Yearly Archives: 2013

Compassionate guardians

Compassionate Guardian in repose (source)

Compassionate Guardian in repose (source)

The demon hunters believe that their order was founded by a great philosopher who, by sheer insight and force of will, yoked the power of cosmic law to civilization. Above all, this philosopher saw the danger that elder chaos posed to the young tribes of humans. The founder’s insight transcended mortality, but his or her compassion was so great that final enlightenment (escape from the cycle of rebirth) was deferred, and instead the great presence remained lodged in a bronze statue. From this statue, the first generation of demon hunters was instructed. This was the first Guardian, though many others have since arrived, animated by other compassionate spirits. Guardians are usually made of stone or metal, and are rarely less than the height of two men. They may have supplementary limbs or multiple faces. Sometimes they radiate light or heat. Each guardian is unique.

The actions of a Compassionate Guardian are totally unpredictable. Sometimes, they remain inert, statue-like, for years, before animating without warning to destroy some lurking threat, though they never intervene in mundane political struggles. Most Guardians do not speak, though some will project thoughts into nearby supplicants or provide oracles in various ways. Those who revere the Guardians believe that Guardian actions flow directly from perfect enlightenment and are thus above any worldly reproach.

Though the Guardians are immensely powerful, they are occasionally overcome by the powers of chaos and destroyed. The remnants of a Guardian are considered to be relics, and prized by demon hunters and the superstitious, who believe that even the smallest fragment will bring good luck (and, sometimes, relics do have more direct powers, which may only be used by those on the compassionate path, which includes demon hunters, paladins, and those with backgrounds related to religious training, assuming continued devoutness). Sometimes, a Compassionate Guardian will crumble for seemingly no reason at all. Though this is rarely a joyous occasion, it is considered part of the great cycle of rebirth. As Guardians are assumed to be sacrificing their own ascension for the benefit of others, they are entitled to resume transcendence beyond material existence at any point.

Demon hunters draw their powers from Compassionate Guardians, and thus must be within proximity of a guardian (or a relic), in order to cast Demon Hunter spells. For this reason, most demon hunters carry a relic at all times (this could be something like a small bit of metal on a leather cord or a stone fist mounted atop a staff). The greatest demon hunters carry weapons bestowed directly by a Compassionate Guardian, and such Guardian weapons function as relics. Even the weakest Guardian projects demon-killing power over a radius of many leagues, but the radii differs based on the guardian, and does not penetrate into the subterranean realms. Demon hunters will be able to sense if they are venturing outside the area of a Guardian’s attention, but this will not generally be a problem as long as the demon hunter possesses a relic. All demon hunters begin with a minor relic at the start of play, which is considered insignificant for encumbrance purposes and may be described in any way desired, either separate or integrated into another piece of equipment (for example, a stone Guardian eye mounted as a helm device).

In addition to the basic Compassionate Guardian ability to confer spells upon demon hunters, many individual Guardians can also grant more specific boons, or are known for particular concerns. For example, the legendary six-armed stone Guardian Varthamadeva is said to have granted a radiant blessing upon the weapons of any who would bring the remains of the living dead to her temple. She was also said to have transformed such remains into pure sugar crystals, after releasing the corrupted souls back into the cycle of natural rebirth.

The Iron God is said to be one of these Compassionate Guardians by some, though by no means do all share in the beliefs of the demon hunters.

This sort of ended up being an answer to Jeff’s first question, What is the deal with my cleric’s religion?

GM Lessons from Aliens

This is a guest post from Stuart of Robertson Games.

Originally, a year or more ago, Stuart shared this essay privately on Google Plus. I thought it was insightful enough that I saved a text copy for my own personal use, and recently while looking through some of my files I came upon it again. It was a shame, I thought, that it was not available to the general web, and so I asked Stuart if he was amenable to me publishing it as a guest post here, and he generously agreed. All words below the horizontal rule are Stuart’s, very lightly edited for flow in the blog post context.

Everything I Need to Know About GMing I Learned from Aliens

Aliens (source)

Aliens (source)

Aliens was very influential in the way I approach GMing. Over the years I’ve noticed that there are so many great tips for running the style of game I enjoy that can be taken from this movie. That doesn’t mean the genre or plot of the movie (although I think it could work) but rather little bits and pieces that are applicable to running a game about exploration and adventure with a lot of suspense and danger.

Very important is that the Aliens don’t show up until well into the movie, but you see lots of clues about them earlier in the film. Fighting a monster isn’t as scary as knowing there’s a monster somewhere in the environment and learning about how much you don’t want to be fighting that monster.

The monsters move around the environment and your actions (or inactions) have a lot of bearing on what will happen when you run into them. Aliens is not a “kick in the door, kill the monsters, take their stuff” kind of movie. When the Marines try that kind of thing in the Reactor Room… it goes very badly for them. Scouting, sentries, patrols — and fighting withdrawals are an important element.

When the Marines set off at the beginning of the film there’s a lot of bravado and they have lots of big guns, armour, and they feel very confident. They’re soldiers. But “It won’t make any difference” if they start making bad choices and their strategy is poor. The situation isn’t one they can make their way through on force of arms alone.

There’s a big group of Marines initially. Some, like Hicks, Hudson and Vasquez are more well defined characters (like PCs) while others like Crowe, Spunkmeyer and Frost aren’t around long enough for us to learn much about their personalities (like Retainers). Seeing the group suffer casualties lets you realize how dangerous the situation is and the main characters can shift their tactics before they’re removed from the game/story (“Drake! We are LEAVING!”).

Even the humour in the movie is what I think the right balance for a scary and tension filled adventure game. Monty Python jokes and “silly” jokes can spoil the mood, removing the tension and making everyone take the game less seriously. While darker humorous moments won’t do that. Characters losing their cool in humours ways (“Game over man! GAME OVER!”) or suggesting clearly ridiculous things that demonstrate they’re not handling the situation well (“Maybe we should build a fire. Sing some songs.”) adds levity but doesn’t take the players out of the game world.

Break!! RPG

Reynaldo M. (of Akenia and Barovania) and Grey Wiz (of Mysterious Path) are teaming up to create an RPG. Full disclosure: I sometimes play in Rey’s online games.

Break!! will likely be familiar in many ways to players of traditional fantasy RPGs (for example, there are checks, saves, and contests; I bet you can guess about how all those things work without any explanation). There are some interesting variations, however, such as ability scores being replaced by a trait system. Which is not to mention the wonderful, vaguely JRPG aesthetic projected by the art of Grey Wiz:

Game Master Book concept (source)

Game Master Book cover concept (source)

And check out this slick layout mockup:

Break!! RPG Character Creation (source)

Break!! RPG Character Creation concept (source)

I am certainly going to keep my eye on this.

Assassins & poison

Max Klinger, Rivals (source)

Max Klinger, Rivals (source)

Recently, when compiling a document of Finchbox classes, I noticed that, especially after basic house-rule adjustments, the assassin and thief classes seemed awfully similar. Both had d6 HD, light armor skill, backstab, low attack bonus, and a (slightly different) collection of skills. The only significant contrast was that assassins had disguise and poison-craft whereas thieves had the troubleshooting skills (search, find/remove traps, open locks, etc).

This is not enough to justify two separate classes for me, so the choice is to either reformulate the assassin or drop it. Another approach, I suppose, would be to replace both classes with something like the LotFP specialist, which can be customized, but I already know I don’t want to do that. For these rules, I prefer to have more focused, atmospheric classes. And I do want to keep the assassin as an option. So here is a modified S&W assassin, focused more on the ideal of single-shot kills (compared to the opportunism and utility that comprises the essence of the thief). Both classes still have backstab, but the increased martial focus of this assassin, along with the added poison-craft subsystem (described below), and lack of dungeon utility skills, distinguish the two classes. Max level in this game is 10.

The poison-craft description is still somewhat wordy, and I hope to tighten it up in the future, but for now this should be good enough to communicate the rules. I, of course, reserve the right to modify the poison rules if they don’t satisfy me in play. More poison recipes will be added later to bring the total above 10, so that high-level assassins don’t converge in poison knowledge.

Edit: added PDF version.


  • Hit die and weapon damage: d8
  • Starting saving throw: 15
  • Armor training: medium
  • Attack bonus: medium

Special abilities & restrictions:

  • Backstab: +4 to attack from surprise, +HD damage (5th: +2HD, 9th: +3HD)
  • Poison recipes, one per level (odd: random, even: pick)
  • Ambusher: a party with an assassin is more likely to surprise enemies (usually, 4 in 6)
  • Skills: disguise, poison-craft, stealth (as thief of same level)
  • Optional: vow of guild loyalty and guild connections


A flask of poison may be concocted as a downtime action for 100 SP. Applying poison to a weapon requires a poison kit (which is a significant item), an exploration turn, and a poison-craft check to see if the poison is used up. Each time the assassin hits with a poisoned weapon, another poison-craft check should be made to see if the poison application has worn off. In any case, a poison application will not last longer than a single excursion. Poison may also be extracted from a poisonous slain creature with a successful poison-craft check (this requires a downtime action, but doesn’t involve any expense). Any number of poisons may be carried in a poison kit without consuming further encumbrance slots.


  1. Affliction: +1d6 damage
  2. Anticoagulant: if further wounded, takes 1d6 bleed damage per round (save ends)
  3. Blindness: target is struck blind (new save allowed 1/day)
  4. Debilitation: -2 physical penalty, +1 damage from any attacks
  5. Delirium: unable to focus, hallucinations, actions have random targets
  6. Doom: death after one exploration turn
  7. Mage-bane: unable to cast spells (new save allowed 1/day)
  8. Paralysis: unable to move (new save allowed 1/exploration turn)
  9. Sleep: slumber for 8 hours (new save allowed if damaged)
  10. Suggestion: groggy, will obey general commands (charisma check needed)

All poisons allow a save to avoid the effect, and generally work only on living creatures approximately human-sized or less. Effects on other creatures are by referee ruling.

20 retainers

Grenadier Miniatures 2004 - Hirelings

Grenadier Miniatures 2004 – Hirelings

Following is a slightly expanded list of retainers which could be used for either starting retainers or something else. It makes some assumptions about rogue skills, but this is easily massaged into your system of choice.

Regarding loyalty, my current thoughts are that loyalty ranges from 1 to 6 (as described for Gravity Sinister), but that this number will actually be used as a bonus to PC charisma checks, given my current heavy use of roll-under ability checks.

Chance of skill success should use the thief’s chance to hear noise (which is 3 in 6 to begin with in Swords & Wizardry Complete).

  1. Apprentice sorcerer (wand, book, maleficence 1/adventure)
  2. Hired bodyguard (leather armor, dagger, spear)
  3. Dog (spiked collar, leash, loyalty begins at 4 in 6)
  4. Reformed bandit (leather armor, axe, short bow, arrows)
  5. Wandering performer (short sword, flute, untranslated maps)
  6. Escaped slave (ragged clothes, stolen melee weapon)
  7. Hired porter (dagger, backpack, 4 sacks)
  8. Family servant (dagger)
  9. Persecuted witch or warlock (dagger, trained herbalism1 skill)
  10. Shield bearer (leather, shield, dagger)
  11. Former circus acrobat (dagger, saving throws as rogue)
  12. Disinherited noble (heirloom sword, dagger, signet ring)
  13. Charlatan sorcerer (walking stick, fancy cloak, fireworks)
  14. Squire (dagger)
  15. Thief released from prison (dagger, trained locks skill)
  16. Torchbearer (dagger, 6 torches)
  17. Zealot (leather armor, cudgel, spiritual tract)
  18. Savage (flint knife, crude short bow, barbed arrows, poison)
  19. Bankrupt merchant (short sword, tattered finery)
  20. Political fugitive (dagger, connections & enemies)

  1. This skill is intentionally left undefined. Referees will need to decide what it can accomplish.

Improved area keys

Keying dungeons or wilderness areas has been around for as long as referees have been writing prep notes or sharing material for others to use. However, modules are still hard to use, and even personal notes (initially fortified by intent in mind) quickly become impenetrable, even to an original author. Just ask a programmer to revisit some inadequately commented code written several months or years ago. There has to be a better way.

I think I have found a better method, or at least one that works well for me, but before I describe my current approach, I want to revisit a few common styles and discuss what works and does not work for each of them. The most common style in published modules (and also probably the oldest, as you can see it in some of the earlier modules, such as B2) is the dreaded wall of text. Areas are described in lengthy, proper english prose. Sometimes particular game elements (such as monsters or magic items) are set off from the text typographically. Modules in this format can be pleasurable to read (if well-written), and can be a good source of ideas or inspiration, but are quite cumbersome to use in play. There is always the lurking fear that one will miss an important bit of info that should be presented to players early and clearly, in order to support informed decision-making. They just don’t work very well in play. Unfortunately, this has become the accepted format for modules.

Another older approach is the minimal key, exemplified by the few extant photos of Gygax’s Castle Greyhawk key. This is easy to use, but suffers in terms of being able to encode any kind of complexity. One is limited to very basic stocking information, and when complexity is added through improvisation, the details are invariable forgotten. Unsatisfactory. In terms of modern use, some one-page dungeons approach this level of concision and often (though not always) suffer for it. A few products have tried to split the difference (such as Stonehell Dungeon, with its two-page spread version of the one-page dungeon). Stonehell is notable for being one of the most user-friendly modules yet written, though the self-enforced simplicity limits the sophistication of described features, other than those described separately in “special dungeon notes” sections (which sort of defeats the purpose and requires page-flipping).

There are some new approaches that work better, such as Courtney’s “set design” hierarchical outline format. This method works admirably in terms of direct, in-game usability. However, based on my experience, it has two flaws. One, outlines are often not a good use of space in terms of typesetting. This is a minor issue, but still bears mentioning for a medium that remains often expressed in hardcopy book form. Two, it lacks poetry. It is just not pleasant to read pages of outlines. Despite those issues, I would still take this format over the two traditional examples described above, but I think we can do better.

When I read an area description, I have basically two priorities. The first is that the immediately relevant information be easily accessible. The second priority is that finding out more information about a particular element (“drilling down”) be easy. So the PC opens the chest; what’s inside? This realization led me to the following two principles: (primarily) immediately relevant features must be offset from other details and (secondarily) elaborative detail should follow so that it is easy to access when needed. Immediately relevant area features are not only nouns (a table in the room, a monster in the room, scorch marks that are a trap clue), but also event triggers (if the northern door is opened, if a PC steps on a central flagstone, and so forth). When I am writing new area keys, I bold the immediately relevant features. Basically, the key is a tool for the referee, so everything that the referee needs first should stand out.

Some modules tried to address this issue with boxed text, but as noted above, features that are important to the referee immediately include more than only what the PCs perceive. Boxed text is also flawed because it separated the initial impression (“treasure chest”) from elaboration (the contents are usually buried somewhere three paragraphs down the page, with no obvious connective element, from a usability perspective).

One nice consequence of this approach is that it can be applied to existing modules without requiring rewriting (at least, to some degree). Newly written material can benefit from these principles more (given that elaborative detail can be concentrated after the first mention of immediately relevant features), but even without that knowledge the approach seems to work well based on my experimentation so far. This is particularly easy to do with a tablet and a PDF reader* that allows annotations such as highlighting, though I imagine it could also probably be done with cheap desktop software.

From Tower of Mouths, by Matt Finch, in Knockspell 3

From Tower of Mouths, by Matt Finch, in Knockspell 3

You will see that the immediately important features are clearly offset from information only required in the case of elaboration. A referee can take in the area with a glance (weapon racks, rushes, buckled floors, untouched alcove), secure in the knowledge that nothing is being overlooked, and quickly communicate the initial impression to players without needing to read any text verbatim. As players deliberate about what to do and ask clarifying questions, the referee can revisit the elaborative detail (check on the map again where the teleporter destination is, and so forth). The amount of text that must be read to get a handle on the area has been cut down by more than half without degrading the quality of the prose. Additionally, this was already a rather short description, and the savings yielded are usually greater.

This method is even more useful for a truly sprawling area description, the kind that has half a paragraph about room history, a digression about how the area is used, and a table of twenty potions to sample, especially given that each of these subsections is likely to communicate information that should be immediately obvious to players (water damage from the history, footprints from the usage, and a fabulously glittering jewelled potion decanter nestled between 19 plain clay jars).

Thus, the organizing principle should not be the nature of game entity (monster versus treasure, for example). Rather, features with higher referee immediacy should be emphasized.

* I use an iPad with the GoodReader app. This program syncs bidirectionally with Dropbox and automatically offers to create files with a “- annotated” file name the first time you start to add annotations to a PDF, which it then syncs back to the folder in Dropbox. It is extremely convenient.

Hangout screenshare fog of war

Tower of Mouths, original design by Matt Finch

Tower of Mouths, original design by Matt Finch

Of the many minor experiments I built into the first Grimmsgate session last night, one was using Hangout screenshare along with gimp to do fog of war reveal of the dungeon map.

Overall, I was pretty satisfied with how that worked, though it did require preparing a separate map beforehand without room numbers or hidden features (such as secret doors).

A side benefit of this approach, compared to something like Twiddla, is that the layered and partially revealed map can be saved in native Gimp format, thus preserving the last state of fog of war reveal.

No redrawing will be necessary during the next session.

I gather you can do something similar with Roll 20 (though I’m not sure about state saving). I kind of like the modularity of the approach that I used though, given that I didn’t need to learn anything new or test any software that I wasn’t already using.

Other minor downsides to this approach:

  1. Unlike with Twiddla, players can’t make marks on the map.
  2. Screenshare replaces referee video, which decreases interpersonal interaction slightly.
  3. Erasing fog of war requires care to not accidentally reveal extra info.

Finchbox rules

Baseline rules are S&W Complete.

Character Creation

  • All classes in S&W Complete available
  • Theorems & Thaumaturgy classes (elementalist, necromancer, vivimancer) available
  • Clerics renamed Demon Hunters and use the LotFP cleric spells
  • 3d6 six times for ability scores
  • No class ability score requirements
  • No mods (bonus to AC, attack rolls, HP, etc) from ability scores
  • Magic-users use the Dying Earth spells
  • Class HD adjusted: d4 increased to d6, fighter HD is d10
  • No weapon restrictions, weapon damage = class HD
  • Spells learned only on level up (odd: random, even: pick)
  • Spell casting classes begin with 3 spells (no preparation, each may be cast)
  • Modified assassin class (d8 HD, poison-craft rules)
  • Starting background & equipment from Warhammer 1E (roll 1d100) + 1d6 SP

Other Rules

  • Silver standard for XP, prices remain as S&W Complete
  • XP will also be earned for defeating chaotic monsters
  • Save or die at 0 HP (success = unconsciousness)
  • Carrying capacity (equipment slots) = strength score
  • Equipment takes wear when rolling <= quality (default quality = 3)
  • Level limit = 10 (or lower for demi-humans, as per the rulebook)
  • Armor beyond class standards imposes penalties to all physical rolls
  • Enchanted equipment does not grant bonuses to rolls (but deals magic damage)
  • To recover, take a downtime action in a safe place and re-roll all HD.

Physical rolls include attacks, physical ability checks, and physical saving throws.

Encumbrance will be super strict and simple. Yes one torch or one dagger takes a slot (same as a spear or greatsword).

I will likely tweak the stranger classes a bit, so be prepared for that (for example, no dumb shit like rangers getting 2 hit dice at level 1), but I don’t want to clutter up the main list of house rules (which is happily short right now) with that stuff.

Level 1 Demon Hunter Spells

  1. Bless
  2. Command
  3. Cure Light Wounds*
  4. Detect Evil*
  5. Invisibility to Undead*
  6. Protection from Evil*
  7. Purify Food & Drink*
  8. Remove Fear*
  9. Sanctuary
  10. Turn Undead

Check the revised Lamentations rules for descriptions.

S&W Complete revised cover (lifted from here)

S&W Complete revised cover (lifted from here)

  • 2013-12-17 edit: added recovery rule.
  • 2013-12-20 edit: modified cleric spell total, link to assassin class


Strict spell learning

S&W Complete revised cover (lifted from here)

S&W Complete revised cover (lifted from here)

I have already discussed this on Google Plus, but I figure I should put it in a post for officialness (and stable accessibility). These rules are somewhat similar to the spell training rules for the recent sorcerer class, but in this case are intended to apply to standard magic-users.

In the upcoming S&W Complete based Finchbox campaign, sorcerous classes (magic-users, elementalists, necromancers, vivimancers) will begin with three first level spells and learn one per level gained as described below. The same procedure will apply to clerics demon hunters (which will use the LotFP cleric spells), but with only one spell to begin with at first level.

Magic-users will learn spells from the Dying Earth list, while elementalists, necromancers, and vivimancers will use the appropriate spell list from Theorems & Thaumaturgy.

See also Alex S.’s related comments.

Characters may only learn spells when a new spell slot is gained. For odd levels (including first), this spell is determined randomly. For even levels, spells may be selected by the player from the appropriate spell list. One new spell slot is gained per character level, with spell level equal to character level divided by two, rounded up. This means that spells will be acquired by magic-users as follows: 1st, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 3rd, and so forth.

Spells may not be copied from spell books or scrolls. There is no need for players to decide which spells to prepare, as each spell known may be cast once per session.

Read magic is a class ability rather than a spell, and requires a successful intelligence check (only one try per magical text is allowed per character). Magic-users can cast spells that they do not know using scrolls, talismans, and fetishes. Such items cannot be created and must be found by adventuring (or, occasionally, purchased from curiosity shops or wandering cheapjacks).

Lonely Grimmsgate

Codename: Finchbox.

Below is the preliminary background for a sandbox campaign based around only modules written by Matt Finch.

Intended atmosphere is decline and isolation. This is not medieval adventurers looking back to the past and delving Roman ruins for treasure, this is the Romans watching their world disintegrate. Good equipment will be rare and will fall apart as PCs use it (hence the recent posting about equipment deterioration).

The now lonely village of Grimmsgate was once a thriving trading post on the way to a great temple, since fallen into ruin, and now mostly forgotten. After the temple fell, the wizard Mordraas Kor arrived and built his tower, known as the Tower of Mouths.

The wizard’s attitude was one of mostly benign neglect, but the villagers were thankful for his presence, as it seemed to keep other dangers (both monstrous and human) at bay. They did not inquire into the doings of the wizard, who only rarely (and seemingly randomly) appeared in town to proclaim a new, bizarre law (such as no hats after dark) or hire for tasks about which it was forbidden to speak. As such, the town gained a reputation among adventurous folk who would come and wait for the wizard’s tasks.

As the years passed, Mordraas Kor emerged less often. Travellers and merchants also came less frequently, and brought darker news on each visit. Stories of famines, barons being overwhelmed by invasions, or bleeding themselves dry in petty squabbles. But Grimmsgate, at the edge of nowhere, abided, watched over by Mordraas Kor.

Several months ago, however, there was an earthquake seemingly centered on the Tower of Mouths, and neither the wizard nor his minions have been seen since. The villagers are becoming nervous.