only using college students” (or whatever) unless there is a articulable reason to think that the sample is inappropriate to the particular inquiry. And often there is such a reason, but frequently the objection is formulaic and in service of some other agenda.

Analogously for game design: a system is good if it is appropriate to an audience (or can be misused, misunderstood, or corrupted in a way that is appropriate to an audience). The second case is “hacking” in both the traditional using for a purpose other than originally intended and the RPG modifying slightly senses.

Maybe this is obvious? In any case I found the comparison useful to think about, given how often “good design” is conceptualized as some sort of independent quality.


Aside: you may have noticed the relative dearth of posts lately. This corresponded with the beginning of grad school, which seems to be somewhat time intensive. Who would have thought? I do not intend to disappear completely, but expect the frequency to remain lowered.

Product framing

Anomalous Subsurface Environment is a setting book that just happens to include a medium sized dungeon. It is a 100 page book. The dungeon part is pages 50 through 77, which is only 27% of the total page count. More than 40% is direct campaign background, 14% is new monsters, and so forth. Yet ASE1 is presented as a module (generally) and a mega-dungeon (specifically). It is my contention that ASE1 would have not been nearly as successful had it been released as The Land of One Thousand Towers campaign setting (with starter adventure included), and it would have done even worse as a cartoon science fantasy retro-clone (which it also easily could have been, with a few more classes and a chapter on combat rules).

Isle of the Unknown was sold as a hex crawl setting or location, but is also a bestiary. While I am not really interested in re-litigating whether Isle is a good setting, or has creative monsters, it seems uncontroversial, to me, to claim that it would have done better if it had focused on the lavishly illustrated monsters and wizards (say), instead of the mostly implied location-based adventure. Rather than “lack of fully realized areas,” instead the evaluation would be “each monster has a bonus encounter area detailed, all collected in the bonus hex map appendix.”

These are counterfactuals, so we can’t really know what would have happened, but examine for yourself what products have been successful. This is worth thinking about if you are making an RPG product. Consider what it is that people have already. How you position a product will guide people toward an evaluation yardstick. If you release something as a mega-dungeon, it will be compared to Barrowmaze, Rappan Athuk, and ASE. If you release something as a bestiary, it will be compared to the Fiend Folio and Teratic Tome. If you release something as a ruleset, it will be compared to Labyrinth Lord, ACKS, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess. And so forth. Think about, for one final example, how successful LotFP likely would have been had it been released as the Early Modern Weird Horror Historical Campaign Setting (which is actually just a hop, skip, and jump away from what is currently in the Rules & Magic hardcover).

A full new ruleset is probably the least effective way to present something given how saturated that particular market has become, unless you are specifically looking to appeal to the crowd that is interested in rules for rules’ sake (and in that case you really need to have new and interesting rules; an interesting setting is probably not enough). You can see this most clearly in the story games communities, where most of the successful products are innovative mechanically but often generic (or more kindly, archetypal) regarding atmosphere and setting. See, for example, Swords Without Master (wildly creative rules with an implied generic swords & sorcery setting) and Dungeon World (an unsurprising classic D&D setting variation on the elegant Apocalypse World engine).

Gorgonthorn and content entities

Ancheim, from Bravely Default (source)

Ancheim, from Bravely Default (source)

Material for tabletop RPGs is often grouped around specific types. For example: spells, monsters, classes, magic items, hexes, dungeons, NPCs, and so forth. Some of these types may be more complex than others. Thus, a published dungeon might include magic items and NPCs. Much of the utility of RPG content revolves around the effectiveness of presentation form. For example, is a monster better communicated as a page spread, with standardized stat section, picture, and extensive fictional ecology, or as a set of incomplete stats and a few sketched sentences? There may be benefits to both approaches. The online DIY scene has generated a number of innovative approaches in this area, such as the one page dungeon template (and resulting explosion of variations on that theme).

Some entities have had more attention than others. Browsing blogs, it is hard not to stumble over new monsters especially, but also classes, spells and magic items. Dungeons require a bit more investment for creation, so there are fewer, but there are still many out there, especially with the one page dungeon contest driving content creation. Towns, however, despite being necessary content for many play styles and an excellent way of communicating setting, are rarely created and shared. By town here I mean any kind of somewhat sheltered and civilized area. PCs may primarily rest, recover, and restock in a town, but a town can also be a site of adventure.

What makes a good town? The canals of Venice, the slums of Midgar in Final Fantasy 7, the clockwork town of Ancheim in Bravely Default, the treetop Inn of the Last Home in Dragonlance’s Solace, the Acropolis of Athens. A town does not have to be strange to be good, though that can be an easy way to add interest, but it has to be distinctive in some way. Places that feel real are memorable. Thinking generally, at least two or three notable features is probably a decent rule of thumb. Extending this to tabletop games in particular, I would also add several specific rules hooks as well, such as Uxa the town of apothecaries being the only place where universal antitoxins can be purchased. Such features give players a reason to care about where PCs are. If all towns are just inns and item shops, location does not matter, but if you can only learn time magic from the Chronomancers of Dundasmael, the town itself becomes adventure fuel in addition to supporting atmosphere and setting.

As an experiment in creating such a location, included below is the town of Gorgonthorn (PDF version), a town perched on crags overlooking deep pools of water where giant crustaceans are harvested and the clerics wear masks. There are many ways that this presentation could still be improved. Gorgonthorn is still too wordy, and more setting could be presented through tables or rules than prose. Further, little attention has been paid to information design or layout directly.


Gorgonthorn

The town of Gorgonthorn is built on rocky scrub-filled highlands. It clings to a collection of perilous rocky outcroppings that are riddled with fissures hundreds of feet deep. Dark pools of frigid water lurk at the bottom of the fissures. Within these waters thrive a hardy form of spiny, cantankerous crustacean known as the vergomult which ranges in size from a single coin to a whole treasure chest. Harvesting the vergomults is dangerous and painstaking work, and often requires descending into the rocky crevasses, and braving the razor-sharp stones. Potential rewards are great for those that are skilled, however.

Wooden walkways and narrow bridges are generally required to navigate between buildings, with the exception of the central market, which is the now-smoothed remnant of some ancient foundation.

Gorgonthorn has no walls, but is defended by three tall, slightly crumbled watchtowers (originally built by some long dead conqueror), high ground, and numerous hazardous deadfalls (some artificial and lined with stakes) which are familiar to the local soldiery. One tower has a functional scorpion siege weapon mounted at the top, generally pointed toward the wilds. Positioned on the edge of ruined badlands, Gorgonthorn is also a common waypoint for adventurers and treasure hunters seeking glory and gold in untracked places.

Laws of note

  • Sorcery in town is only permitted by members of the local Order of Mystery.
  • Masks must be worn when in public on the weekly holy day (purchasable at the Sacrosanctum).
  • The ancient right of trial by riddle is null and void.

Social status is indicated by the extravagance and expense of holy day masks.

Buying items in Gorgonthorn

Most minor items (torches, rations, daggers, rope, etc) can be purchased in quantity (within reason) at rulebook prices. See below for details about merchants and sellers.

More significant items (such as suits of armor, heavy weapons, scrolls of magic spells, potions, and so forth) are limited in supply, only 1 or 2 of each specific kind of item available during any given game session. Items with limited supply should not be assumed to accumulate if PCs do not purchase them, as NPCs are customers as well.

Purveyors of fine adventuring products

Inn

This is Gorgonthorn’s main inn and hostel. Provisions, rations, sustenance, and long-term room lets may be found here, along with Grand Vergomult, the house specialty dish. Basic room and board is 10 GP and will cover one person between adventuring excusions.

  • Room and board between excursions (10 GP)
  • Prepared ration, one day’s worth for one person (1 GP)
  • Grand Vergomult feast, may grant reaction roll bonus (100 GP per plate)

Armory

This unnamed shop is marked by a pair of crossed wooden swords above the door. The proprietor is not a weapon smith, and relies mostly on commerce for supplies, though there are several craftspeople of vergomult chitin that make armor, shields, knives, and arrowheads out of that material.

Order of Mystery guild house

It is said that long ago the Order of Mystery spread across many lands and allowed philosophers to join in profitable congress. Many laypeople still believe that the rulers of civilized lands are little more than puppets of the magisters. Those more knowledgeable know that the Order has long been riven by jealousy and fear into feuding sects, and each guild house is essentially independent. The courtyard garden of the guild house is perpetually in bloom. The current Magister is the ageless and imposing sorceress Arvilia.

Members of the Order may purchase spell scrolls at listed prices:

  • Scroll of first level magic-user spell (100 GP)
  • Scroll of second level magic-user spell (200 GP)
  • Scroll of third level magic-user spell (300 GP)

Anyone may pay to have a weapon temporarily enchanted:

  • Enchant a weapon, next attack at +1 and deals magic damage (50 GP)

Sacrosanctum of infinite purity

The Sacrosanctum is a temple of law presided over by three high-ranking (but non-martial) clerics. These priests can craft the items listed below and turn undead as first level clerics, but otherwise have no special abilities. Several jewellers and porcelain sculptors are employed by the Sacrosanctum to craft holy day masks.

  • Healing potion, restores 1d6+1 HP (100 GP)
  • Scroll of protection, pick between undead or lycanthropes (300 GP)
  • Antidote, revive a character slain by poison if administered within one exploration turn (500 GP)
  • Bless a weapon, effect as holy water added to next attack (50 GP)

House of the warlock

Technically a rebel and apostate in the eyes of both the Magister and the Sacrosanctum, Tanser Noor has understandings with (or knowledge of dark secrets regarding) the significant town power holders, and thus is tolerated. Tanser’s small wooden house requires navigating a steep, rickety wooden stair (absent handrails) fifty feet down into one of Gorgonthorn’s many crevasses. There is a large bucket on a pulley operated mechanism that Tanser uses to bring supplies between his house and the town proper. He has a sweet tooth and will generally not be home unless a dessert of some type is placed in the bucket and lowered down prior to knocking on his door.

Tanser has the ability to magically conceal his home (the chance of finding a secret door may be used if a full day is spent searching). He generally only does this when outsiders of high office or strange aspect visit Gorgonthorn.

Items available:

  • Love potion, as charm person spell, imbiber will fixate on next interlocutor (100 GP)
  • Poison, save or die if ingested by human-type (100 GP)
  • Voodoo doll, requires a dear possession or part of the target, works on human-types (500 GP)

Other establishments and important locations

Sheriff’s mansion

The town of Gorgonthorn has never had a proper grant of nobility, but it is ruled in practice by the Sheriff, who controls a small, independent soldiery that keeps order and protects the town. The sherif’s mansion is an imposing (but somewhat crude) stone building located across a wide, wooden bridge from the main market square. The Sheriff generally encourages adventurers (as long as they do not stay in town too long), as they bring money and can fulfill frontier bounties without needing to risk proper soldiery.

Ossuarium trevixus

Within this long, low clay brick building are interred the bones of Gorgonthorn’s dead. Proper interment costs 100 GP. The bones of the poor are cast upon the rocks after the flesh is burned away for purification. The ossuarium is operated by the priests from the Sacrosanctum. The building itself predates the establishment of Gorgonthorn.

Vergomulter houses

These cubic domiciles are crafted from clay bricks and shelter the less wealthy residents of Gorgonthorn. The clay bricks are stamped with good luck charms and signs of bounty before being fired. The residences have flat roofes and are often stacked, requiring a ladder for access. Up to two people may reside in a single room.

  • Purchase of a residence (500 GP per room)

Flailsnails between games

The Flailsnails multiverse is distributed and lacks any central authority. It is comprised of numerous, only partially compatible settings, that have drastically different economies. Firearms or even more advanced weapons are available in some worlds, whereas obsidian edged clubs might be cutting edge technology in other places. Whereas part of the effect of this is that the Flailsnails agglomeration as a whole takes on the qualities of the strangest and most extreme of the constituent areas, it does leave open to question: what areas does any given PC have access to at any given time? The conventions themselves are largely silent on this topic, but I have been following some informal rules of my own with my Flailsnails PCs that feel fair to me.

Currency conversion. Any XP-equivalent currency in terms of purchasing power is transparently converted between realms. So dollars become LotFP SP become gold doubloons become interstellar credits. Or whatever. Unless a particular physicality is important (such as using silver pieces to craft a crude silver weapon to damage a lycanthrope), in which case you are going to have to have a conversation with whatever referee and figure it out.

Downtime actions and equipment purchasing. I only allow my PCs to buy items or take actions within the last setting visited. This means that if my character is not in, say, Kalak-Nur currently, I need to play in another Kalak-Nur game before I can buy stuff there, even if I have played there before at some point. The same goes for administering land holdings or anything else that requires access to some world-specific resource.

Character-specific abilities, however, are a different matter. If I make a Holmes magic-user, I will craft scrolls at 100 GP per spell level between sessions, even though a particular session referee might have scroll creation work differently within a given setting.

While there is no particular reason why anyone else needs to follow these “rules,” I think they are good guidelines, and also provide adventuring motivation (if you assume that you need to survive a session in wherever before you can buy stuff there). Of course, I also happily apply my own rather stringent encumbrance rules (1 item per point of strength) to all of my own Flailsnails PCs unilaterally, so it is possible that I derive more utility than others from self-imposed limits.

Specific beats general

Reading the 5E PHB, it seems to me like one of the differences between older (as in pre-WotC) D&D and newer D&D is that character abilities more often manifest as “specific beats general” rules. For example: monk class feature: Stillness of Mind: starting at 7th level, you can use your action to end one effect on yourself that is causing you to be charmed or frightened. This is, of course, explicitly discussed as a design principle (page 7), and I think the same language was in 4E as well, though I do not have those books conveniently available to check at the moment.

There are some of these sorts of things in earlier D&D also, though not nearly as many. The paladin’s lay on hands ability is one such power, as is turn undead, and, perhaps, spell casting in general. But they were not nearly so prevalent, and the few classes that made heavy use of this sort of design (as did the AD&D monk and bard) felt different, and maybe even a bit off, like they didn’t fit the system quite as well as classes like the fighter, thief, or magic-user. Spells are the standard bundles of reality distortion available in earlier D&Ds, and while they do certainly increase PC play complexity (especially for those classes that need to make spell preparation decisions also), spells are a bit more cleanly separated from the underlying game engine, compared to the myriad discretionary class features present in the newer editions, and also are usually resources that must be spent, as opposed to options that may continually come into play.

As a matter of game play, such “specific beats general” abilities are cognitively heavier than the choices necessary when playing most classes in older editions. They are part of a catalog that must be kept in active memory. You need to remember that you have Stillness of Mind available as an option when you need to end a charmed or frightened effect. Is this qualitatively different than the equipment inventories that develop with medium to high level characters in older D&D? I am not sure. In any case, equipment inventories are also an aspect of characters in newer D&Ds, so at the very least, when comparing complexities, the comparison is A compared to A + B.

I can’t help but think that the card design paradigm of Magic: The Gathering contributed to this trend. Even when considering alternative system approaches before the onset of WotC D&D, most games seem to focus less on little bundles of rules that accrete to PCs as they develop, and more on a fixed collection of measurements that improve (attack tables, skill ratings, and so forth). For example, the attributes, abilities, and backgrounds in Vampire: The Masquerade are mostly all on the character sheet for all characters to begin with. Characters develop vertically more than horizontally. This is not necessarily meant to be condemnatory, nor is it any kind of ironclad principle (as I am sure there are plenty of exceptions), but it does seem like drift in design sensibilities.

On blasted sands

Not too long ago, D&D Classics released the 2E Dark Sun boxed set and the 4E Dark Sun campaign setting. I bought and read them both, and this was the result: some rules to bolt on to an OD&D style chassis in order to run a Dark Sun game with streamlined, lethal rules. The 2E boxed set is the better of the two products, and I would recommend using it for setting material.

In the past, I have thought that perhaps a human-only Dark Sun, with a more swords & sorcery, or old Hollywood sandal epic, style might be more interesting than the twisted versions of the standard D&D races that were actually included in the setting. But now I think that is not quite right. The flavor of Dark Sun needs some honestly strange Barsoomian weirdness, which I have included. But there are no elves, dwarves, or halflings to be found. Race has been subsumed into background. You will see that most of the Dark Sun archetypes have been preserved without the Tolkien races, however.

There is a PDF version too.


In the far future or distant past, a ruined land abides under merciless suns. Of those that remain, most toil hard and die young. Few prosper. Some, however, take an obsidian blade or bone scourge and try to wring what blood and sweetness are left in this withered husk of a dying world.

Select (randomly or by desire) a background, class, and (optionally) theme. Depending on those options, contacts and psionic powers may also be called for. For rules not included here, refer to any traditional fantasy ruleset (Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox, Labyrinth Lord, 1974 Dungeons & Dragons, and so forth).

Background

Roll 1d10 or pick.

  1. Slave. Either a foreigner captured in war, slaver abductee, or born into slavery. Slave skills and education can vary dramatically based on life before slavery, but most slaves are manual laborers that provide city-states’ resources and finished products. Who is or was your master? Are you still a slave, and if so what arrangement allows you the functional freedom to adventure? Always on the lookout for danger, characters with a slave background gain a +1 to search checks based on d6 rolls or bonus to ability checks associated with perception.
  2. Citizen. From a wealthier background. Likely a land-holding noble, professional soldier, free artisan, or templar. Citizens begin with a society contact in one of the city-states (family, army, guild, or templar bureau). Citizens are the only background that may begin the game as a templar (see themes below).
  3. Monopolist. Members of the great trading families are never granted citizenship, and in fact monopolist compounds have a pseudo-sovereign status. Monopolists begin with a merchant house contact (useful for hiding from authorities) and may (along with traveling companions) take passage on company caravans without needing to pay passage.
  4. Arena-bred. Somebody invested a lot of money either breeding you or purchasing you from a breeder. Gladiators, prestige slaves, and seraglio workers for those with specific tastes are all common employments for arena-bred. The arena-bred tend toward extreme stubbornness and thus make terrible soldiers. Arena-bred gain a +2 bonus to all saving throws and can thrive on half normal rations.
  5. Herculon. The elite troops of sorcerer kings. Swollen to enormous proportions by dark sorcery. All herculons have 18 strength and constitution (replace any previous roll). However, virtually all costs, from equipment (which must be custom made) to upkeep and transportation, are doubled. The sorcerous origin of herculons makes them more susceptible than normal to magic, imposing a -4 penalty to saves versus magic when not under the protection of a sorcerer king, and their great size may pose other problems, such as being more likely to be hit by stray missiles, as determined situationally by the referee.
  6. Mantis person. Jump twice as far as an athletic human. Jump attack deals +1d6 damage but is only possible if not in melee. Natural chitin AC of medium armor. Mantis people are inscrutable to humans and thus have a functional charisma of 3 to all those not of their own kind.
  7. Nomad, dune runner. Hardy, tall, and slender folk that have adapted to nomadic life on the sands. Dune runners have speed equal to 150% of human standard, and are not affected by sunstroke (though they can still die from running out of supplies). Starting contact: nomad dune runner tribe.
  8. Nomad, herder. Herders are especially knowledgeable about the savage wilderness, and any party that includes a herder gains a +1 to d6 search tests during wilderness turns. Long association with the partially psionic livestock allows herders to broadcast psychic commands to such creatures with a successful charisma check. Standard reaction rolls should be used to determine actual animal behavior, if such a command is successful. Starting contact: nomad herder tribe.
  9. Pygmy head hunter. These wild folk have no taboo against the use or consumption of humans and other intelligent creatures. Head hunters delight in crafting equipment from the remains of their slain enemies. If recognized, they are terrifying, imposing a penalty of 2 to intelligent enemy morale tests. The pygmies are also small and lithe, rarely taller than four feet, and gain a +2 to armor class when aware, unrestrained, and not wearing heavy armor.
  10. Sandlark. A scavenger of the desert grit. Sandlarks can be found both within and outside of the few, great city-states. Given a day of scrounging, sandlarks have a 5 in 6 chance of acquiring enough sustenance for 1-2 human sized creatures. Additionally, during each downtime action, a sandlark may repair for free one non-iron item.

Class

Classes represent a character’s basic capabilities and never change once selected. Characters of any background may choose any class.

  • Fighter
  • Rogue
  • Sorcerer

From class, determine HP, attack bonus, saving throws, and permitted equipment.

Theme

Themes are optional, and function like careers that characters of any class can move in or out of. Characters may begin with a theme, and there are no restrictions other than that starting as a templar is only possible for citizens. A character may only have one theme at a time. themes have an associated level, and each time a character gains a level in their base class, the theme level increases as well. Thus, a fighter could start as a gladiator, and progress in that theme for, say, three levels, and then switch to psion. At fifth level, then, the character would have all the standard fighter stats plus the abilities that accrue from being a level 3 gladiator and a level 2 psion. Switching to a new theme requires finding a teacher or acceptance into an appropriate organization.

  • Gladiator. Combat die and special maneuver.
  • Templar. 1 sorcerer king boon per level per excursion.
  • Psion. Gain one power point and a new psionic power (see psionics below).
  • Elementalist. 1 elemental boon per level per excursion.

Abilities listed per theme are gained each level. Characters that choose to begin with the psion theme are wild talents and develop their psionic skills without need of a teacher. This development ends if they choose to switch themes, however, and a teacher must be found to progress beyond their natural level of talent. Each theme generally comes with responsibilities as well, such as services to a psionic master or missions for a sorcerer king. Most adventuring templars have special responsibilities as either spies, secret police, or fixers (playing an establishment templar would likely be boring). Note that “gladiator” can refer both to arena combatants and mercenaries or soldiers of fortune that fight in a similarly flashy and intimidating manner.

Many sorcerers are psions, as this allows sorcery to be camouflaged with psionic effects.

Elementalists must choose one of air, earth, fire, or water and changing this requires changing theme (finding a new teacher, etc). Boons are drawn from element specific lists or developed by the player (with referee approval).

Gladiators gain one combat die (d6) per gladiator theme level. These dice may be added to any combat-oriented roll (attack, damage, ability check, and so forth), but must be committed prior to the result of the original die being known. Once rolled, combat dice are expended, though all combat dice are recovered during downtime.

Psionics

Psions have a number of max power points equal to psion theme level. Powers costs one power point per use. All power points are refreshed during downtime.

Each time the psion theme level raises, the PC gets another power point and the choice of 1) a new first rank power or 2) increasing the rank of an existing power. The result of increasing the rank of a power is noted in parentheses below.

Psions may not use psionic powers if wearing a helmet.

Psionic powers

Default range for all powers is 100 feet. Default duration is one turn, except for mind blast and pyrokinesis, which are instantaneous.

  • Clairaudience (+100 feet range, increase duration)
  • Clairvoyance (+100 feet range, increase duration)
  • Mind blast, 2d6 psychic damage, divide dice between targets as desired (+1d6 damage)
  • Pyrokinesis, 2d6 fire damage (+1d6 damage)
  • Telekinesis, up to PC weight (+PC weight)
  • Telepathy, reading minds permits save, projecting thoughts does not (+1 target)

Suggestion

All psions have the ability to control minds. This can be attempted any number of times, though no more than once per exploration turn, and failure causes feedback (1d6 psychic damage). Resolve as 1d20 + psion theme level versus mental defense (which is 10 + psion theme level). Psions reduced to zero HP from such psychic damage are not slain, but rather knocked unconscious, retaining a single hit point.

Sorcery

Sorcery consumes life energy. Sorcerers can either draw this from within at personal cost or from external life.

If drawn from within, the sorcerer takes 1d6 physical stat damage per level of spell. Each such die of ability damage may be inflicted upon strength, dexterity, or constitution as desired by the player though the stats must be declared prior to rolling dice. For example, a second level spell would “cost” 2d6 ability points. All stat damage from sorcery is recovered during downtime. Sorcerers reduced to zero in any stat are knocked unconscious.

If drawn from external life, all vegetation near the sorcerer withers and dies. The energy may also be forcibly drawn from another person, dealing 1d6 damage +1 point of damage per spell level (save for half). Such a target must be within 10 feet of the sorcerer per sorcerer class level. Sorcerers can sense when energy is pulled from external life nearby, as can psions if the energy was drained from an intelligent creature. Syphoning life in this manner is accompanied by spectacular blue lighting, which conveys the sorcerous energy from the victim to the sorcerer’s outstretched fingers.

Using either method, the spell cast is wiped from the sorcerer’s mind and must be prepared before it can be cast again.

Gear and money

Default coinage is the ceramic chit, and should replace the gold piece if consulting other rules. Metallic coins are extremely rare and function much like gems in other settings.

Weapon and armor prices assume bone construction, double for obsidian, and quadruple for chitin. Bronze and iron cannot be purchased on the open market, being only permitted to the agents of authorities within city-states.

Quality by type:

  • Bone: 5
  • Obsidian: 4
  • Chitin: 3
  • Bronze: 2
  • Iron: 1

Rules for gear degrading can be found here.

Contacts

Most contacts will offer up to one favor per downtime, in appropriate circumstances. This can be information, basic assistance, or small material aid. Contacts will not generally endanger themselves unduly. Contacts may also call upon PCs, as all relationships go two ways.

  • Criminal syndicate or smugglers
  • Freedom fighter cell (potentially financed by enemy city-state)
  • Gladiatorial school
  • Merchant house
  • Nomad tribe
  • Sorcerer
  • Templar

Finding a hidden contact requires “searching” as a downtime action. The chance of success is 1 in 6. Once such a person or group is located, there is no guarantee of a favorable reaction. Generally, a PC will need to offer something in return for training or to build trust with the organization, especially if the nature of the contact is proscribed (smuggler, sorcerer, freedom fighter).

Modified image of Libya, original by Luca Galuzzi - www.galuzzi.it

Modified image of Libyan landscape, original by Luca Galuzzi – www.galuzzi.it

OSRCon 2014 Toronto

The fourth annual OSRCon is going to be held in Toronto again this year. Unfortunately, I will not be in town when it will be going on, but I attended the past two, and enjoyed both. In the first, I played a magic-user that explored Dwimmermount. In the second, I played a Pathfinder adaptation of White Plume Mountain and ran an OD&D game set in the Fight On! community mega-dungeon, The Darkness Beneath.

My understanding is that this years event will be far more casual, more like a game day, without panels or guest speakers. The details are being coordinated on a Google Plus community, and the specific event can be found here. It is happening on saturday, august 23rd. So far, I see LotFP, AD&D, Basic D&D, and DCC games already scheduled. I wish I could make it.

OSRCon 4 2014 IMG_4762

Stats and magics

Playing Dark Souls has helped crystalize in my mind a lot of how I want the character advancement options to work in The Final Castle. Back when I was working on the Hexagram rules, one of my main goals was to support flexible cross-class abilities without complexity or undermining traditional class archetypes, though now I find the particular approach I was working on somewhat unsatisfying. There was too much discretion, not enough structure, and the lists of system options were too long.

The Final Castle has a far simpler, and more elegant, method of advancement which I believe satisfies my original requirements. Characters may advance potentially to level ten, and each level gained allows the increase of one ability score* (though the same score may not be increased over subsequent levels). The ability scores are combined with a class bonus (which is half level, round up) to determine most action resolution. So, for example, a character is going to roll something like 1d20 +dexterity +fighter (shorthand here for fighter class bonus) when making a combat roll. Starting stats range from 0 to 3, a given stat can be increased up to +5, and the class bonus rises to +5 at most, yielding a nice range of bonus for even the luckiest and most focused character (up to +13 on the d20 scale at level 10). Such specialization comes at the cost of flexibility, as will become clear momentarily.

It may seem at first glance like this does not have much to do with the previous discussion of Dark Souls. However, like Dark Souls, the magic rules apply to characters of all classes. That is, a fighter, for example, rolls 1d20 +magic +magician when casting spells, and the number of spells that can be prepared is also governed by those numbers. (Recall that intelligence has been replaced by magic.) Now, in the case of a fighter, +magician (the class bonus) is always going to be zero, but +magic may be increased (if the fighter wants to dabble in magic) during level up rather than one of the physical stats. Magicians have access to more methods for learning spells, but any character with sufficient stats can at least learn spells from a teacher, and any character has the potential of sufficient stats through level up choices.

Cleric magic (called boons), is handled similarly, with +charisma and +cleric taking the place of +magic and +magician. Rather than learning spells one by one as does a magician, clerics are granted access to a full suite of powers upon making a covenant with a given immortal. The default covenant available to clerics at first level is with The King of Life**, but other covenants may be discovered during play and accessed by any character that has sufficient charisma score. Most immortals will not covenant with characters that use magic though, as such is considered presumptuous and hubristic. More than one covenant at a time is impossible, and breaking a covenant may come with serious consequences.

* Oversimplifying slightly for clarity.

** Inspired by Dogs in the Vineyard and used with permission.