Yearly Archives: 2014

An odd toolbox

Interior illustration by Jeremy Duncan

Interior illustration by Jeremy Duncan

Disclaimer: Lost Pages, the publisher of Into the Odd, also publishes my book Wonder & Wickedness.

Chris McDowall‘s Into the Odd started out as a game in what I would consider the 0E tradition, but it has evolved into something more distinct, both in setting and rules. The setting is the early modern fantastic. It recalls to me the mystic retro vibe of Full Metal Alchemist, but less manga and more Lewis & Clark.

The game itself is pared down to the absolute minimum of rules. This is closer to Searchers of the Unknown than it is to B/X. Character ability scores are strength, dexterity, and willpower, still 3d6 each. Basically, the 3E save categories reworked as abilities. Ability checks (called saves) are only reactive, rolled to avoid danger “from a risky action or situation.” There are no classes and magic powers mostly come from from arcana, a general catchall term for magic items. Determination of starting equipment is rolled into ability scores such that low stats tend to come along with a psychic power or arcanum.

My favorite innovation from Into the Odd is the leveling system. Accomplishing certain diegetic goals, in the manner of Xbox achievements, rather than XP thresholds, results in gaining levels. For example, to reach second level (“Professional”), a character must only survive one expedition. There are only five levels. When you unpack the mechanics and terminology, the underlying character details are not so different from D&D advancement (+1d6 HP per level and so forth), but the shift from “high score” (XP) progression to achievements is psychologically powerful. It would be a fun experiment to play B/X using this approach, perhaps extending the achievements up to tenth level and including objectives oriented around establishing a stronghold.

Sixty arcana are included, divided into three tiers of rarity or power, standard, greater, and legendary, 20 of each. Unfortunately, only the standard arcana are numbered, making it slightly less convenient to determine greater or legendary randomly, but one can always count down the page so that’s really a just me quibbling. Most could easily be adapted to other fantasy games and I appreciate how concisely and evocatively they are written. For one example, from page 11. Book of Despair: Summon a 20ft area of tentacles that lash out and grab. Anyone within must pass a str save to break free. The mass of tentacles has 10 hp and is destroyed at 0 hp.

In addition to the modular aspects noted above, there are a number of interesting design decisions in the game itself considered whole. For example, there is no attack roll, just a damage roll. This may seem odd to D&D-accustomed eyes, but mathematically the traditional attack roll followed by damage sequence can be collapsed into a single expected damage value (with the possibility set including outcomes of zero), and just rolling damage is not so different from an abstract, high level view, especially with ablative armor (which introduces the possibility of inflicting zero damage).

Overall, the book has 2 pages of character creation, 2 pages of rules, 1 page of guidelines for running organizations (which could probably benefit from expansion), 3 pages of 60 arcana, 3 pages of play example, 2 pages of referee advice, 1 page of example monsters, 1 page of advice on treasure, 1 page of trap rules, 1 page of setting background, 8 pages that contain two adventures (one dungeon and one hex crawl), 2 pages detailing a town, and the Oddpendium (14 pages of random tables including things like insane council decisions and weird creature inspiration). Definitely worth a look for anyone interested in rules-light approaches to fantasy games focusing on exploration.

Buy Into the Odd at the Lost Pages store. Note that come 2015, it may be unavailable for some period of time due to EU regulations.

Hazard System v0.2

The Hazard System is the gameplay engine behind The Final Castle. Though it assumes games of fantasy adventure and exploration, it is modular and should be easily adaptable to many kinds of tabletop RPGs. I use some variation on this approach for pretty much every game I run now and I don’t think I could go back to any other method of pacing or timekeeping. It is the natural outgrowth and generalization of the overloaded encounter die.

Gameplay proceeds in turns at different fictional timescales with each turn accompanied by the chance of a hazard. What “hazard” means will vary based on the context. For example, a hazard during a haven turn, when characters are recovering between adventures, might be a natural disaster, while a hazard during a dungeon turn, a much shorter period of fictional time, might be an encounter with a wandering monster. The hazard system also serves as a general timekeeping and resource tracker.

The text below the divider is released under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Attribution:

Necropraxis Productions Hazard System v0.2

A PDF is also available.

Currently, several references to undefined terminology from The Final Castle remain, such as Ability Tests. It should be relatively easy to interpret these in light of whatever system you are using, but the final Hazard System text will likely be entirely system agnostic. Additional turn types will also likely be included (Domain Turns and Generation Turns, particularly).

Hazard System v0.2

The game proceeds in turns of several different types. The turn types are haven, wilderness, dungeon, and combat. Each represent a progressively smaller amount of fictional time within the game world, though the exact durations are usually abstract. The passage of time within each turn is a resource to be spent wisely, as the hazard die is rolled for every turn that passes to represent potential danger.

The Hazard Die

The six-sided Hazard Die deploys threats, manages resources, keeps time, and tracks light. In short, it is the engine that drives gameplay forward and the heart of the Hazard System. Every significant action, whether in town recovering, traveling through the wilderness, or searching a dungeon corridor for traps, takes a turn. Every turn is accompanied by a roll of the Hazard Die. The exact interpretation of the die result varies by turn type, but the outcomes are conceptually similar. A haven hazard might be a shortage of supplies while a dungeon hazard might be a wandering monster.

Players other than the referee should roll the Hazard Die to make the time cost salient. After rolling the Hazard Die, hand it to another player so that everyone gets a chance. If playing in person, rotating clockwise around the table works well.

Beginning the game

Start a new campaign with the first Wilderness or Dungeon turn of an adventure. Players should choose a clue or quest from the Tavern to pursue. Roll HP following Recovery guidelines to determine initial HP.

Starting and ending sessions

Sessions should begin and end in a Haven if possible. This allows the the players and PCs to vary between sessions. After a session, players should tell the referee if they are going to follow a different clue or Quest during the next session so that the referee can do any preparation required beforehand.

Haven turns

To recover and replenish resources in a civilized refuge, take a Haven Turn. The exact fictional duration of a Haven Turn can be anything from a few days to several weeks. It is rarely necessary to interrogate the details.

  1. Roll the Hazard Die and resolve any hazard
  2. Pay upkeep: accommodation, retainer, property, and so forth
  3. Recover (roll HP, applying accommodation modifiers)
  4. Process retainer loyalty
  5. Reckon XP gained and level up if appropriate
  6. Buy or sell items, repair damaged gear, or recruit hirelings
  7. Optionally, take one Haven Action (scribe scroll and so forth)
  8. Prepare spells
  9. Review rumors and news

Haven Hazard Die results

  1. Complication (introduce at any point during the turn)
  2. Clue about next complication
  3. Abatement of one or more (by referee whim) haven conditions

Ignore results of 4 – 6. Starred complications persist as conditions.

Haven complications
d20 Complication d20 Complication
1. Assassination 11. Insurrection *
2. PC challenged 12. Invasion *
3. Curse * 13. Jailbreak
4. Earthquake 14. Mobilization *
5. Flood 15. Monster attack
6. Falling star 16. Murderer on the loose *
7. Famine * 17. Pestilence *
8. Fire 18. PC slandered
9. PC impersonated 19. PC item stolen
10. Inflation * 20. Winter *

Wilderness turns

Wilderness turns alternate between day and night. Characters taking two non-camp wilderness actions in a row suffer 1 damage and gain a point of Exhaustion. Choose a wilderness action: travel, search, explore, hunt, track, or camp.


Move the party into an adjacent area or access a known landmark such as a haven or dungeon.

Search, Explore, Hunt, or Track

The party leader makes a Search Test to locate (and enter, if desired) a hidden feature. To Explore, Search without a stated goal. Success reveals a random hidden feature. Track is a Search to follow a quarry. Hunting yields 1d6 rations (adjust for terrain) per hunter. Night applies a -1 penalty to Search, Hunt, or Track.


Camping requires a bedroll and consuming 1 ration per character. One person may stand watch for each four party members without impairment. Ignore Hazard Die results above 3.

Wilderness Hazard Die results

  1. Encounter (may differ between day and night)
  2. Percept (regarding next encounter)
  3. Locality (mechanical change in environment)
  4. Percept (regarding hidden feature)
  5. Resource exhaustion
  6. Lost


Travel is no longer an option if a party is lost. Search must be used to locate a landmark before travel can be resumed.


Each point of Exhaustion imposes a cumulative -1 penalty on all physical Ability Tests. This adds to Encumbrance penalties.

Dungeon turns

Some actions that require a Dungeon Turn include climbing, forcing a door, guarding the party, listening at a door, moving to a new area, searching the current area, and other tasks of similar scope. Each player may take a different action during a Dungeon Turn. Dungeon Turns can represent a fictional amount of time anywhere between a few minutes to an hour, though most commonly are about 10 minutes long.

In practice, the passage of Dungeon Turns can be more fluid than selecting actions by name, resolving any hazard, and iterating. However, always remain cognizant of lurking dangers and call for the Hazard Die whenever significant actions are taken.

Free dungeon actions

Minor actions often do not consume a full Dungeon Turn. Interacting with particular features such as looking under a rug, opening doors that are not stuck, and pulling levers are all free actions. Clever use of free dungeon actions can forestall the Hazard Die and thus decrease risk.

Dungeon Hazard Die results

  1. Encounter
  2. Percept (regarding next encounter)
  3. Locality (mechanical change in environment)
  4. Fatigue (take 1 damage unless the next turn is spent resting)
  5. Resource exhaustion (spell duration, etc)
  6. Light source exhaustion (any or all light sources go out)

Reasonable resolution

Fatigue and light source results may be ignored when they do not make fictional sense, such as during the first few turns of an exploration. Exhausted light sources rarely all go out at exactly the same time, but instead dwindle over the course of the turn, and may be relit given sufficient PC resources.

Released under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license


Necropraxis Productions Hazard System v0.2

Wonder & Wickedness released

Get it here.

Sorcery rules, spells, magical catastrophes, enchanted treasures.

More from Paolo here, including another image sample.

It will only be available in this form until the end of december due to EU regulations. We can’t guarantee anything, but we are working on a solution to keep it available after that point. There may at the least be some period of interruption come 2015.

cover-black 640 square


Vacant Ritual Assembly #1

Vacant Ritual Assembly (VRA from hereon) is a zine by Clint K. primarily about his LotFP campaign. This format seems ideal for sharing personal campaign material with a wider audience. Zines are more professional and put together than blog posts, but not ambitious enough usually to get mired in development hell. They seem to naturally lend themselves to non-comprehensive treatments, in contrast to a setting or megadungeon publication. I have been unsure for a long time about whether or how I might share my Vaults of Pahvelorn campaign materials, but I am so impressed by what Clint has put together here that this will likely be the way I release Pahvelorn.

Other than an interview with Chris M. about Into the Odd (which is also enjoyable reading), pretty much everything within is a useful game tool. My favorite part is the ghoul market, which, along with being atmospheric, also solves elegantly the treasure economy problem that all treasure-for-XP referees must confront in some manner. Almost any cemetery of significant size will contain a passage to the Ghoul Market. The mark of the White Ankh on a tomb or mausoleum indicates that the edifice serves as a gateway. The market is a form of mythical geography where PCs can buy a small number of randomly determined magic items between games or raise the dead by engaging the services of the skinsmith (which may result various grim alterations such as a character’s head being replaced with that of a bull). Oh, and “essence” (charisma points) are also accepted as currency. These six pages + the curiosity shop worksheet are top shelf supplement material.

As might be clear from the above description of the ghoul market, the setting implied by VRA is slightly more magical than the default LotFP expectation, shaded toward something like classic Diablo, which I like. Additionally, there is a half page of house rules, some external media recommendations, a minor firefly god (Luminari, Lady of the Golden Lamp), a flooded village adventure, and a mansion map (“Greycandle Manor”) with unfilled key. I gather this last item was an undead lair that was cleared out and claimed as a home base by the PCs in Clint’s game. Overall, the tone is creative and flavorful without being turned up to 11.

VRA is available in print or pay what you want PDF. The ghoul market alone is worth your time. Highly recommended.

B/X 5E

Is this not just the new Basic D&D? Not quite.

(If you like this mashup, here’s a one page PDF version.)

BX 5E mashup smallAbility scores: 3d6 down the line. Rearrange as desired. Bonuses from B/X (page B7), because the bell curve distribution of +1, +2, +3, with max 18, makes bonuses more special than the 5E linear increase. Ability checks: roll 1d20 <= score (lower better). Skill checks: roll 1d20 +bonus & +proficiency if proficient (higher better; vs. DC 10 most of the time).

Recovery and dying: re-roll HP during each downtime. Save or die when reduced to zero HP.

Classes are the fighter (HD d8), magic-user (HD d4), and thief (HD d6) from B/X but interpreted as makes most sense in light of the below referenced 5E rules. Use fighter XP progression for all classes (page X6).

Turn undead is a first level spell; use B/X rules (page X5). Successful turns, or turn results that are doubles, do not expend the spell. Concentration required. If you want to play a demon hunter or cleric, make a fighter and take the turn undead spell as your first level feat. (Necromancers: substitute command undead.)

Fighters begin with proficiency in all weapons and medium armor. (Yes, medium. If you want to use heavy armor without penalty, you need to spend a feat.)

Magic-users begin with proficiency in daggers and no armor. Spell progression is from B/X (page X6). Roll three starting spells randomly from B/X or some other spell list. You can pick a spell too if that’s what you spend your first feat on. Spell casting in armor without proficiency is impossible.

Thieves begin with proficiency in club, dagger, staff, short sword, sword, short bow, light crossbow and light armor. They also start with proficiency in dexterity (stealth), strength (climb), intelligence (search), backstab (or sniper), and thieves’ tools.

Backstab is only for surprise melee attacks and deals +1d6 damage per point of proficiency. (But see also the sniper feat.) Distraction + successful stealth check = hidden. Attack from hiding = surprise.

Situational modifiers: Use 5E advantage and disadvantage.

Armor: Ascending AC and armors from 5E (PHB page 145). If you do not meet the heavy armor strength requirements, you take disadvantage on most physical tasks (rather than the speed modifier suggested by the 5E rules, because that does not really come into play unless you are counting squares). Shields: proficiency with medium armor grants the ability to use shields passively. Otherwise, a shield is just a weapon and you need to spend an action to get any defensive benefit.

Weapons: From B/X (damage on page B27). Attack bonus: apply your proficiency bonus to attacks with weapons for which you have proficiency. Finesse weapons: (dagger, stiletto, rapier, etc) use the dex bonus rather than the strength bonus for attack and damage. Initiative: group d6, highest wins.

Feats: Characters gain a feat at levels 1, 4, 7, 10, & 13. Yes, first level too. So go crazy with a spell-casting fighter or a swording magic-user. Who needs multi-classing? Or just go fighter/cleave. Choose from the following options whenever you get a feat. (Or roll if feeling oracular.)

  1. +1 to the ability score of your choice (max 18)
  2. Never surprised
  3. +2 HP
  4. Cleave (taking down an enemy in melee grants a free adjacent attack)
  5. Spell and bonus spell slot
  6. Backstab or sniper (ranged backstab) +1d6 damage
  7. Armor proficiency increases one step (none, light, medium, heavy)
  8. Weapon proficiency (or specialization: +1 damage with a particular weapon)
  9. Skill proficiency (5E PHB page 174)
  10. Tool proficiency (5E PHB page 154)

Bonus spell slots can be used to prepare spells of first level or any level that you can otherwise cast.

References: B/X (Basic/Expert) rules & the 5E PHB


Wonder & Wickedness draws near

wonder wickedness titleSoon, if all goes well, Lost Pages will release my sorcery supplement, Wonder & Wickedness.

The book will contain:

  • 56 spells divided into seven specialties
  • 50 enchanted treasures
  • 84 sorcerous catastrophes (12 each for 7 kinds of magic)
  • New illustrations by Russ Nicholson
  • Sorcery rules: spells without levels, spell duels, and more

The text is done and layout progresses, about 90 A5 pages. We are working on a small number of hand-bound hardcovers as well.

The spells and several of the enchanted items have appeared before on this blog, though I have modified a few of them. All of the catastrophes and the bulk of enchanted items are new.

We do not have an official release date yet, but hope to have this available before the end of december.

Unsolicited aesthetic opinions on the 5E Monster Manual

1. In general, the art is even better than the PHB. There is an almost biologic sensibility, like what might be recorded in the notebook of a 19th century naturalist. The influence from real animals on the illustrations is more pronounced than in past versions. Not in terms of direct realism, but just in that you can recognize features, poses, and behaviors that make the creatures seem more anatomically resonant.

2014-12-10 16.22.32 copy

2. Other than the green dragon, which I like, the dragon shoulders are pronounced in a way that looks somewhat ridiculous (this is worst in the red and silver dragon illustrations). I don’t care how much muscle a “real” dragon would need, it does not look good.

2014-12-11 08.55.16 silver dragon

3. The small landscapes scattered throughout might be one of my favorite features, especially the one right prior to the demon entries. They evoke exploration and weird expanses.

2014-12-10 16.17.36 landscape

4. The best and most creative art seems to be for the monstrosities. See the aboleth below, for example. The worst is for the humanoids. I like the gnoll and ogre. The bullywug is okay but then it’s also really hard to mess up a frog person. Which leads me to…

5. Most unimpressive new visual identity: goblin. Successful goblins I have seen are cute (Gremlins and Pathfinder), Tolkienesque (Alan Lee and Angus McBride), or faerie tale (Arthur Rackham and Ian Miller). This one is just boring.

2014-12-10 16.21.36 goblin

6. Most impressive new visual identity: aboleth, probably. It no longer looks like a big fish with funny eyes and tentacles, but something truly alien and new. I don’t think I’ve seen anything that looks like it before. (And if you have the book, check out the smaller picture on the following page of an aboleth seemingly pulling itself over land with its tentacles.) There were a lot of other good candidates here though. See also the mind flayer (the Darth Vader style makes it really feel like an extradimensional invader) and the manticore (that mouth!).

2014-12-11 09.06.43 aboleth

7. Most unsuccessful illustration: tarrasque. Makes it seem about the size of a goat. Seriously, look at that thing and tell me it’s bigger than a large dog.

2014-12-10 16.27.35 tarrasque

8. Most successful illustration: I don’t know that I can pick just one. Green dragon, pit fiend, succubus & incubus, lich, medusa, wraith, pseudodragon, mind flayer, shadow, drow, darkmantle.

9. I like this succubus and incubus picture and appreciate that the incubus was made attractive too. Likewise with the angels (particularly the deva) and the yuan-ti (which also remind me of the snake men Masters of the Universe toys).

2014-12-10 16.27.08 incubus succubus

10. The demons and undead are effective except the marilith, which just looks awkward. Zombie is kind of weak, but lich, mummy, and wraith are awesome. Mummy approaches legit scary (something about the unnatural but yet still natural head shape) and that’s pretty rare in RPG illustrations.

2014-12-10 16.24.26 mummy

Setting traps in 5E

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Paul S. asked (private circle share) about 5E rules for setting traps. Some traps, like setting a bucket of paint on a door that is ajar or scattering marbles, do not require any special rules. You set them, and they trigger if situationally appropriate. They can be handled entirely by description and ruling. Setting more sophisticated traps, such as a concealed snare, present an opportunity for leveraging existing mechanics to support character abilities that are not explicitly handled.

5E already has rules for crafting using tool proficiencies. Thus, setting a trap requires trap-maker’s tools, which can be improvised. Simple traps can be set in one dungeon turn, but more complex devices may require more time. If the crafting is possible but uncertain in some way (such as under time pressure), require a crafting check (probably DC 10, but adjust as necessary).

A set of trap-maker’s tools is a small kit containing cords, wires, springs, and so forth that functions similarly to a healer’s kit. It counts as one significant item (if using simple encumbrance), and is exhausted using whatever rules are in effect for healer’s kits (in the 5E PHB, this is 10 uses, but I might use an ammo die).

Tools can be improvised from local detritus, standard, or masterwork. The referee must rule whether tools can be improvised in a given situation. If tools are improvised, saving throws versus trap effects are made with advantage. If masterwork, they are made with disadvantage.

Trap DC works like spell DC: 8 + ability bonus + proficiency bonus.

Crude mechanical traps (such as rigging a swinging log) use dexterity. More sophisticated traps based on specialized knowledge (such as crafting a poison needle mechanism) use intelligence.

Example 1: first level character without proficiency, using improvised tools, with dexterity of 12 (+1). Trap DC is 9 (8+1), victims make saves with advantage (due to improvised tools).

Example 2: first level character with proficiency (+2), with dexterity of 15 (+2), using standard trap-maker’s tools. Trap DC is 12 (8+2+2), saves are unmodified (since standard tools were used).

Player-safe maps

Lost river cave excerpt (full original)

Lost river cave excerpt (full original)

Too few products come with exploration-oriented maps (as opposed to something like a grid map for use as a battle map) that can be shared directly with all players. For example, consider this beautiful map by Mr. Logos. The under/over dotted line style gives away information that explorers should not know. Added work is needed to create a version of the map that can be revealed directly to players. I do not mean to single out Dyson; this was just the map that prompted these thoughts this morning. Other traditional referee-only features such as secret door annotations have the same issue.

If the map itself is a work of art filled with nuance and detail, it seems like a shame for it to be seen only by the referee in a play context. While I probably notice this more now that I often share maps with fog of war reveal on hangout games, it could be relevant to in-person play as well, since you can cover up parts and use it as a visual aid. If it really is just for the referee’s eyes, the functionalist in me might even prefer something more schematic and less polished.

Honestly I am not sure exactly where I am going with this. Do I think that all modules ever should be done in the most convenient form for me personally? No. Do I think that all modules ever should put more effort into game aids? Well, it would be nice, but there are resource constraints so again probably not. However, it is worth considering the way maps function as game tools. There are still many opportunities for improving the usability and format of modular content.

Against genre

I find the idea of genre emulation in RPGs inherently boring. The thing that excites me most about RPGs, as a medium, is that the possibilities are wide open. You are not constrained by diffident principles such as Chekhov’s Gun or other devices of dramatic progression and resolution.

This is not to say that genres as descriptive categories have no value. In fact, I often describe games in terms of certain setting and genre characteristics, because that helps align player tastes and develops initial buy-in. Accepting that this is a starting point, not a constraint, opens up the possibilities of genre shift as a game progresses, which is another thing that other forms of media do poorly. Attentive players (and remember the referee is a player too), cognizant of each others’ feedback, can drift a game in one direction or another. This requires some degree of sensitivity and attention, but then so does all social activity. Such drift keeps a campaign interesting and fresh, where serial fiction could (and often does) stagnate.

Since this is the Internet, I must acknowledge explicitly what should go without saying, that of course others need not share my preferences in this matter. But for me, I feel as if the unique potential of tabletop RPGs is sidelined by mechanisms which force only genre appropriate outcomes. I thrill to the possibility of an Independence Day where the aliens are triumphant, or a King Lear where everybody does not die. That is a big part of what “play to find out what happens” means.

Below is quoted from Apocalypse World, pages 108 & 109.

Play to find out: there’s a certain discipline you need in order to MC Apocalypse World. You have to commit yourself to the game’s fiction’s own internal logic and causality, driven by the players’ characters. You have to open yourself to caring what happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have to set what you hope for aside.

The reward for MCing, for this kind of GMing, comes with the discipline. When you find something you genuinely care about — a question about what will happen that you genuinely want to find out — letting the game’s fiction decide it is uniquely satisfying.