Monthly Archives: November 2012


Barrowmaze II; poster was a crowd-funding backer perk

Being a review of volumes 1 & 2 of the Barrowmaze megadungeon, written by Greg Gillespie (who blogs at Discourse & Dragons). The points in this review generally apply to both volumes unless specified otherwise.

The core idea behind Barrowmaze is a dungeon of tombs spread out beneath a collection of burial mounds. Rather than extending vertically underground like most megadungeons, BM extends horizontally, with difficulty varying as progress is made across the map. Being based on tombs, undead are heavily represented, but they are by no means the only foes that adventurers will come across. There are also several factions of other creatures struggling for control of the Barrowmaze underworld. Overall, the concept is very strong, and the numerous tricks and traps, along with plenty of new monsters, keep the dungeon feeling new and fresh throughout.

I will say right off that, despite a few usability issues, this is one of my favorite dungeons to date, and certainly one of the strongest OSR efforts. It sings with Greg’s direct voice and vision. This is not just a module, but also a treatise on how to run a traditional megadungeon, with emphasis on the risk/reward trade-off. For example, examining burial alcoves, breaking bricked-up walls, and general searching all come at the cost of random encounter checks. This is of course true in all traditional dungeon play, but is made extra salient by the numerous systems that Barrowmaze incorporates, such as using sledge hammers to break door slabs and masonry.

Image from Discourse & Dragons blog

Greg went all out regarding the art, especially in volume 2 (which benefitted from crowd-funding financing), and the illustrations are uniformly fantastic. The Holloway picture of the mummy on the back cover of BM 2 is especially noteworthy, but the interior black and white illustrations are also quite strong, and communicate the atmosphere well. There are approximately 60 monster write-ups, and every single one has a picture. Add to this the illustration booklets (for showing to players) that were added for both volumes during the crowd-funding campaign for volume 2. The layout is also crisp and professional looking throughout, and a consistent use of bold and italic makes mechanical info easy to pick out within room descriptions. Personally, I would like it if clues were also highlighted in some way, but I have yet to see a published module that does something like that.

In addition to the small overland area containing barrow mounds, the dungeon proper, and all the new game content (magic items, spells, monsters, etc), Barrowmaze also contains several useful random tables for things like thematically appropriate dungeon dressing and dungeon graffiti. Some of these tables are duplicated between both volumes (a spot check makes the dungeon dressing table in both volumes seem identical between BM 1 and BM 2, but a few of the other tables have minor modifications). BM 2 includes a totally new sarcophagus contents table.

My favorite part of Barrowmaze II is actually a random barrow mound generator. This is a tool (with helpful worksheet!) that allows you to quickly roll up a barrow-themed mini-dungeon by stringing together a (random number) of tomb chambers with varying things like door type, other features, traps, and grave goods. I have already profitably used this generator in a number of places, and it can easily be re-skinned for use in generating other types of areas. The worksheet format in particular is perhaps a model for other similar multi-table tools (it might work well for something like the Random Esoteric Creature Generator, or a random demon generator).

My copy of the first printing of BM 1

However, I do have two criticisms, one large and one small. The large criticism applies to both volumes. The problem is that the map of the Barrowmaze dungeon proper is split seemingly with regard only to page boundaries (not dungeon zones) and included at the end of the book, making referencing the map when reading the room descriptions inconvenient. Rooms, and sometimes even room numbers, are sometimes cut in half based on how the map was paginated (examples: rooms 248 and 265). If one only had the printed book, this would be awkward to use. A separate high-res PDF map file is available, but it is not included with the main PDF and must be purchased separately.

The cartography and layout of the barrow mounds section is much more successful. The mound maps are mostly on the same page as their keys, making them easy to run out of the book. The rest of the dungeon would be much easier to use if it were presented similarly, in dungeon zones or zone fragments.

The small criticism applies only to Barrowmaze 1. That book is around 75 letter-sized pages worth of content. Of that, 12 pages are dedicated to pregenerated characters on full character sheets, one per page. I do not think this is an effective use of space. Barrowmaze 2 is much better in this regard, presenting the same amount of pre-gen content in only 4 pages, and with much better art.

On balance, my recommendation is high. You will likely need to do some prep with the maps before running Barrowmaze, but some level of prep is required with all modules. As a craft, module writing is actually still at a relatively early stage, I believe, and work with efficient form factors is ongoing. The area descriptions, however, are quite good in terms of their level of detail and usability. Most are short paragraphs, with concise text and relationships to other areas clearly presented, and the various tricks and monsters are creatively laid out and easy to get a handle on. Barrowmaze would make an excellent companion for something like an all-in-one starting Labyrinth Lord campaign.

One final note: it looks like Barrowmaze is going on sale this week.

Caryatid Columns, Barrowmaze II page 32

Agency preserving illusions

Image from Wikipedia

What makes a hazard in a tabletop RPG fair? I believe that clues are what make hazards fair. They can be subtle clues, or even indirect clues, but if there are no clues you are playing a game of chance rather than a game of skill. Especially if hazards can kill a character dead with only a saving throw as potential saving grace, clues are critical (the issue is slightly blunted, though not removed, of the lethality rules are more forgiving).

This is relatively straightforward with physical traps, such as darts, daggers, and collapsing ceilings. Just think about the mechanism required for such traps and add description. Scorch marks, dead NPCs, holes in the masonry, dust on the floor in a particular pattern, watermarks on the walls, etc.

But what about illusions? Theoretically, an illusionary floor could cover a pit full of spikes covered in save or die poison. Sure, you would still get a saving throw, but having to roll a saving throw should come after making a mistake. So what is the clue for an illusion?

There has been some discussion of illusions by Courtney over at Hack & Slash. For example, this example of detecting illusionary pit traps suggests using magic saving throws after physical interaction is attempted (such as throwing a coin into an illusionary pit). And in a post about another illusion-powered trap, Courtney writes:

There should be at least a single word in the description of the object to indicate it’s chimerical nature.

For example, describing a rolling boulder as preternaturally silent. This approach is not entirely satisfactory to me, especially the saving throw method, because there are no clues at all prior to interaction. Moving to the second example, this is better (a clue is presented at the outset), but it also seems somehow artificial, and perhaps difficult to apply to non-visual illusions. I don’t think the “one word” rule is bad, exactly, but I think clarifying exactly what kind of clues illusions might create would be useful, especially when moving beyond examples of visual illusions that don’t make noise.

Consider this quite from The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon (book 2, Divided Allegiances, chapter 13):

Young sir, if you think it is easy to produce even illusory fire, I suggest you try. My old master, who is well-known in the arts, always said that a fine, convincing illusion was far more difficult—because reality carries its own conviction, and saves its own appearances. If you make a flame, it is a real flame, and you don’t have to worry, once you’ve got it. But an illusory flame can go wrong in many subtle ways—even such a thing as forgetting which way the wind is blowing, so that it flickers the wrong direction.

Perhaps this is a potential answer. No illusion is perfect enough to not have any logical inconsistencies. So here is a simple rule of thumb similar to Courtney’s “one word” dictum. Every illusion has at least one inconsistency or “deja vu” moment (like the cat from The Matrix). Maybe something plays in a loop or doesn’t quite react correctly to the environment. I believe this could easily handle illusions involving any of the senses, because the heuristic is something incongruent, rather than something chimerical.

Potential inconsistencies may also, of course, be caused by something else that is not yet understood. For example, a flame flickering the wrong direction might also be an indicator of a draft coming from a secret door. So inconsistencies should not necessarily be seen as a dead giveaway of an illusion, but they are something that needs to be understood before a party can proceed without potentially subjecting themselves to the mercy of the saving throw dice.

Random robot generator

Jack’s recent random robot generator post reminded me of another free generator that I had been meaning to blog about. You can find a PDF of it here:

I don’t remember originally how I came across this. It’s a “roll all the dice” system. I am coming to greatly appreciate the convenience of this format.

Image from Space Detective #2

Here is a sample robot.

Model 4-6-4-9-9-1

HD 8, AC as plate, Atk 2d6 or restrain

This model is unique and was designed to serve as an escort. In appearance, the robot is a 12 foot tall metal construct that is vaguely humanoid. Instead of a head, it has a large round featureless dome which seems to grow out of what would be the shoulders on a human. The robot’s normal attack mode is a powerful smash with its metal arms that does 2d6 damage and may optionally push or throw human-sized enemies up to 20 feet in addition to dealing damage. The chest plate also opens, revealing 6 metal tentacles which have a range of ten feet and can grab and restrain a target on a successful melee attack.

Mission (roll 1d6):

  1. Collector: designed to gather specimens for the mothership
  2. Jailor: designed to transport prisoners to the mothership (chest cavity is prison)
  3. Protector: designed to defend alien explorers (robot is almost like exoskeleton)
  4. Excavator: designed to explore the underworld; knows 1d3 interesting locations
  5. Maintainer: recovers and repairs other robots (chest cavity is repair chamber)
  6. Autopsier: chest cavity contains other tools for automated analysis and autopsy

Using Attack Ranks Defensively

Battle of Castillon (source)

In the ratling post, I alluded to an ability to use attack ranks for things other than just an increased chance to hit. Specifically, ratlings can use attack ranks to improve their armor class on a round by round basis, with each rank so applied improving the effective AC by one armor category. Ratlings naturally have light armor (AC 7). For example, a ratling who fights at attack rank 1 may choose each round whether she wants to have AC 7 and attack rank 1, or AC 5 and attack rank 0.

Fighters (but no other class) may also use attack ranks defensively in a similar way to improve their AC from round to round. In addition, fighters may spend their attack ranks to improve the AC of companions they are defending if that makes sense situationally. For example, consider a first level fighter wearing medium armor, using a shield, and fighting near an unarmored magic-user. This fighter has AC 4, the magic-user has AC 9. The fighter has the following options:

  1. Fight at attack rank 2. All armor classes remain unmodified.
  2. Fight at attack rank 1 and improve her own armor category one step (AC 2).
  3. Fight at attack rank 1 and improve the magic-user’s armor category one step (AC 7).
  4. Fight at attack rank 0 and improve the magic-user’s armor category two steps (AC 5).

Armor class may never be improved beyond AC 2. Defensive assistance from multiple fighters does not stack. Defensive assistance may be divided between multiple companions if that makes sense. I am not sure whether or not this floating defensive bonus should stack with armor. For now it does (as I would like to see people use this option some of the time). Fighter retainers may be instructed to defend their employer. Fighters must be armed with melee weapons or shields when defending companions (not missile weapons).

This ability is similar to the defense trait from the Hexagram path of arms. I think it is a nice addition to the fighter class, giving them some ability to defend other characters mechanically without resorting to other cumbersome subsystems. I could also imagine attack ranks potentially being usable for other things too, though I don’t want to overload the system too much.

Adjusted Attack Ranks

Battle from Holkham Bible (source)

The OD&D alternative combat system implies the use of attack ranks (discussed here and here previously). Based on my experience running Pahvelorn so far, I would like to adjust slightly how the various classes interact with this system.

Like armor, there are four categories of combat focus; each one corresponds to one of the four core classes. In the table below, focus is how much effort the class spends on improving combat skill. Begin is what attack rank members of the class have at level one. Improvement is a list of the levels where the class gains an attack rank. Max is the maximum attack rank attainable by members of the class. Regarding the maximum, keep in mind that no creature ever has AC less than 2 in this game.

Combat Competency By Class
Focus Class Begin Improvement Max
5, 9
5, 9, 13
4, 7, 10, 13

(Edit: starting thief attack rank changed from 0 to 1.)

The various classes are balanced around these trade-offs. For example, a magic-user is assumed to spend their time studying the stars and experimenting with new magic formulae. If they instead spend their time drilling and practicing skill at arms, their magic will suffer. Such things will be handled on a case by case basis within the game, and come with special requirements, such as finding a teacher.

Attack Rank
AC 0 1 2 3 4 5 6
2 18 16 14 12 10 8 6
3 17 15 13 11 9 7 5
4 16 14 12 10 8 6 4
5 15 13 11 9 7 5 3
6 14 12 10 8 6 4 2
7 13 11 9 7 5 3 2
8 12 10 8 6 4 2 2
9 11 9 7 5 3 2 2

Some further notes. Magic-user combat skill has obviously been pared down. Max thief combat skill is also capped lower, but note that a surprise attack allows the thief to attack as if with two extra attack ranks (that’s the translation of +4 to attack). The matrix has also been adjusted to reflect that a 1 is always a miss.

Attack rank attained will also affect what enchanted weapons a character can master (that is, use with full potential). This is an idea that I have been playing around with in Hexagram, and I believe it fits here as well, and is a more elegant solution than than just restricting weapons by class.

Random appearance table

The LL supplement Theorems & Thaumaturgy (my review can be found here) contains a magic item called ring of appearance warping. When worn, the wearer’s appearance changes randomly every turn. A useful table is included to help determine the appearance shifts. Further, the table is of the “roll all the dice” form (well, 4 of the 6 dice, but close enough). This makes it very easy to use without needing to roll multiple times.

It seems to me like this table would be very convenient for use as a random appearance generator for both PCs and NPCs. As it is open game content, I can reproduce it here for general use (and this post should be considered open game content). Thanks to Gavin for giving this to the community.

Die Result d4
Female Child Messy Missing limb
Female Youth Scant Obese
Male Adult Immaculate Scrawny
Male Mature Formal Muscular
Old Threadbare Bald
Decrepit Elaborate Hairy
Drab Tall
Uniform Short

Here are a few other decent tables that I know about:

  • Gygax DMG NPC personae section (page 100 – 102)
  • Labyrinth Lord AEC tavern patron traits (page 150)
  • LotFP Grindhouse Referee Book NPC characteristics table (back cover)
  • Pathfinder GameMastery Guide NPC Creator’s Toolbox (page 94)

Am I missing any other good ones?

My NPCs tend towards blandness and similarity, so I think I should make more use of resources like these.

Ratlings in Pahvelorn

Rackham (source)

Rackham (source)

Or, how I discoverned what halflings were like in my setting.

The sequence of events was as follows.

  1. Gustie’s first PC, a fighter named Lune, was incinerated by a fire-breathing statue trap.
  2. For his next character, he decided to create a thief, Beni Profane, a rat-catcher.
  3. After an adventure, Beni went carousing and failed his saving throw. He rolled a 19, which is: When in a drunken stupor you asked your god(s) to get you out of some stupid mess. Turns out they heard you! Now as repayment for saving your sorry ass, you’re under the effects of a quest spell.
  4. I asked Gustie what god or spirit Beni worshipped, to which he responded none. So I asked him what god he feared, and he came back with The Mother of Thousands, a six-armed rat spirit.
  5. And so was Beni was given a quest in his dreams by The Mother of Thousands.
  6. The problem, as it turned out, was that a group of ratlings was being persecuted by the Priest-King Agamos, lord of the stronghold of Ilum Zugot to the northwest (map).
  7. The ratlings had recently taken over some abandoned grave barrows as shelter, and were stealing grain from the Priest-King’s farmers and grain stores.
  8. The PCs successfully negotiated a deal between the rat-folk and the Priest-King where Agamos would give them grain in exchange for direction to more sealed barrows and spying on those around the Priest-King’s domain (especially Efulziton the Unseen, a necromancer to the south).

Ratling Class

  • 2d6 for strength and constitution
  • Level progression as thief
  • Hit dice as magic-user
  • Attack progression as cleric
  • No skill with armor, but see below
  • Only small weapons may be used without penalty
  • Weapon damage is “two dice, take least” or one die if wielded with two paws
  • May use their bite to attack (1-3 damage) or chew through things like ropes
  • Climb Walls, Hear Noise, Hide in Shadows, Move Silently, Pickpocket
  • Smell-based search rolls (including detecting poison) as Hear Noise
  • Natural AC as light armor (leather)
  • Round to round, attack ranks may be used to improve AC
  • +4 save versus wands, dragon breath, and disease
  • May speak to rats and related rodents (only general concepts)
  • Can squeeze through extremely small openings
  • For starting retainer roll d6: 1-3 giant rat, 4-6 young ratling

Ratlings detest most domesticated animals, but sometimes have giant rats (HD 1-1, AC 7, damage 1-3) as companions. Humans also will generally not follow them as retainers. Thus rather than a standard retainer, ratlings may begin with a giant rat or ratling youth. It is common for young ratlings to be taken on short tours of the world at large, to teach them how to hide from civilized folk and familiarize them with all the dangers that threaten rat-folk. Most return to their burrows terrified of everything, but a few rare ratlings acquire a taste for adventuring.

Ratling youth

HD 1-1, AC 7, bite, smell, and climb walls as above; convert to full ratling at 100 XP.

Spectrum systems

Image from Wikipedia

There are primarily two types of resolution system. The first kind is pass/fail, which I will call binary. The attack roll and saving throw are examples. The second kind has multiple degrees of success. I will refer to the second kind as a spectrum system. Examples of spectrum systems include the variable damage roll, the 2d6 reaction roll, and the Apocalypse World roll.

To complicate this taxonomy, binary systems are often actually limited spectrum systems, but with possibilities for super success and super failure results at the extreme ends of the possibility set (or auto-hit and auto-miss). Considering the attack roll, Natural 20s and natural 1s are examples of this sort of system, as are critical hits and fumbles. These systems are still closer to binary than not though, and I’m going to put them aside for the moment.

Many people play without using any spectrum system other than the damage roll. The 2d6 reaction roll was even removed from WotC versions of D&D. For myself, I find the spectrum systems very important. Here are a few examples of five-fold 2d6 rolls that I commonly use (with the exception of the magic roll, which is still a work in progress).

Social Rolls
2d6 Negotiation Reaction Morale
Refused, -1 future
Will consider another offer
Fights, check again
Accepted, +1 future
Proactively helpful
Fights, no further check

Cosmic Rolls
2d6 Weather Magic
2 Tempestuous (rolls -2) Catastrophe
3-5 Inclement (rolls -1) Miscast
6-8 Calm Delayed success
9-11  Pleasant Immediate success
12  Gorgeous Puissant success

When using the weather system, I apply reaction penalties by season (winter is -2, autumn and spring are -1).

Thanks to Christopher Wood from Carapace King for the suggestion of the term resolution spectrum.

Another encumbrance system

Image from Wikipedia

Back in March, Papers & Pencils posted a point based encumbrance system. It is similar to the LotFP slot-based encumbrance system and the less abstract encumbrance by stone system, but it bases how much you can carry on your strength score.

Encumbrance is measured relative to strength points, with most items being worth one point of strength (insignificant items do not count at all, and bulky items cost two strength points). An encumbrance of less than or equal to the strength score is considered unencumbered, with greater encumbrance being calculated by multiples of strength. So, for example, a character with strength 12 who was carrying 17 encumbrance points worth of equipment would be considered lightly encumbered. Each tier has associated penalties like you might expect (decreased speed, penalties to physical actions).

It’s a good system. Like the LotFP way of doing things, it’s a huge improvement over counting exact poundages (Third Edition) or coin-equivalent weights (TSR editions of D&D). However, I feel like it still requires a decent amount of calculation overhead, and this is especially difficult to coordinate for games played by videoconference (which is where I am doing most of my gaming these days). There have been a number of other blog posts about more visual slot based systems where players essentially fill out worksheets. I also feel like those are too much work to be easily adopted and maintained.

My current OD&D game is “officially” using this backpack-based encumbrance system I drafted back in July, but in practice it’s been more of a “keep it reasonable” kind of thing. The party as a whole does move slower since some of the PCs are wearing plate (and party speed is determined by the slowest members). It would be important if someone was in a drowning situation. But honestly, I don’t feel like it has made much difference.

The problem, I think, is that the movement penalty is not salient where movement happens entirely in a shared imaginary space. Ultimately, there are really two things that an encumbrance system should accomplish, in my opinion. The first is a sense of verisimilitude and realism (that’s right, I just used two trigger words). The second is that encumbrance should make choices of what to bring an interesting trade-off. In a perfect world, I would like the fighter’s choice of what weapon to bring along to be just as interesting as the magic-user’s choice of what spell to prepare.

So here is my super simple proposal, inspired by the Papers & Pencils strength based system. Items are categorized as either significant (sword, dagger, scroll) or insignificant (fishhook, ring, coin). Characters can carry a number of significant items equal to their strength score with no penalties, and up to 100 insignificant items (I don’t expect that anyone would actually want to carry that many insignificant items, but it obviously can’t be truly unlimited). For every extra significant item carried, characters take a -1 penalty to all physical rolls. So, for example, 3 extra items results in a -3 penalty to attack rolls, saves, etc.

That may sound harsh, but the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that it is actually realistic. An unencumbered person is able to fight just as well and move just as quickly as a person who is carrying nothing at all (that’s literally what being unencumbered means according to the system). In my past job, during my commute I would usually be carrying a briefcase with a few items inside and a canvas bag with two lunches and 1.5 liters of water. I’m relatively in shape, and I felt encumbered. I’ve also been backpacking, and even if modern equipment is used and items are packed well, it’s still quite awkward and tiring. Verisimilitude is less important to me than a functional game system, but in this case I think both requirements are satisfied.

Having extra items in a backpack or sack that is easily dropped for combat is one way of avoiding some penalties while still carrying more gear, but note that saving throws made during standard exploration will be penalized by the extra encumbrance. Further, if you drop your backpack during combat and need to retreat, that backpack is getting left behind for the enemy.

The thing that I like about this is that the -1 penalty per extra item makes “just one more item” have immediate consequences. In most of the other systems I have seen, it is possible to add another sword and stay within lightly encumbered or whatever. I think that kind of structure fights against both a sense of immersion and meaningful choices.

Examples of encumbering items:

  • Sword
  • Shield
  • Torch
  • Wand
  • Suit of armor
  • Quiver of arrows
  • Staff
  • Dagger
  • Scroll
  • Book
  • Potion
  • Thieves’ tools
Examples of insignificant items:
  • Basic clothing worn
  • Pendant
  • Gem
  • Ring
  • Holy symbol
  • Belt pouch
  • Fishhook
  • Flint & steel
  • Coin

Rules of thumb:

  1. If the item has system weight (and is not a magic item), it is probably encumbering.
  2. If it is a magic item that can be crafted without extraordinary requirements (scrolls, maybe potions), then it is encumbering.
  3. Items made for helping to carry other things are insignificant in moderation (backpacks, belt pouches).

Wandering in Carcosa

Cropped image from the LotFP store

I recently ran a FLAILSNAILS Carcosa one-shot on G+. This was a rescue mission for a character that had been imprisoned by the Donjon card from The Deck of Many Things.

Here are six Carcosan wilderness encounters that I developed for that adventure.

  1. T-rex corpse, skin mottled red and orange, being feasted upon by fist-sized maggots. Top of skull has been removed with surgical precision, and brain is missing. 
  2. Bipedal humanoid robot (HD 8, AC 3), with a spear and a head that has a single, spotlight eye in the center of a cylinder head. It is dragging a dead velociraptor behind it. It has learned how to hunt by spying on humans, but doesn’t understand what to do with the dead animals, so it just drags them back to a cave.
  3. Cuddly fluff balls (2d6, 1 HP each, AC 7). Bright red, hovering, bobbing up and down gently. Look and behave exactly like poison dirigible fruit (see below), but if observed for a turn there is a 3 in 6 chance of seeing the fluff ball lazily open one or both of its eyes. If petted, a fluff ball will orbit the character. Orbiting fluff balls will give characters a save versus wands to avoid a normal missile (something like an arrow or bullet) that would otherwise hit. A success means that the CFB intercepts the missile and is destroyed.
  4. Poison dirigible fruit (2d6, 1 HP each, AC 7). Visually identical to cuddly fluff balls (see above), but if touched in any way will explode in a burst of poison glop (all within melee range save or die). A poison dirigible fruit tree will grow in the corpse of any characters so slain, and will produce 2d6 dirigible fruit in 1d6 days. 
  5. Mummy with lower half of body buried (HD 5, AC 5, eyes shoot 2 lasers, save versus death ray or take 5 dice of damage). Wearing an emerald medallion (2000 GP). Quiescent unless the emerald medallion is disturbed. Two dead orange men nearby, one with a scorched hole blown in his head, the other with a scorched hole blown in his chest. 1d6 primitively armed orange men huddled at a safe distance discussing how to relieve the mummy of the medallion. They are not interested in treasure other than gems and technology, but will serve if offered such incentives.
  6. Floating circular platform, hovers 15′ above the ground. Space alien technology. 1 in 6 chance to figure out how to operate (intelligence modifier applies, only one try per character though). Can be moved at a rate of 10′ per turn. 3 bone men with spears have built a hut on top, and “desert fishing lines” hang down. The bone men are extremely xenophobic (reaction roll penalty of 2). One of the bone men has 2 sleep gas grenades (as sleep spell but a save versus paralysis applies, 30′ blast radius).
    On the way to the dungeon part of the adventure, the players came across 1 and 4, both of which they avoided approaching.