Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mars is Yellow

Being quotations from A Princess of Mars.


While the court was entirely overgrown with the yellow, moss-like vegetation which blankets practically the entire surface of Mars, yet numerous fountains, statuary, benches, and pergola-like contraptions bore witness to the beauty which the court must have presented in bygone times, when graced by the fair-haired, laughing people whom stern and unalterable cosmic laws had driven not only from their homes, but from all except the vague legends of their descendants.


We made a most imposing and awe-inspiring spectacle as we strung out across the yellow landscape; the two hundred and fifty ornate and brightly colored chariots, preceded by an advance guard of some two hundred mounted warriors and chieftains riding five abreast and one hundred yards apart, and followed by a like number in the same formation, with a score or more of flankers on either side; the fifty extra mastodons, or heavy draught animals, known as zitidars, and the five or six hundred extra thoats of the warriors running loose within the hollow square formed by the surrounding warriors. The gleaming metal and jewels of the gorgeous ornaments of the men and women, duplicated in the trappings of the zitidars and thoats, and interspersed with the flashing colors of magnificent silks and furs and feathers, lent a barbaric splendor to the caravan which would have turned an East Indian potentate green with envy.

The enormous broad tires of the chariots and the padded feet of the animals brought forth no sound from the moss-covered sea bottom; and so we moved in utter silence, like some huge phantasmagoria, except when the stillness was broken by the guttural growling of a goaded zitidar, or the squealing of fighting thoats. The green Martians converse but little, and then usually in monosyllables, low and like the faint rumbling of distant thunder.

We traversed a trackless waste of moss which, bending to the pressure of broad tire or padded foot, rose up again behind us, leaving no sign that we had passed. We might indeed have been the wraiths of the departed dead upon the dead sea of that dying planet for all the sound or sign we made in passing. It was the first march of a large body of men and animals I had ever witnessed which raised no dust and left no spoor; for there is no dust upon Mars except in the cultivated districts during the winter months, and even then the absence of high winds renders it almost unnoticeable. 


Older stories in the fantastic tradition often feature a protagonist that is not of the fantasy world. Alice in Wonderland. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. The children that travel to Narnia. John Carter of Mars. Occasionally, a more recent story will also employ this technique (for example, Terisa in The Mirror of Her Dreams), but in general this method is rarely used now. I believe this development is tied to the idea that fantasy settings should be complete within themselves and internally consistent; a replacement for reality rather than an interesting location meant to function as a stage.

Originally, the technique of taking a “real world” person and inserting them into a fantastic setting was probably meant as a way to help the audience accept the fantastic world by giving them someone familiar (the protagonist) to identify with. This structure also works well because as a visitor, the protagonist is not expected to already be familiar with the setting, so they can discover the setting along with the reader. John Carter didn’t get a setting background book when he was transported to Barsoom. This is a good fit for tabletop RPGs: no setting infodump assimilation required.

John Carter and Alice are both essentially planar travelers. This is also more or less what FLAILSNAILS characters are. I used to worry about making sure that all PCs “made sense” in the setting, but I’m coming to care less and less about this. The FLAILSNAILS conventions have taught me that my players can run whatever they want without messing up my campaign setting. My current players have been making characters using the online 4E character builder, which offers a huge variety of races, classes, and powers. None of them have made anything too exotic yet, but with this framework it wouldn’t even matter if they did. Just treat any odd PC the same way you would treat a FLAILSNAILS ConstantCon character.

Loviatar 8 & Roads

For Loviatar #8, I’m not going to talk much about the hex features this time. Instead, I would like to draw attention to an aspect of Christian’s maps which in my experience is quite unique. This aspect is the roads that connect the landmarks within all the hexes. Considering the four hexes, 001 has four roads leading out of it, 002 has two connecting roads, 003 has three roads, and 004 has three roads. Consider the kind of network that will develop if that continues.

Image from Loviatar Zine blog

This is an interesting blend of a hexcrawl and a pointcrawl, and is an outgrowth of the rather radical bottom-up approach of the B/X hex articles in Loviatar. This network of relationships makes the setting feel far more locally detailed than most D&D settings I have seen (which tend to be more defined by nation/race borders). Hex 004 also continues the creative use of traditional monsters, with the otyugh, gnomes, and a giant serpent with a secret.

OPD Modules

Back in my 2E days, I used to almost never run modules. The only module I can remember using was this Ravenloft module RA3 Touch of Death. But I’ve been using modules more recently, and the experience really is quite different than writing your own scenarios. My current 4E game was my first experience as a referee using the system, so to begin with I wanted to use a module to get a sense of how the system was expected to be used. I ran part of Seekers of the Ashen Crown (really, I just borrowed the first dungeon and discarded the plot railroad). This was before I had discovered the OSR, and I was just getting my feet wet after having not played for upwards of 10 years.

Since then, I have run Pod-Caverns of the Sinister Shroom and Tower of the Stargazer (a B/X one-shot unconnected to my current campaign). Both of these were very successful and I feel like I’m getting the hang of making a module my own, but the utility of the traditional module format is not very good. As artifacts to use at the game table (either PDF or hard copy), different kinds of information are jumbled together and page flipping is constantly required. Many new school players talk about innovation in game design and how we should not be slaves to nostalgia. Like in computer engineering, they say, sometimes you need to break old interfaces (and discard compatibility) in the service of progress. When I think of actual progress in game design though, the first thing that comes to mind is the one page dungeon (OPD) format.

I wrote before about some techniques for module preparation. Basically, boiled down, that post amounts to annotating modules by separating the different types of information. During play, one should not need to digest large blocks of text, as that slows down the flow of the game. My recommendations in that past post do help, and the process of summarizing (much like taking notes when reading) also helps to assimilate information. It is a way of reading actively rather than reading passively. For those of us without photographic memory, this can make a big difference regarding retained knowledge.

We can still do better though. For my next adventures, I am planning to translate the modules into the OPD format for use during play. Some might object that the work required is almost as much work as creating a scenario from scratch, but I disagree. Such a position undervalues the underlying creativity required to create a really engaging scenario. Of course, I haven’t done such a translation yet, so we’ll see how much work it takes. Of the published modules I have read so far, I feel like Stonehell Dungeon comes the closest to my ideal format (it uses a two page facing variation on the one page dungeon) though the OPD pages don’t have many memory cues for descriptive elements.

There is a place for detailed textual descriptions like are standard in traditional modules, but I feel like the optimal referee play-aid should almost never require a context switch (i.e., page turn). So, for me, a perfect module would be a textual overview followed by detailed descriptions of areas and NPCs. In addition, there would be an OPD for every zone which would include short-form stats and basic reminders about details. A facing page (or on the reverse) could include extra details for encounters with more moving parts (like a potion rack with lots of different possible effects or a puzzle). In addition, there should be a map-only version of the zone OPD to facilitate restocking. The best tool for getting the feel of a location is not the best tool for actually running that location. Think about the difference between a novel and a script.

John Carter

Short review: I loved it. This is the best fantasy adventure movie I can remember seeing since The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars trilogy. The cute sidekick (Woola) was actually cute rather than annoying, and all the characters were well-drawn (though John Carter himself was a bit dour).

The visuals were amazing and the acting was mostly top-notch. There are a few minor cosmetic things I would have changed, but I’m not going to go into those because they were for the most part irrelevant to the spirit of the story. I think it is admirable how close they stayed to the original stories, especially compared to what Hollywood writers usually do with scripts. I’m also impressed by how they did not water down the Confederate soldier aspect of John Carter’s character.

Personally, I think the name of the movie should have been Barsoom. John Carter is just too bland for most movie consumers. Most of the people I talked to had no idea what it was about and were not familiar with the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. John Carter of Mars would have been better, but still not ideal, as I think it would read as too campy for mainstream audiences. Barsoom sounds mysterious and alien. It would have given the studios a better franchise to work with too. Future titles could have followed the pattern of the book titles (“Warlord of Barsoom,” “Gods of Barsoon,” etc). Unfortunately, due to the studio’s loss on the first installment, we will likely not get a second.

The major criticism I have read by others is regarding the addition of the tragic backstory (see Grognadia and Howling Tower). This actually didn’t bother me that much; being a soldier on the losing side of a war is pretty tragic too, and I don’t think the addition overwhelmed his character. The courtly southern gentleman aspect didn’t really come through at all though, which in my mind is a bigger failing. And where was the southern accent?

Brewing Poison

One of the skills I gave to my version of the thief class is brew poison. If the thief is not rolling for skill selection, brew poison will be gained at eighth level. Here is the text from the class description:

Brew poison: given 1 day and 100 gp, a thief can brew one dose of save-or-die poison sufficient to threaten the life of a human-sized opponent. How larger or smaller creatures react to poison is by referee ruling. 5 in 6 chance to identify and know effects of examined poisons. Other recipes (such as for a paralytic poison) can be found, or can be synthesized based on reverse-engineering an identified poison.

Brewing poison is actually a thing that any class can attempt, assuming they have a recipe and can procure the ingredients. I would probably make the components cost double for a non-thief. What really makes the thief ability special though is that the thief can brew poisons with no chance of accidentally poisoning themselves. For non-thieves, I use the following rule:

Given a recipe, ingredients, and basic facilities, anyone can attempt to brew poison. There is a 1 in 6 chance of accidental poison exposure. In that case, a standard save versus poison is required to avoid the poison effect.

The other two aspects of the thief ability that are special are that the thief basically gets the recipe for save or die poison for free and also gains the identification/reverse-engineering ability.

Starting above first level

In a recent Rule-of-Three article (via Erik Tenkar via Keith Davies), Rodney Thompson wrote about varying character generation complexity by starting above first level. As the mechanical complexity of building a 3E or 4E character is one of my biggest complaints about post-TSR D&D, this is of great interest to me. To quote:

Additionally, we’re looking at having the classes gradually layer in more capabilities over the first two or three levels, rather than providing a large number of class features at level 1, so that players new to the class have a short period of time to learn the basics of their class through play. Experienced players could simply start at 3rd level if they want to leap right into a more advanced starting experience.

I think this is an excellent approach, and one that I have been advocating for some time. I have observed before that in terms of both power and complexity a first level Fourth Edition character is approximately equivalent to a 4th – 6th level traditional D&D character. So why not let every group start at the place that they want to?

The important principle here is to expose complexity slowly through play rather than all at once at the beginning. That also makes the game more social, as other players will experience your character’s progression. The magic-user, for example, is a very complicated class, even if you restrict available spells to the core rules of whatever edition you are playing. The only reason that this complexity is tractable (and why the class remains playable by people not interested in system mastery) is because the spells are introduced gradually during level progression (see also this post by Jeffro for the apotheosis of this insight).

I would also like to see more advancement options tied to events within the game world. Thus, a fighter who wants to learn a special whirlwind attack ability might need to seek out a master to learn from, or discover an ancient manual of techniques. Then, they could use their next advancement point (or whatever) to learn that ability (maybe in place of a base attack bonus increase). This increases the uniqueness of individual characters and combats bonus inflation while not adding any complexity. Positive effects all around.

The framing here is critical though. It’s important that players not see the first three levels as training wheels that experienced player should want to bypass. Rather than capabilities layered in over levels 1 through 3, I think capabilities should be layered in slowly over the entire level range.

I also think there is an inverse relationship between potential setting deadliness and work required to build a new character. If you want save or die with teeth you can’t have character generation as complex as 3E or 4E. Players simply won’t stand for their special snowflake PC (which took an hour or more to build) being killed in the first ten minutes of play because they did something stupid. To be honest, I really can’t see any other way that you can get both players who are interested in quick character creation and players who are interested in complex character builds to play the same game.

Minor actions considered harmful

One thing I have noticed when refereeing my current Nalfeshnee Hack 4E game is that combat takes longer (this is of course a common observation regarding Fourth Edition). I think this comes down to three factors. The first is that HP has increased dramatically in comparison to past editions whereas damage dealing capability has not (and in some cases has regressed). The second is that the grid encourages pondering positional possibilities, much like chess. The third is that players need to make more decisions per turn due to the formalization of actions during combat, and the possibilities for each type of action tend to be heavily suggested by explicit power and maneuver lists (decreasing the need for action creativity). Compare player turn structure in traditional D&D to Fourth Edition.

In traditional D&D, a player’s turn was this:
  1. What do I do?
Sometimes this includes some movement, and there are limits to that movement in the rules, but the concept is not that of a resource to be spent (in my experience). Further, special powers are not used every turn, as generally they are scarce resources, so there is no obvious list to select from (though this breaks down somewhat for high level casters, as the number of spell slots increases).
In 4E, every turn a player must as ask themselves the following questions:
  1. How will I spend my standard action? (Check power list for options.)
  2. How will I spend my move action? (Move, shift, or charge/run?)
  3. Does it make sense to take a minor action? (Check power list for options.)
  4. Should I take any free actions?
  5. Do I want to make any action substitutions?
  6. What order will I take my actions in?
In practice it is of course more streamlined than that, as players develop common patterns when using certain characters, but this is itself something of a problem in my eyes because it acts as barrier to creativity (note that something similar can happen in traditional D&D also; we’ve all seen players whose actions are continually “I attack the monster with my sword”).

The action substitution step is also worth mentioning because it is quite complex in terms of decision possibilities. There is a hierarchy of action types: a standard action can be used for a move but not the other way around. A standard can also be used for a minor action. So, for example, some of the common possibilities are:

  • Move, standard
  • Standard, move
  • Minor, minor, move
  • Move, minor, move
  • Etc.
You can see that there are quite a few possibilities, and all of them also have implications for the spacial relationship of the grid.

Another blogger just mentioned a similar observation. Zombiecowboy wrote:

But I think the biggest problem is what I call the economy of actions. My players feel that they need to eek out every little last drop of potential from their characters, making sure that they spend every action that they can. Did I do something with my free, minor, move, and all mighty standard action this turn?

And, because of how interrelated the 4E rules are, it is very difficult to simplify this process through house rules without doing significant violence to the rest of the ruleset. For example, I considered doing away with minor actions entirely and moving back towards the traditional approach, or at least simplifying the choices to: move-move, action-move, move-action. However, many powers are primarily useful in combos (use minor power X in order to set up favorable conditions for the use of standard power Y; combos).

Healing powers also tend to be minor actions. This is kind of ridiculous in my opinion, as it allows the cleric to move, shoot a laser (ahem, “lance of faith” at-will power), and then heal allies all in one turn. So such a change would also affect some classes more than others (and some “builds” more than others). Players that are used to the 4E concept of class balance tend to be unhappy with such changes.

Unrelated complaint: damn it Google! Because I am in Canada, whenever I view a blogspot blog it rewrites the URL to .ca rather than .com now. Why? It’s so annoying. Whenever I want to copy and paste a blogger URL I now need to edit it because .com is obviously a more stable address. I wish they would stop redirecting me to from too. When I type a URL into the URL bar, that’s really the place I want to go. Redirection should only be used for transitions where content is actually being moved.

Isle of the Dead Visuals

Here is some visual inspiration for Isle of the Dead, the Adventurer Conqueror King System setting I am working on. Most of the images are from the excellent Dark Classics blog. The exercise of perusing all those images, and then corralling the most appropriate for a blog post, was very informative for discovering some things about this setting. I am surprised how strong the Mediterranean influence is becoming, and how central the images of the sea are.

Ritual of Return

Old school dungeon exploration play is commonly organized as one delve per session. It is expected that PCs will return to town between sessions. This is advantageous for a number of reasons. For one, continuity of players is not required (something that is particularly difficult to achieve if your players are adults with jobs, families, and other commitments). This style of old school play is sometimes maligned as “the 15 minuted adventuring day,” but if not exaggerated this structure naturally fits the requirements of the gaming session. However, a problem occurs when the session is drawing to a close but the PCs are nowhere near the surface.

There are several ways to approach this problem. One is to hand-wave it and just assume everyone is able to make it out. This may run into logical problems depending on the obstacles that the party has navigated, but can usually work. Another well known approach is The Triple Secret Random Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom, which is basically a table of (mostly bad) outcomes if PCs are unwise enough to not ensure their own exit prior to the session end. I have also considered a “dungeon escape” saving throw (maybe the PC can choose their most advantageous save number). Failure would indicate death occurred on the way out.

The Diablo series of video games has a common item called a scroll of town portal. This item allows adventurers to return to town from any area in a dungeon once they have exhausted their carrying capacity. The portal also allows (one way) return travel so that the adventurers can proceed exploring the dungeon from where they left off. Here is a version of the town portal scroll with flavor appropriate to a tabletop RPG.

A scroll of return is part of a teleportation ritual commonly employed by magic-users. The ritual has three parts: first, the scroll of return must be scribed and a circle of return must be prepared. The third part of the ritual is the casting of the spell inscribed on the scroll. The circle of return must be prepared under the gaze of the sun. Thus, it can only be constructed on the surface under open sky. Once these two elements are created, they both radiate magic to detection spells.

Because the gaze of the sun is necessary to the ritual, the current weather is important. I suggest using a standard 2d6 reaction roll to determine the weather if you don’t already have a more complicated system (interpreted based on the season). For example, bad weather might only occur on an “immediate attack” (2) result during the summer, but during the winter might occur on all reactions neutral or worse.

The ritual’s potency is measured by level. A magic-user may create a scroll of return of level equal to or less than their class level. The cost of the components required for the ritual is 100 GP per level (like Holmes scroll creation rules). No matter the level, the creation of the circle and scroll take one day. The scroll only remains potent for a number of days equal to the scroll’s level, and the range of the teleportation is limited to 6 miles per scroll level. The ritual’s caster can sense if they are out of range, and going out of range does not destroy the magic (the scroll may still be employed when the magic-user comes back within range). A magic-user may prepare a lower level ritual if desired (for example, a level 5 magic-user may prepare scrolls of return of any level between 1 and 5).

When the ritual’s magic has expired or is completed successfully, the scroll crumbles to dust. The circle remains and looses its ritual power (and value in terms of components) but still functions as a magical signature that can be identified by other magic-users if not later destroyed. When completed, the ritual returns the magic-user (and companions) to the circle of return. Intoning the spell on the scroll requires a full turn (10 minutes within the game world) of undisturbed concentration. If interrupted, the ritual is not ruined, but the magic-user must start over. Companions to be transported with the magic-user must stand nearby and unwilling creatures may not be transported (though unconscious ones can).

If the circle of return is disturbed, the ritual is disrupted, and the scroll will crumble to dust. For this reason, circles of return are often well hidden or protected. Battlements atop a magic-user’s tower are popular locations for established wizards, but less powerful magic-users may have to make due with isolated glens. A skilled diviner can user either end of the ritual (scroll or circle) to locate the other end. Scrolls of return may be found as treasure. Who knows where the party will end up if the ritual is completed? Maybe some form of magic research could be undertaken to determine where the scroll leads or perhaps such scrolls must be approached blind by those who did not participate in fabrication.

Some sages have speculated that the ritual magic draws power from the sun, and that the slow darkening of the sun over the past thousands of years has been caused by the greed of magicians.

Some variations: if you want the creation to be less fiddly, you can ignore the bit about the weather (I am, however, quite fond of using a reaction roll to determine the weather). You could also allow a one-way return as Diablo does. Perhaps other classes are able to use the scroll once created, not just magic-users (much like scrolls of protection).