Yearly Archives: 2011

Weird Cults

The request I got:

Dear Secret Santicore…
I’d like a table or set of tables for generating weird cults.

And here it is.


(Use with caution. Service all parts every 30 days.)

Roll 10d10 and consult the tables in order.

Or, roll d10 for the number of tables to consult (let N be this number), and then roll Nd10 to decide which tables to consult and another Nd10 to determine the operative values.

Never, ever, roll on the animal table unless explicitly directed to by another table. Otherwise, bad things will happen. We don’t talk about what happened to those who used MARK I. Just be glad you got MARK II.

TABLE I: What do they worship?

  1. The idea of progress
  2. A demon lord
  3. The jealous, forgotten god of the chosen people
  4. Prince of animals (roll on animal table)
  5. The lord of Nod, the land of sleep and hallucination
  6. Deposed deified emperor from 1000 years ago (“Dark Augustus”)
  7. The universal life-force
  8. The new prophet
  9. Overlord of a rival state
  10. An ancient machine

TABLE II: What is their identifier?

  1. Animal tattoo on their back (roll on animal table)
  2. Fine silver ring, allowed to tarnish
  3. Ritual cross-hatch scars on upper arms
  4. Glass eye
  5. Secret handshake
  6. Green blood
  7. Nictitating eyelid
  8. Sharp teeth (either sharpened or naturally sharp)
  9. Hairless
  10. Verbal prayers of thanks to the patron upon any success

TABLE III: What is their ultimate goal?

  1. Extinction, but they want to take as many others with them as possible
  2. Accumulate souls for their account in hell
  3. To take back the underworld — men belong underground, monsters above
  4. Prepare the world for the ancient masters from the stars
  5. Immortality; each cell has part of the recipe, they seek each other out
  6. Enlightenment through extreme experiences
  7. Reforesting the great waste known as civilization
  8. Yellow is the sacred color, as much of the world as possible must be in this hue
  9. The end of warfare
  10. Reuniting two sundered worlds

TABLE IV: Who is in charge?

  1. Mad charismatic crackpot
  2. Demon, fae, or otherworldly being in human guise
  3. Explorer who found the fountain of youth
  4. Swindler, bilking the credulous
  5. Swindler, bilking the credulous, unaware that his teachings are true
  6. Ancient underground machine
  7. Prince of animals (roll on animal table for type)
  8. One of the PCs in a past life or before the amnesia
  9. An animate painting
  10. A telepathic idol of the ancients

TABLE V: What is their taboo?

  1. Must not eat vegetables
  2. Will not shake hands (it is polluting)
  3. If you meet their eyes, you will learn one of their secrets
  4. They must wash skin that sunlight touches
  5. Dead cultists must be ritually separated in buried in 6 different locations
  6. Must not start a fire
  7. Sexual abstinence
  8. Will eat nothing cooked
  9. Must not lie
  10. Must always have a clear mind; no intoxicants

TABLE VI: What is their secret power?

  1. Start and control fires — pyrokinesis
  2. Corpses speak to cultists
  3. Discipline of the body — ancient martial arts
  4. Preserve corpses indefinitely, either magically or scientifically
  5. None, though they believe they can summon demons
  6. Rust metal by touch
  7. Mind meld — they can read thoughts by touch
  8. Fertile — crops tended yield 2 to 3 times normal bounty
  9. Sympathetic magic — voodoo that works
  10. Influence animals (like the cleric’s turn undead ability)

TABLE VII: What is their ritual garb?

  1. Yellow robes
  2. Full armor with helm (antiques valued)
  3. Official magistrates — they actually run the 
  4. Wizard robes, full on stars and moons and pointy hats (they believe they are magic-users)
  5. Finely scented loin cloth
  6. Black tunic and sandals
  7. Masquerade masks
  8. Business formal — suit and tie or equivalent for time period
  9. Paramilitary uniforms
  10. Shape-changers — lycanthropes or other, ritual “garb” is their non-human form

TABLE VIII: What do their nameless rituals entail?

  1. Eating live animals (roll on animal table for type)
  2. Recitation of ancient sutras
  3. Silent meditation
  4. Ritual combat
  5. Human sacrifice
  6. Animal sacrifice (roll on animal table)
  7. Burning the sacred texts of rival cults
  8. Riddles
  9. Summoning
  10. Believer suicides

TABLE IX: Where do they hold their nameless rituals?

  1. Center for performing arts (amphitheater, boxing ring, etc)
  2. Ancient stone circle
  3. Fake ancient stone circle (they set it up)
  4. Ancient unearthed vessel
  5. Town hall — they run the place
  6. The home of a ritually slain family
  7. A natural glade under an overcast sky
  8. By running water to protect from hostile spirits
  9. Another religion’s holy sanctum
  10. In the northeast of any habitation

TABLE X: How old is the sect?

  1. Just founded last week
  2. Before any known civilization
  3. Was loosed on the world by something let out of a dungeon by PCs
  4. During the founding of the current dynasty (or political order)
  5. The previous dynasty (cult is all that remains)
  6. Cult is a cyclical plague unleashed to punish decadent societies
  7. Originally founded by a demigod during the creation wars
  8. Older than written history (all cult records are oral)
  9. It was born with the leader and will die with the leader
  10. Founded based on some past innocuous PC action

APPENDIX: Animal table

  1. Mantis
  2. Turtle
  3. Ram
  4. Wasp
  5. Ox
  6. Peryton
  7. Worm
  8. Cat
  9. Lizard
  10. Centipede

Two Thoughts on Thieves

Talysman posted about his most recent version of the thief class and we have been discussing it in the comments on his blog (see here and here). This means I’ve been thinking about thieves (even) more than normal. Here are a couple of ideas that I want to get down in text.

  1. Contra thieves: does the solo nature of many thief skills make them a bad fit for an adventuring party? For example, if you have a diverse mix of classes, the thief is probably going to have to go off alone to make use of stealth. This increases the chance of splitting the party. This is true of virtually all of the thief’s abilities (even “hear noise” requires everyone else to be quiet). The one player mini-games that follow both potentially waste the time of other players and expose the thief to unnecessary danger, since the other party members will often not be around to assist. Now, the last thing that I want is to excise the thief. I like the thief. The archetype is fun to play. In fact, it has been said that in my 3E incarnation I am actually a rogue myself. But I do think this issue needs to be addressed in a well-designed thief class.
  2. Powerful spells can only be prepared by high level magic-users. Is it possible to distribute the thief’s abilities among the levels in a similar way? The traditional thief gets 7 poor abilities all at once and then has to wait for them to gradually improve. 2E, 3E, and some other systems tried to address this problem by using a point-buy system for thief skills, but that does not satisfy me because it adds complexity, calculation, and the opportunity overly optimize (i.e., min-max). Why not give the thief one awesome ability per level rather than 7 crappy ones? Are there some abilities that more naturally fit low level play? The pair of stealth abilities (hide in shadows & move silently) are basically invisibility, so they are clear candidates for at least the lower mid-levels. Maybe connect this to thief magic, in mechanics if not flavor?

These points don’t make much sense together. But there you have them.

    Hammer Horror & Cleric Power Delegation

    I had not heard of Hammer Horror films prior to being a regular reader of Grognardia (see this post). After reading the argument that Van Helsing was one of the inspirations for the cleric class, of course I decided that I had to watch some of the Hammer films. So, I did some web research, and this DVD set seemed to be a good place to start. Quatermass and the Pit and The Devil Rides Out also seem interesting.

    Speaking of clerics (this is my attempt at a segue), The City of Iron recently wrote about doing without the cleric class using blessings & pacts. I was just thinking about sources of cleric power, and one of my ideas was “Hierarch; source is a higher-level cleric (it’s turtles all the way up)”.

    Following on that, what if delegation is a standard mechanic for cleric spells? Here’s how such a thing might work:

    • Any cleric can grant spells to other characters.
    • Max level of spell that can be bestowed is one less than the highest level the cleric can cast (e.g., a cleric that can cast third level spells can delegate first and second level spells).
    • As long as the spell remains granted, that spell slot is occupied.
    • The cleric can revoke the granted spell at any time.
    • The cleric will know when the spell is discharged, but not the specific circumstances.
    • Some monsters could also be able to bestow similar blessings.
    • Non-clerics can at most retain one granted spell.

    I’m not sure if I would actually want to play with this system, but I think it is an interesting variation.

    Quick Skills Idea

    Assume for the moment that you like playing with skills and feats. Why do first level characters get skills and feats? Video games rarely introduce all their mechanics at once; why should tabletop RPGs? Why not start accumulating skills & feats at second level rather than first? There is nothing special about second level of course, other than that it is not first level. This has a number of benefits:

    1. Character generation is simpler and faster.
    2. Players will be less likely to take skills or feats that are not useful in the particular campaign.
    3. Character concept will be clearer once the character has had some play time.
    4. Getting skills and feats is always a reward rather than an entitlement, and so will be appreciated more.
    5. Character building becomes less of a self-contained pre-game.
    6. Basic knowledge required to start playing is decreased.
    7. Skills & feats become more about character development.
    8. The principle of definition through play is strengthened.

    Some might argue that the same problem applies to magic-user and cleric spells. I would respond that the cleric did not originally gain a spell at first level (a design choice I am coming to increasingly appreciate, for a number of reasons). The design of the magic-user is indeed vulnerable to this critique, but it is only one of several classes, and so is a form of opt-in complexity. Further, there are a number of methods for randomly determining spells known, so though it might take some time, it does not necessarily require any choice.

    I bet 50% of characters played never reach second level. Why is the common case (first level) made nearly as complex as the rare case? What percentage of games start at first level? (My guess is the vast majority.) What is the average level a campaign reaches before petering out or being ended? These are interesting empirical questions that have potentially important implications for game design.

    In fact, I think this principle can be applied in general. Why not make players earn their rules complexity? This is one of the reasons why a long list of powers for every class (I’m looking at you, Fourth Edition) does not work very well. This character generation rules proliferation is a side-effect of trying to stretch the “sweet spot” of D&D play over all 30 levels (an explicit design goal of 4E).

    Or, to put it another way, why not back-load the complexity?

    25 December 2011 edit: Jeffro wrote a great post about applying a similar idea to magic users (described below in the comments) by only starting them out with read magic, so that all spells are introduced through play. Go read it, because it’s a great post, and something I’m definitely going to try myself.

    D&D Walking Dead

    Christian wrote up a World of Darkness zombie inspired by AMC’s The Walking Dead (see Loviator #5). This is a B/X version. The basic idea is to make zombies more terrifying by using something like the save-or-die mechanic. In D&D, zombies are often just perceived as (slow) moving bags of HP and XP. They are only scary to the degree that they can overwhelm with numbers, and overwhelming with numbers is not very practical in D&D. Anyone who has tried to run a hoard of 40 or more monsters in D&D without some sort of simplification or handwaving should know this. This zombie is scary because it is a carrier. One bite, and you could be infected. This taps into a deep fear of contagion.

    Walking dead are meant more as obstacles to avoid than as combattants to take out (though of course they can be taken out). As such, consider rewarding 0 XP for defeating walking dead in combat. Perhaps all monsters with powers such as deadly poison or level drain should actually award no combat XP? This is probably not necessary for players steeped in the old ways, but might be helpful for players coming from more recent games.

    Walking Dead – HD 1, AC 9, damage 1d6 + infection, move 60′ (20′), morale 12, # 3-36

    The walking dead are zombies that carry an undead plague of unknown origin. If hit by one of the walking dead, save vs. poison or be bitten. Characters bitten will become one of them in 2d6 hours. If one of the walking dead is reduced to 0 HP, it becomes immobile, but is still dangerous to anyone that comes within its reach (its reach will vary based on physical integrity). A head shot is required for actual destruction. Referees are encouraged to allow creative methods for head shots during combat.

    Sources of Cleric Power

    Writing up my Secret Santicore entry today got me flexing my random table muscles. And then this post provided a wacky explanation for clerics. I’ve always liked the idea of the cleric as a mortal siphon for SOMETHING. What is that something? Here’s a table. This is more a collection of other people’s ideas, but a few are original.

    1. Celestial bureaucracy; preparing a spell requires paperwork and approval
    2. Sorcerer king; cleric is a templar, like in Dark Sun
    3. Parasite; cleric is a cosmic thief, roll again for source (cleric will be in trouble if the source finds out)
    4. Hierarch; cleric can delegate spells in the same way that the deity can grant them, roll again for source
    5. Hierarch; source is a higher-level cleric (it’s turtles all the way up)
    6. Machine; orbiting AI like in ASE1
    7. Machine; ancient device buried in the underworld
    8. Machine; cloistered in a temple, maintained (controlled?) by high-ranking priests
    9. Imprisoned higher being; celestial battery (think Trigun)
    10. Demon; cleric is a warlock (think Elric)
    11. Aspect-based pantheon; cleric often engaged in tasks for the god’s personal vanity (think Greek mythology)
    12. Faction-based pantheon; cleric is a soldier in a cosmic battle (think Book of Revelation or Jotunn versus Aesir); spells are granted like ordnance
    13. Vampiric; cleric must steal spells (or spell slots) from other magic-users or clerics, perhaps by ritually slaying them, or perhaps the cleric does not understand how spells are acquired
    14. Monotheistic; could be explicitly Christian (see Blood of Prokopius)
    15. Ancestors; spells are granted by the spirits of deceased family members
    16. Deiphores; clerics feast on the flesh of dead gods (source)
    17. Aliens; gods are actually advanced starfaring extraterrestrials (think Clarke’s third law and Stargate)
    18. The Prince; political power fuels godhood in a similar way to how believers are sometimes explained as the source of a god’s power
    19. Bodhisattvas; enlightened beings who remain in the world to benefit the unenlightened (they were once presumably mortal, and still exist in the material world)
    20. Spirits inhabiting rocks, trees, and other natural phenomena (think Japanese kami)


      Rolling two dice and taking the highest (2DTH from here on) is one of my favorite recent discoveries. I never saw this back in my Second Edition days. The first place I came across it was probably at Grognardia, perhaps one of the Dwimmermount session reports. I would be interested in knowing the ultimate provenance though. Is 2DTH a recent innovation, or can it be found in any of the classic writings? Philotomy has a similar rule in his OD&D musings, so maybe that is where it came from.

      I like 2DTH so much because it allows you to skew probabilities in a particular direction without introducing bonuses or eliminating any possibilities. Also, though you are literally rolling more dice, it still feels like a single roll, and thus does not seem to bog pacing down as something like an additional attack roll might. Other editions have addressed similar problems by adding bonuses (the Third Edition family and Second Edition to a slightly lesser degree) or eliminating randomness altogether (such as HP in Fourth Edition).

      Places where I think this mechanic is appropriate:

      • Damage: two-handed weapons or dual-wielding
      • First level HP

      I’m sure there are many more as well.

      The d4 is the simplest interesting case (the curve shift is not as obvious with a d2).

      2d4 Take Highest
      1 2 3 4
      1 1 2 3 4
      2 2 2 3 4
      3 3 3 3 4
      4 4 4 4 4

      This gives the following probabilities:

      • 7 in 16 chance of a 4 (~ 44%)
      • 5 in 16 chance of a 3 (~ 31%)
      • 3 in 16 chance of a 2 (~ 19%)
      • 1 in 16 chance of a 1 (~ 6%)

      Obviously, two dice take lowest (2DTL) can also be used to skew the probability curve in the other direction, though I have found less use for this. Perhaps for situational modifiers.

      Nalfeshnee hack

      I am currently running a house ruled Fourth Edition game. Following Zak, I have decided for ease of reference to call this internally the Nalfeshnee Hack. I started this game right when I got back into the hobby (in fact, one might say that this game was the reason I got back into the hobby, and online research for it is how I discovered the OSR). At the time I had very little conception of the differences between 4E and earlier systems; I just jumped in, becoming familiar with the system as we played. Now the game is established. We are 14 sessions in, I have 7 players (all coworkers), and we play in the company board room every Monday evening that a quorum is available. I’m going to stick with it even though in a perfect world I would probably choose something like B/X or LotFP.

      How does the Nalfeshnee Hack differ from standard 4E? Here’s a quick summary:

      • LotFP encumbrance rules (still easing this one in)
      • B/X initiative: d6 per side
      • The Big Purple D30 Rule
      • Skills & languages can be selected during play
      • No dragonborn (because they annoy me)
      • 2E “Hovering on Death’s Door” rules
      • Treasure, exploration, and monster XP
      • B/X movement and time rules (for non-tactical situations)
      • Firearms (identical to crossbows other than noise and form factor)
      • 1 March 2012 edit: the luck throw
      • 5 March 2012 edit: monster guidelines
      I also have the following convenience rules because we don’t get very much time to play, and I also don’t know how these players might deal with interplayer conflict:
      • The party should stay together
      • No PvP
      I have tended to choose the initiative system on a case by case basis. I originally tried using the official individual initiative system as specified in the 4E rulebooks, but I always end up feeling flustered in play when I use that. We’re slowly tending towards the B/X style of initiative as specified above. On the other hand, I do like the uncertainty involved in choosing an initiative system semi-arbitrarily.
      I don’t think any of my players have taken advantage of the option to select skills & languages during play (this is a slight variation on the LotFP language rules). They are too accustomed to doing full “character builds” before the game starts. I will probably encourage this more directly the next time someone creates a new character.
      The Fourth Edition PC death rules state that at 0 HP or fewer PCs are dying. At negative bloodied value (half of full HP), the character is dead. When in negative territory but not yet dead, a PC is unconscious and must make a “death saving throw” every turn (saves in Fourth Edition have very little relation to saving throws in previous editions; a save is a 55% success check unaffected by level, ability scores, or skills). Three “death saving throw” failures mean death, and a natural 20 on this check allows the PC to spend a healing surge and bounce back up. This system just seems clunky to me in play, and not dangerous enough. Hovering on Death’s Door (Second Edition Dungeon Master Guide page 75) has PCs unconscious at 0, dead at -10, and loosing 1 HP per round while in negative territory and not stabilized. Any cure spell restores the dying PC to consciousness at 1 HP.
      If I were starting from scratch and using 4E again for some reason, I would also push for these rules:
      • Chargen from Player’s Handbook only
      • No use of the character builder
      • No eladrin (having both elves and eladrin seems redundant)
      In general, my players have been good sports regarding my experimentation and divergence from the rules as written, and for that I am thankful.

      8 January 2012 edit: added image.

      Loviatar 5 & Hex Rewards

      Issue 5 is my favorite of the zine so far. If I had to pick, B/X would probably be my game of choice, and the bulk of this issue is dedicated to basic D&D hexcrawl content! It also has the best cover of all the Loviatars. I hope that Hex 001 is the start of a series of hex articles.

      Hex 001 also introduced a new rule (to me at least) that I am considering adopting in general. There are four main encounter locations within Hex 001, and if the PCs investigate at least 3 of them, they get a “hex reward” (in this case, the reward is the companionship of a flying cat). I really like this. If I had to define D&D, I would not cite treasure, or fighting, or monsters, or even magic; I would point to the concept of exploration. I know that is not true for all players. In fact, most of my players seem to be most enthused by killing enemies and accumulating treasure. (Maybe that’s the difference between players who are at heart referees and players who are at heart adventurers?)

      I’ve thought about giving XP for exploration in addition to treasure and defeating monsters, but I’ve never gotten around to actually trying it. I have given XP for completing particular journeys, but I’ve never generalized the rule. Giving XP for specific journeys is really too story-based for me now, so I don’t think I would do that again. Using hex rewards outside of the XP system is another interesting way of approaching rewarding exploration. The only question left is: how much metagame information about the incentive should be communicated to the players? On the one hand, saying that “there are four encounter zones to find here” seems to break immersion. But I do want players to know what they are being rewarded for. So I would probably compromise and explain the the general concept of hex rewards to players without going into detail.

      E6 and Skills

      I just finally got around to reading Calibrating Your Expectations, a very influential article about D&D power levels by Justin Alexander. To summarize, the argument is that D&D (specifically the third edition) can accurately model both characters compatible with real life (from first through approximately fourth or fifth level) and fantastic characters up to demigods. Einstein is rated a fifth level physicist. Aragorn is analyzed and measured also as a fifth level 3.5 edition character. The interesting thing, from my point of view, is how this measurement is done. It is mostly not done by looking at class features, spells, or hit points (though they do factor in), but rather by skills and the difficulty classes needed to accomplish certain tasks.

      E6 works off a similar premise that the diversity of power levels that a D&D game progresses through when taken from first to twentieth level (to continue to stick with d20 D&D for explanatory purposes) is not actually what most players are interested in. They don’t want to play either a weak first level nobody or a demigod. They want to play Conan or Elric, and by the “Calibrating” argument, those characters occupy a limited sweet spot in the D&D level progression. E6 thus caps level advancement at sixth and then only allows limited feat acquisition after that.

      I’ve also been reading this excellent recent series of skill posts. And it got me thinking that a good part of the power bloat of version 3 comes from the way tasks are modeled with skills. I think this is a good argument to minimize (though maybe not totally remove) skill mechanics from the game. With the exception of magic items and spell selection (the Monty Haul campaign), I just don’t see this problem occurring in a classic D&D variant. And those two areas (magic items & spells) are under the control of the referee. Personally, I also like restricting the spell selection as done in 1974 D&D (the highest level magic-user spells are sixth), to manage power level. That seems to follow a logic similar to E6.

      (Note: I’m travelling and this post was entirely written on my iPad, so apologies in advance for the limited editing. I’ll clean it up later.)