Monthly Archives: June 2014

Learning spells: risks & investments

I have been experimenting with an approach to learning spells inspired by AD&D’s intelligence derived % chance to learn system. The goal is to individuate magicians by the spells that they are able to learn during play. My own issue is that the magic stat in the rules that replaces intelligence and controls most aspects of sorcery increases somewhat predictably, making it easier to learn spells if you wait, which is a dynamic that I do not want. I did come upon a solution (or rather, someone suggested something that I think will work), but that is not what this post is about.

While discussing the problem on Google Plus, Benjamin Baugh threw out an idea that I thought was worthwhile even though it did not fit exactly what I was going for, and I suggested that it was worth a blog post of its own so as to not be forgotten. As Benjamin does not maintain a blog, I thought it would make a good guest post, and he liked the idea as well. All words below here are Benjamin’s.

I riffed this originally on a g+ post of Brendan’s related to how a magician would learn spells in his old school game’s magic system. It was too verbose for his tightly focused ruleset, but he invited me to expand on it, and host it as a guest column on his blog, so here we are.

I’d originally tossed this out as a way to see if a old school mage could learn a given spell, with the chances being modified by the effort they put into the magical study and what they risk up front to learn it.

I went with one of the simplest possible old school mechanics – the X chance in 6. I also didn’t include anything like level or ability modifier, though there’s no reason you couldn’t do this too for something a little fiddlier. You could expand the range as well, making the check based on 2d6, and using the Basic reaction table’s range of outcomes. But for now, I’m going to stick with the chance in 6, as it’s dead simple, and keeps the effort focused on player choice and character action rather than stats.

You could use this kind of scheme–with different risks and investments–for other downtime actions, like making contacts, hiring retainers, sourcing rare equipment, accessing specialist services (like curse removal or resurrection). You could expand on it, and turn it into a general purpose ritual magic system.

So to start, here’s the basic scheme for learning new magic. All the things invested in the learning process are committed before the die is rolled, and lost if it fails. Them’s the breaks. This scheme is especially advantageous in B/X and other editions which don’t have a system in place for learning spells outside of those granted by character leveling.

The basic chance to learn a spell is 1 in 6.

You might rule that the basic chance requires some reference – a scroll, spellbook, or instructor. Or, you could rule that with those reliable basics, you don’t need to make a check to learn a spell, and the following scheme is for personal experimentation. It works however you position it.

Each risk or investment you make in the process expands your chances by 1.

It will be possible to take on as many of these as you like – and with five, you can learn a spell without any chance of failing. But, the process is going to be fraught, and there’s going to be consequences.

To keep things interesting, you can rule that a character can’t use the same risks or investments twice in a row.

Take extended downtime, requiring weeks of seclusion. The character is unavailable to play during at least one session, possibly longer.

Expend high quality materials – magical reagents, experimental apparatus, baths of ritually purified mud, inks made from monster blood, sheets of colored crystal, incense, oils. This costs you up front d6+spell level x 10 gold.

Invoke Demonic Aid – there are many otherworldly creatures willing to aid a spellcaster in his studies, for a small price. Such a small price. A magician has a lunar month to meet the price, and if he fails to do so, the knowledge of the spell curdles in his brain, becomeing useless – and that spell may never be learned again. Roll 6d6 to see who you invoke…





of the Hateful Face







the Moon-Eating Maw







Who’s Wings Blacken the Sky






Sif Sanar

the Hungry Childe







of the Thousand Eyes






Shakan Gu

the Whisperer




Mortify the flesh to exalt the spirit. Ritually deny the body, castigate the flesh, use bloodletting, leeches, sweat lodges, or other methods to invoke altered states of consciousness with extremities of pain and deprivation. Suffer a d4+spell level Con loss, which returns only slowly.

Pick up a Habit. There are many formulations of herb and alchemy which expand the consciousness and open the inner eye. Many magicians find these dream drugs enhance their perceptions of magical realities. Using such drugs in quantity is a way to discern occult insights, but risks addiction. Spend d6x10 gold on occult drugs, and make a Save vs Poison. Success on the save means you are free of addiction. Failure means you pick up a nasty habit. Without at least 3d6 gold worth of the drug in your system each day, you are at -1 on all checks and rolls, and can memorize one spell less from each level you can cast. Only high level curative magic or extended downtime with the Brethren in the mountains can cure this addiction. It is possible to have more than one addiction, and the effects of detoxing are cumulative.

Perform Risky Experiments. Suffer a d6 damage per spell level. Save vs Spell for half damage. This might kill you. If it does kill you, you are dead.

Bribe a powerful mage to tutor you. A more powerful spellcaster might be induced to aid your studies and share her knowledge, but magi are jealous of their power, and their integrity does not come cheap. This will cost a d6x100 gold pieces, but this cost can be reduced by finding leverage with which to blackmail, intimidate, or otherwise force the wise one to share her secrets. This costs nothing, but earns an enemy.

Cause a Magical Catastrophe. Your experiments release terrible magical contamination into the area, with character, range, and severity based on the level of spell being learned. This poisons your reputation locally as surely as it poisons the land – you and those associated with you will be unable to buy and sell in the area, and hirelings from the area will abandon you or refuse to answer the call. There might be local legal sanction as well, if you stick around to find out. If done in the wilderness, this this contamination is the seed of a tainted land, and will attract dark things.

Allow the magic to mark you. The magical revelation marks your flesh permanently, altering your appearance in weird, grotesque, or horrific ways. You have a harder time convincing hirelings to join you, and those you meet on your adventures will be more wary of you. Your charisma is reduced by 1 permanently. The changes wrought on your flesh will be in character with the spell being learned.

Take on an Apprentice. They say the best way to learn is to become a teacher. In exchange for helping you with your studies, the local magic guild, college, or counsel of crotchety old bastards sticks you with an apprentice. You must teach the surly youth the ways of magic, keep them from harm, and see that they do not get into trouble. You are responsible for their health and their actions, and officially anyhow, they must call your Master and obey your will. Roll 6d6.





the Foundling

a surly






the Butcher’s Child

a smart-arsed






the Lord’s Heir

an ever-smiling






the Chosen One

a hot tempered






the Privy Cleaner

an inept






the Prodigy

a gormless




IMG_7326 doom-caveJames Raggi’s LotFP modules have generally two, rather extreme modes. The first, which I will call serious, includes Death Frost Doom, Hammers of the God, Death Love Doom, Better than any Man, God that Crawls, and Tales of the Scarecrow. The second, which I will call goofy, includes Monolith Beyond Space and Time and Fuck For Satan. The goofy modules often use incomprehensible space aliens rather than “a wizard did it” to justify the various puzzles and dilemmas presented to the players. Doom-Cave certainly belongs in the second grouping.

The categorization presented above is not perfect, as, for example Grinding Gear presents a set of absurd (though fictionally justified) puzzles within a relatively serious context, and Tower of the Stargazer (notably, one of my favorite of Raggi’s efforts) includes in an offhand manner a reference to bopping mossy plant creatures on Necropoli Centauri. The goofy mode modules often include anachronistic, present-day references (such as Wiki Dot Pod in Doom-Cave, which is actually explained within the fiction of the module). Depending on the group, this kind of humor could easily fall flat.

Another common Raggi module practice is the use of dungeon maps reminiscent of game boards. This is true most obviously here and in God that Crawls, but can also be seen in Grinding Gear and Death Frost Doom. There are lots of winding, 10-foot corridors intended to eat up PC movement rate and create attrition cost via random encounters. I do not think this sort of “tracking movement” is particularly bookkeeping heavy, contrary to some criticism, but it does require a certain discipline of taking your turn and moving your squares that may be foreign outside of combat to many RPG players that were introduced to the hobby during the 90s or later, where gaming is usually presented in a more dramatic fashion with all the paraphernalia of fiction in other media forms (scenes, plot, character arcs, and so forth).

The most interesting parts of the module for me are the monsters. The “no monster manual” philosophy of the system often pays rich dividends in this area, and Doom-Caves is no different in this regard. The monsters are interesting in mechanical execution in addition to conception. They are more than just different configurations of HP, defense numbers, and special attacks. For example, there is one group of monsters where each individual depends on the state of all the others (and surprisingly, this is done in a way that looks like it would be easy to run at the table). The monsters are all illustrated well in sketches by Gennifer Bone, the artist who is also behind Rafael Chandler’s in-progress Lusus Naturae bestiary.

The single most glaring weakness in Raggi’s goofy mode is that players often add plenty of anachronistic goofiness on their own to even the most serious of scenarios, as Noisms discusses in D&D as straight man. This is actually one of D&D’s unique strengths compared to other narrative forms. If all the modules in a campaign were of this type it would probably get old.

Raggi modules can be read a bit like zen koans meant to smack you upside the head with their absurdity to remind you that in these games of adventure really anything is possible, as long as you have a group of players on board. Why Limit yourself to the expected? Yes, yes, you do not need such prompting and how dare Mr. Raggi waste your time? If that is your reaction then you will probably not enjoy Doom-Caves much. From a perspective beyond that of any single group or referee, I do think it is nice that someone is putting together works that embody this philosophy.

In general, LotFP modules (especially those by Raggi himself) tend towards bundles of toys for players to interact with rather than coherent fictional scenarios (and I would argue that this is true even of the more serious modules, such as Death Frost Doom, though to a lesser degree). That said, a goofy Raggi module can probably best be used as a weird ice-axe to shatter the frozen sea of a placid campaign world. As a final assessment, I like the monsters more than the actual adventure. Even with a goofy, campaign-disruptive premise, I would prefer more connections between the disparate encounters and set pieces for use in my own games.

The Doom-Cave of the Crystal-Headed Children was LotFP’s contribution to Free RPG Day 2014 and I understand that it will be available in the next month or so for free download as well.

IMG_7326 doom-cave

Pits & Perils

Pits & Perils cover (source)

Pits & Perils cover (source)

The ranks of zero edition style games are increasing. Pits & Perils is a game in this mode, presented as a single PDF booklet of around 80 pages. It seems letter-sized when I open the file on a computer, but uses a generous typewriter font that is easily readable on my tablet without zooming, and I suspect it would print well as a digest-sized hardcopy. Illustrations are sparse and done in a charming woodcut style (digital excerpts mostly drawn from History of the Nordic Peoples by Olaus Magnus). The tone is reminiscent of pre-advanced Gygax, concise but enthusiastic, which I assume is intentional based on the other design choices.

Tasks are resolved by rolling 2d6. Nine or higher is a success in combat, while seven or higher is a success out of combat. As you might expect, some character and situational bonuses apply, but not enough to dilute the essential elegance and simplicity of the system, unlike many games that rely on modifiers. In combat, damage inflicted is one point for rolls of 9 to 11 and two points for 12 or higher. Most rules needed for common dungeon exploration tasks are handled elegantly. Encumbrance is just flatly limited to 10 items beyond armor. “Anything more is simply too much. Characters cannot perform if overburdened with equipment, and gold coins are bulky in large amounts” (page 17). Suffocation and drowning is handled simply with saving dice and the accumulation of damage.

Rather than roll 3d6 down the line during character creation, as is traditional, the player instead rolls once for exceptional abilities (which happen to be drawn from the classic six). This rule is inspired. Most of the time, this will result in only a single “ability,” but players can choose two on rolls of eleven or higher. The actual distribution is a bit strange (for example, you roll 2d6 and only get “strength” if you roll 2 or 11 or higher and choose it). Further, there are some minor complications (such as that dwarves treat rolls of strength or charisma as constitution instead). For a simple, pickup game of D&D I would be tempted to use a mutation of this rule, perhaps simplifying it to roll 1d6 for exceptional stat and then grant a simple +1 bonus to whatever is related to that stat.

There are six classes: cleric, dwarf, elf, fighter, magician, thief. Each one of these seems to roughly associate with one of the abilities, though I am not sure if this structure was intentional. The experience progression tables require less XP than many similar games, with second level being achieved around 200 XP for most classes and mid levels occurring around the low thousands. For example, a fighter with 3200 XP is 6th level according to these charts. That is probably not a bad approach. Who has time for multi-year campaigns, anyways? Class abilities are minimal. Fighters get +1 to attack dice, the use of all weapons and armor, and two attacks at 9th level. That’s it. There are no other bonuses hidden in other advancement schedules such as can be found in the OD&D attack matrices or saving throw tables. The magic system uses a very simple spell point system with no levels. Casting any spell costs one point.

There are a few things that I am uncertain about, including:

  • The benefit of wearing armor is just bonus hit points
  • All projectile missile weapons seem to get +1 damage for being two-handed
  • Thieves need to wait until 9th level (“robber baron”) for a backstab ability
  • Random encounter math implies only 1 encounter every 36 turns

These are relatively minor concerns within the overall scope of the game and are easily adjusted by a referee, but are still worth noting. Of greater impact for gameplay is the relationship between character HP and damage. As noted above, most attacks deal only 1 or 2 damage and there are very few potential bonuses to damage. Using a two-handed weapon grants +1 (making every hit do either 2 or 3 damage), and there are a few magic weapons that can increase damage. Relative to damage potential, character HP (which is static, based on class and level) seems high, ranging at first level from 5 (for magicians) to 10 (for fighters). This is not necessarily a bad approach, but it is most definitely an impactful choice, leading to far more durable PCs than in, for example, OD&D or B/X.

I often have a short attention span when it comes to reading game content such as spells, feats, magic items, monster descriptions, and so forth, usually just skimming such material while reading the occasional entry in full. In this case though, I read every single entry in the entire book. Here are a few choice quotes, to give you a sense of the rules.

BOLT scores 1d6 hits on a single target. The caster adds +1 per 3 levels gained, so a 3rd level magician would deliver 1d6+1 hits. Lightning can sunder doors up to 5′ thick and melt gold within 10′ of the point of impact.

–Page 14

Harpies attack with their two razor sharp claws. About one-third (1-2 in 1d6) are SIRENS. These use an evil song to hypnotize victims within 30′. These must save or fall into a mindless trance and present themselves for slaughter.

–Page 36

A MAGICIAN’S HAT looks like an ordinary pointed cap. However, the wearer can pull any normal/non-magical item, like a ladder or rope, out of the hat up to 3 times per day. The item must be of less than 10 GP value, so armor, weapons, and other valuables cannot be produced. This includes foodstuffs and living things of all kinds, even rabbits!

–Page 51

Exploration and problem solving is the meat and drink of these games, provided the referee makes it challenging and fun.

–Page 65

Final thoughts? Recommended if you enjoy reading variations on the 0E theme. The PDF can be bought at RPGNow for $5 and happily does not include a watermark.

Necromancer class

Several of my favorite archetypes are rarely handled as classes in a way that satisfies me, including the necromancer, summoner, and warlock/diabolist. It is possible to simulate these types of characters in traditional D&D, but only with a specific set of spells and a higher level magic-user. In a game where you are playing to find out what kind of magic-user you become based on the spells you find this can be fun, but if you are looking to play a particular kind of magician from the beginning it can be something of a letdown.

I have already attempted to create a necromancer class, but in review that approach (with variable undead creation costs) feels a bit clunky and bases too much of the necromancer’s primary competency (undead minions) on treasure cash flow. Like a traditional magic-user’s spell preparation, the necromancer should be able to recover thralls as part of the basic resource cycle. As such, there is no cost for the basic creation and maintenance of undead thralls. Procuring corpses may still require adventuring, depending on the setting, and each body can only be used once. Scarcity of corpses can thus be used to modulate thrall disposability, but the expectation is that necromancers should be able to burn through a collection of thralls between each downtime if desired.

This necromancer does not gain new spells automatically and can only learn necromancy spells. These can be found (unlikely, as the referee is not expected to tailor treasure found to desires of specific PCs) or researched at a cost of 1000 coins per spell level. In a game where treasure yields the bulk of XP, I would expect necromancer PCs to spend most of their money on researching new spells (or making scrolls of known spells, if that is an option allowed to magic-users). This also means players can handle most spell choices on their own between sessions, only relying on the referee for final approval, easing the administrative load.

Allowing any magic spell to be re-skinned with necromantic trappings (“skeleton key” as a knock spell, negative energy blast rather than magic missile, and so forth) will likely make this class overpowered (and also indistinct). So don’t do that. Require necromancy spells to be taken from existing books or newly designed around strong (and limited) necromantic themes. This necromancer is intended to play differently than the traditional magic-user.

There is a PDF convenient for printing front and back on one letter-sized sheet.


Level progression, HP, saves, attack, weapons, armor, and spell slots as magic-user.

  • Prepare and cast only necromancy spells
  • Maintain control over up to 1 HD worth of undead per level
  • Assert control over undead as an action
  • Direct any or all controlled undead as an action
  • Create and repair undead minions up to 1 HD per level per downtime
  • Will not generally be served by mortal retainers other than apprentices

Spells and magic items

Given that the chance of finding many necromancy spells during play without fudging is low, necromancers of any level may research new spells during downtime. This requires 1000 XP-equivalent currency units per spell level and takes one downtime action irrespective of spell level. Necromancers may only research new spells of a level that can be prepared. Necromancers may craft scrolls of known necromancy spells following the rules used by magic-users and may only use scrolls, wands, staves, or other wizardly magic items that have a strong necromancy component.

Control and direct undead

Death and the miser (source)

Death and the miser (source)

Necromancers may maintain control over a number of HD worth of undead equal to level. No check is required, but asserting control takes an action if done in combat. Intelligent undead deserve a saving throw and a necromancer only gets one try when attempting to influence such beings. Directing newly controlled undead must wait for another action.

Most created undead have dim and limited intelligence. They can only follow crude commands and are unable to perform complicated tasks. An action such as “pull that lever” is about the limit of undead sophistication. As an action, a necromancer may direct (or modify previous directions for) any or all currently controlled undead. Directions must be clear and vocalized but need not be overly specific. For example, “attack those orcs” is acceptable; there is no need to declare exactly which orc should be attacked.

Actions available include attack (a target), defend (a person), follow (a person or thing), guard (a location), move (to a nearby place), patrol (an area), and retrieve (a nearby item). Minions will intuit needed movement given an attack command, but may not choose the smartest route on their own. Minions instructed to defend will hold actions and use opposed combat rolls to determine the success of a potential interception.

This structure means that a necromancer can either take an action themselves during a turn (such as cast a spell) or redirect minions but not both. Undead will continue to follow existing directions until new directions are provided.

Undead become uncontrolled upon the death (though not unconsciousness) of a necromancer master and uncontrolled undead without directions are hostile to all life. A necromancer may release undead minions from service at will.

Create undead

During downtime, necromancers may create or repair a number of HD worth of undead equal to level. This may result in a necromancer having created more undead than can be controlled. Excess undead are uncontrolled and hostile to all life. The propensity of necromancers to create uncontrolled “spares” that often get loose is no small part of the profession’s generally poor reputation. Strictly speaking, no resources are needed other than corpses that have not been previously animated, though in practice a private ritual sanctum is necessary for the sake of privacy (necromancy being widely vilified as black magic). Created undead are by default a form of zombie. Other undead may be controlled but must be discovered in play or created with the aid of augmentation spells.

HD may be allocated as desired between multiple minions. For example, a fourth level necromancer may create 4 minions of 1 HD each, one minion of 4 HD, or some other combination. Undead minions attack and save as a creature of the appropriate HD, have an AC bonus equal to HD, move in combat as a lightly encumbered human (three-quarters of an unencumbered human’s rate), and gain no benefit other than style from armor. Damage is by weapon or 1d6 from fearsome unarmed strike. Undead are not effective porters and have a tendency to hide or vandalize carried objects other than raiment or armament when unsupervised.


Even if being strict about weapon usage, it is suggested that necromancers be allowed to wield sickles and scythes because of the symbolic value of these tools to the craft of necromancy.

  • Sickle: as dagger, not throwable, 1d4 damage
  • Scythe: as staff, requires two hands, slashing rather than bludgeoning, 1d6 damage

Good sources of necromancy spells for use with traditional class-and-level fantasy games:

Image by Millet (source)

Image by Millet (source)

Thanks to Duncan E. for suggesting Holbein as an illustration source.

Two steps removed

Matt Finch just recently posted about an adventure design dilemma. He has a large number of areas that need consistent and thematic contents. There are, however, too many areas to make it practical to stock each individually. Thus, random tables for stocking. The choice is between many separate source tables versus one big table of results created from the results of said source tables (an X Y with Z complicated by A, with each variable drawn from a different table, or some similar composite).

I would suggest that the work involved in putting together the second sort of thing is a big part of what makes Vornheim easier to use than Seclusium. Despite the fact that Seclusium generates interesting results, they require a lot of post-processing. Which is time consuming. So it is worth realizing that what you are doing when you create tables like Seclusium is creating tables to create a table. That is (at least) two steps removed from something usable at the table compared to (potentially) only one step removed.


Hiroshige hexcrawl

For a while I had kept a particular Taschen edition of Hiroshige’s 100 views of Edo in my “saved for later” section on Amazon, waiting for it to come back into stock. I had heard that it was of excellent quality given the low price and also bound in a traditional east asian manner. Well, just recently, I noticed it had come back into stock, and was still less than $30 though enough to qualify for free shipping. By the way, Edo is the old name of Tokyo, which was built up from a fishing village by the Shoguns during the years leading up to what is now considered the Tokugawa period of Japanese history, as a power center separate from the traditional imperial capital of Kyoto, whose emperor acquired a more ceremonial, pope-like role as true power came to be located in the Bakufu (the Shogun’s military bureaucracy).

Here is the book itself:

IMG_7280 hiroshige edo

The external hard cover is not attached to the book proper. But more on that later. Naturally, the first thing I thought about when paging through this gorgeous book was RPG setting. It even contains a keyed map of Edo, which could be used to set the scene whenever PCs visit a particular area.

IMG_7286 hiroshige edo

One could, of course, set a full campaign in Edo itself and probably never run out of material (perhaps focusing on the Oniwabanshū, the Tokugawa era secret police?). But why stay in Edo? A highway, the Tōkaidō, connected Edo to Kyoto, with officially maintained stations periodically along its length, and this great road was also illustrated by Hiroshige in the Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō. The Kiso Kaidō, an alternative route between the two great cities, is also illustrated by Hiroshige in the Sixty-nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō (though unfortunately Wikipedia does not seem to have copies of the full set). The Eight Views of Ōmi shows Shiga prefecture around Lake Biwa, which is also sort of between Kyoto and Edo (though closer to Kyoto).

Some thematic coherence is gained by sticking with the work of Hiroshige, but there are many other older works, even if one wanted to only use woodblock prints, that would also fit. The encounter tables could perhaps be built from Gazu Hyakki Yagyō and other traditional yokai bestiaries. One great thing about this approach is that almost all of this work is now in the public domain. All 100 views of Edo can be seen on Wikipedia, for example, in addition to the other sets linked above.

Okay, so it would probably be more of a point-crawl, but that does not have quite the same ring. Add this to the ever-growing junkyard of campaign ideas.

Back to the book itself, which is worth showing off. Most traditional east asian books were softcover in this manner, though this particular one reads left to right (the western orientation) rather than right to left. The cover feels like silk but is probably some synthetic microfiber, and notably every page is a double-fold (not sure what the correct book binding term for that is); you can see the technique in one of the pictures below. I have also included photos of a few of my favorite prints so that you can see them in the context of the book, though the full versions on Wikipedia linked above probably contain more detail.

Now this is how you make a book. And so cheap!

IMG_7281 hiroshige edo

IMG_7282 hiroshige edo

IMG_7283 hiroshige edo


IMG_7285 hiroshige edo

IMG_7287 hiroshige edo

IMG_7288 hiroshige edo

IMG_7289 hiroshige edo

IMG_7290 hiroshige edo

IMG_7295 hiroshige edo

IMG_7297 hiroshige edo

IMG_7299 hiroshige edo

IMG_7300 hiroshige edo

IMG_7298 hiroshige edo


An approach to Flailsnails

I have been meaning to run more Flailsnails games. In pursuit of that goal, here is a brief overview of how I would run such games for ease of linking. The objective is to maintain a certain level of restraint, to keep the game interesting, but to not fight too hard against the strange cross-world agglomeration which is part of the charm of Flailsnails or expect folks to rewrite PCs extensively.

House rules are minimal:

  1. No more than two outland magic items (stole this rule from Zak)
  2. Significant items carried without penalty = strength score
  3. Save or die at zero HP (no negative HP)

What this means for you, the player: you probably do not need to worry about system level changes much, but you will need to spend 5 to 10 minutes most likely to decide what you will carry. Hopefully this won’t be to onerous?

“Native” base system is something like B/X D&D (ability mod range of -3 to +3, 3d6 in order assumed for stat generation). If you used some other method for character generation, that’s fine, just be aware that you are likely to be above the curve a bit (the equivalent of a higher level character). I do not worry much about inter-party level balance and a group of characters with drastically different levels plays fine at the table with this kind of game in my experience.

I use ascending AC. If you do not already have an attack bonus calculated for your PC, use level for fighters, zero for magic-user types, and half-level for all other classes.

In addition to this, the session will begin with a brief “downtime” turn. PCs must pay for upkeep or start disadvantaged in terms of HP and resource recovery (5 coins buys standard upkeep, 100 quality, and 500 luxurious; quality and luxurious accommodations grant better HP rerolls or some bonus temp HP depending on your preference). During this turn, gear can also be purchased and retainers recruited. This is not intended to be an expansive roleplaying opportunity, just a staging ground. While these matters are being sorted out I will also recount the basic rumors and adventuring opportunities available.

At the end of the session, I will give XP based on treasure recovered. Normally, I prefer to do XP for treasure spent, but that is impractical within the Flailsnails context. I do not award any XP for defeating monsters. Special XP awards may be available for completing other tasks, and if so this will be made clear during the preparatory downtime turn along with rumors.

It should go without saying, but please also let me know beforehand if you have some really strange power or extra potent magic item. Use your best judgment; I reserve the right to nerf stuff during play that was not cleared beforehand.

Oh, and no infravision or dark vision. Continual light works differently in my games too (ask me if it matters). I am sure I am forgetting a few other things as well.

See also:

Complete Vivimancer

complete vivimancer coverGavin N., author of the City of Iron blog and the previous Labyrinth Lord supplement Theorems & Thaumaturgy, has released another book, the Complete Vivimancer. T&T is something of an OSR Tome of Magic, introducing several new specialist magic-user variants and a host of new spells and magic items. I previously reviewed it (and the PDF is free, so you really have no excuse not to check it out). The Complete Vivimancer takes the eponymous class introduced in T&T and expands it further.

Unlike T&T, the CV has an A5 layout, which I much prefer. As a PDF, the size is perfect for tablets without needing to resize. Beyond the size, the layout style feels improved as well. Details like duration are offset from descriptive text when needed, but no strict format is used, which is appreciated (including useless null info like magic resistance: none rather than just leaving it out is something that bothers me in many RPG layouts). The art is suitably weird and of a particular, consistent style. There are many worms, veins, pustules, and so forth. Breeding and reproduction are (as you might expect) constant themes. Total content is around 80 digest sized pages with periodic illustrations.

In an effort to serve as an all-in-one reference, the Complete Vivimancer repeats the relevant content from T&T alongside the new material. I can imagine this might bother some folks, but it seems appropriate to the project, and in any case there is a lot of new content as well. Interestingly, a number of spells from core Labyrinth Lord are included also, but subtly adjusted to add a vivimantic flavor, which is a nice touch. For example, the vivimancer version of jump notes that the subject’s legs develop a springing capability similar to that of a cricket, which I would probably run with and rule to be an actual insectoid transformation. Depending on how seriously a given referee takes the re-skinned details, this could dramatically alter how some spells work (as it should).

That said, what exactly is included? First, the details of the class, which look at a glance to be identical to the standard magic-user (d4 HD, only daggers, no armor, create new spells and magic items at 9th level, etc). There are some guidelines about the cost of maintaining a laboratory and keeping experimental subjects, which are required for some vivimantic spells. The spell list itself is impressively large, with 30 spells each for levels 1 through 3, 20 spells for level 4, and 12 spells for each level thereafter. A slightly more restricted list of spells (12 per level) is also provided for referees to prefer a slightly more restrained spell list.

What are the spells like? Symbiotic familiar causes a plant- of fungal-based familiar to grow in or on the magic-user’s body. Anthropomorphism allows the magic-user to impart humanlike consciousness and tool using ability to an animal. Leech blast is an area effect spell that covers enemies in a mass of bloodsucking worms if a save is failed, doing continuous damage. The chimera spells are a take on monster summoning, with randomly determined qualities, and look like they would be fun in play. Detach makes a body part separate from its owner, though remaining under his or her control (allowing crawling hands and so forth). Lockroaches are a living magic item that functions sort of like a knock scroll (I bet you can guess how they work). While a large number of vivimantic effects are permanent, allowing, for example, a given vivimancer to over time create a horde of fungal zombies, importantly (as far as I can tell) vivimancers do not have any special influence over most creations, requiring intelligent and creative play.

How specialist magic-users interact with the advancement systems of a campaign is somewhat complicated. How do magic-users learn new spells? Must they find new spells through adventuring, as suggested by Labyrinth Lord page 19, or do they automatically add one or two new spells upon level-up? This is tricky because it interacts with the system that the referee uses for awarding treasure. If you are following the LL rules strictly, magic-users are not able to research new spells until 9th level. Personally, I think this approach has some shortcomings, as few games last until 9th level. It is mentioned on page 72 that one might want to relax this rule, but guidelines beyond that are not given. Some house rules or treasure placement fudging are likely required to make sure that vivimancer characters are able to acquire sufficient new spells.

In addition to the spells and magic items, which make up the bulk of the CV, there is a one page appendix of psionic powers which looks perfectly serviceable and a random table based mutation system. Like Gavin’s other work, the CV is thoughtfully written and carefully constructed. The LL chassis that it sits upon is widely compatible with traditional fantasy games, making it easy to incorporate spells and magic items into a given campaign even if you don’t use the class itself, though the vivimancer archetype might also be well served by some more innovative rules. That said, I understand the design decision to remain close to the original magic-user. As with T&T, the entire work other than the name is open game content, making it easy to include spells or other content that you like within your own OGL-licensed products. Overall, I think I would enjoy playing a vivimancer myself, which seems like a good bottom line assessment.

Complete Vivimancer hard copy

Complete Vivimancer hard copy

Monster design

Gus just posted about trick monsters, focusing on special attack modes (attacks that rust PC equipment, poison, and so forth). While I think attack modes can be a useful device to distinguish monsters, and can add to the puzzle nature of enemies, it is weaknesses and attack patterns that truly add distinctiveness to an enemy. Special attack modes can increase the danger of an opponent, and reward players for learning to avoid the attack (such as fighting poisonous giant spiders only from range), but can also make monsters more of a hazard to be avoided rather than a puzzle to be solved. This is not necessarily a bad thing–I certainly think pure hazard monsters have a place–but there are other opportunities available in monster design as well.

First, let’s review some weaknesses present in classic monsters. The basilisk can be petrified by its own gaze, though few guidelines other than requiring light at least equivalent to a torch are given. The bulette is AC -2 in most places, but only AC 6 under its raised crest and AC 4 at its eyes. Presumably those areas can be targeted using called shots. Chimeras have variable AC based on front, side, and rear. Dragons are vain, covetous, greedy, and vulnerable to flattery. Surprisingly, there seem to be few elemental vulnerabilities. Salamanders, which are fire based monsters, take an extra point of damage per die from cold attacks, and there are a few other cases like that, but, for example, while frost giants are immune to cold, they do not seem to take any extra damage from fire attacks. Many (all?) undead take damage from holy water. Rakshasas are killed instantly by blessed crossbow bolts. Puddings and oozes have a nice collection of reactions to various attack types that are too complicated to list here but have some interesting effects on gameplay. Giant slugs are not actually vulnerable to salt.

Many “vulnerabilities” are actually just the only way to damage a monster that is otherwise immune to attack. Lasting damage can only be dealt to a troll using fire or acid, for example, and wights can only be damaged by silver or enchanted weapons. This penchant for increasing monster danger by making them impervious to everything other than a few carefully chosen attack modes is appropriate for some creatures when easily intuited (ghosts being immune to physical blows, fire elementals being immune to fire, and so forth), but may not be the best approach in all cases.

Attack patterns are rarely seen in traditional D&D monsters, and this is a shame, because they potentially allow players to learn about monsters experientially in addition to via clues and rumors. 4E has a few nods in this direction, though they are more often phrased as capabilities and concerned more with balancing numbers than they are with encoding combat dynamics (the 4E approach to monster weaknesses was more about the four different defenses, which unfortunately are more about monster level than anything else). Giving some attacks a “recharge” limiting its ability to be used sequentially is a nice, usable mechanic, however.

I have been playing a lot of Dark Souls recently (more on that later in the form of a massive upcoming post), which has exceptionally good monster design. So as an exercise, I will stat up the Asylum Demon. Minor spoiler warning here I suppose, though this is only the first boss in the game. It is really part of the tutorial level, so I feel justified in potentially exposing some secrets. Now, this should be a massively punishing encounter if faced head-on, but should be possible to defeat, even for a basically equipped first level party, if approached intelligently. I added some touches of my own to help migrate from the video game to the tabletop context. I chose this monster in particular because it is essentially a physical beast that does not rely in its design on vulnerability to specific energy types or similar things and effectiveness fighting it should depend primarily on tactical decisions. Numerical scale assumes OD&D but would probably work okay in B/X or AD&D as well, with slightly lessened difficulty.

Here is a good video of the fight against the Asylum Demon.

Asylum Demon

Asylum demon gonna step on you (source)

Asylum demon gonna step on you (source)

HD 10, AC as chain (5/14), movement as encumbered human (lumbering walk and awkward flying). Any human not lugging a chest or similar oversized object will be able to outrun the asylum demon.

Asylum demons are horrific, bulbous, brutal demons. They are often guardians unable to range extensively from their post.

Several enemies near: horizontal weapon sweep attack, +10 vs. AC, 1d6 damage, compare one attack roll to all nearby enemies.

A good target at reach: hammer slam 2d6 damage, save (vs. stone?) for half.

No enemies near: fly awkwardly up towards biggest cluster of opponents and attempt to position for good attack next round. Any opponents that do not scatter additionally subject to stomp next round for 1d6 damage, save (vs. stone?) for half.

Weak in the mouth, back of neck, and rear shank. Called shot to the mouth is possible with reach (if adjacent or climbing/grappling) or missile weapons at -4. Accessing the back of the neck requires either jumping from above or climbing first. Successful attack against the mouth or rear shank deals +1d6 damage and to the back of the neck deals +2d6 damage (other additional backstab damage may also apply).

Immune to ranged attacks from human scale missiles such as arrows, bolts, or hurled spears. They “stick it its leathery hide ineffectually.”

Clues: it roars periodically, “exposing pink, fleshy mouth skin.” Anyone behind the demon should notice the “mottled, unprotected rear shank” (though note the demon will never expose this area unless proactively flanked). Consider including balconies or other high vantage points nearby to allow for jump attacks and make sure to mention them when describing the area initially. Asylum demons are huge, lumber brutes and their heavy treads can generally be heard though several walls.

Salvage: asylum demon hide is useful for making leather armor that is particularly protective versus piercing attacks (as plate versus piercing, 1d6 suits worth per demon skin). The weapons they carry are quite fearsome, but may require superhuman strength to wield effectively (yeah, this depends on some other subsystem or ruling that I am not going to get into here).

Is this too much text for a single monster? Perhaps. It is always hard to gauge for yourself how useful a writeup will be to others since, as the author, you already have a good idea in your head of what it is you are going for, but I think this compares favorably with many published monsters, and I think the trigger/action format, with important points emphasized, would be easier to use at the table.

The 2E monstrous manual presented foes as a collection of common game stats (AC, movement, HD, THAC0, etc) along with sections on combat, habitat/society, and ecology. While there are nuggets of useful game info buried within these page-long entries, and some creative world building, for purposes of running encounters it seems like some other categories might be more useful. Triggers for different kinds of attacks, clues to weaknesses, and guidelines for placement, as shown in the asylum demon entry above, are all candidates. Also, fears, hates, and desires. Some such things can often be derived from common knowledge (such as wild animals or carnivores being able to be distracted with rations or livestock), but other details may merit a mention (for example, the wraiths in the Vaults of Pahvelorn will often not molest intruders if they are brought sacrifices to drain). I clued that with remains of previous sacrifices.

All D&D examples in this post were drawn from the 2E Monstrous Manual because it was nearby.