Monthly Archives: January 2014

Alternative LotFP bonus regime

In by the book LotFP, only fighters get an increasing attack bonus. While this is appropriate for some games, others may wish to grant non-fighter classes some greater degree of combat effectiveness.

Gus L. suggested on G+ that maybe specialists could gain an increasing bonus to missile attacks and that clerics could gain an increasing bonus to melee attacks. I like that division, and it inspired the slightly more nuanced structure below.

  • Cleric: as fighter against unholy foes (undead, demons, etc)
  • Dwarf: as fighter, but only for melee attacks
  • Elf: as fighter but only with elven weapons (see * below)
  • Fighter: unchanged (increasing attack bonus for everything)
  • Halfling: as fighter for small thrown missiles
  • Magic-user: unchanged (no increasing attack bonus)
  • Specialist: +1 melee or missile attack each level (pick), trap-making (see ** below)
LotFP Rules & Magic cover (source)

LotFP Rules & Magic cover (source)

Each of these rules alludes to mythological or thematic inspirations for the class in question. The halfing, for example, is reminiscent of David and Goliath. The specialist rule plays on the idea of discretionary focus (this allows you to make, for example, a thug specialist that is just as competent as a fighter, but only in melee). And so forth. They are also less boring than the more common approach of just giving smaller bonuses to the non-fighter classes (most commonly, I have seen +1 every other level proposed for the semi-martial classes). They also stay within the niche design of LotFP, allowing most classes to be competent combatants, but only in specific ways.

* Elven weapons. This goes to the otherworldly nature of elves (and also, perhaps, their comedy value if you want to play up the snobbishness aspect). Exactly how you operationalize what it means to be an elf weapon will drastically affect the power of this rule. I would suggest not iron and not steel are clear criteria, and probably quality. For a simple rule of thumb, you could make elven weapons cost ten times as much and only be available in Elven strongholds.

** Trap-making. This allows specialists to create makeshift traps given basic supplies and a turn of prep time. The trap attacks as a fighter of the specialist’s level (or in the context of the above discussion, the specialist’s attack bonus is that of a fighter when expressed in prepared traps).

Optimal Number of Tables

Working through Seclusium, each game entity tends to draw from multiple random tables. The number of input tables can get rather large. For example, a single magical item requires around 20 tables. I think this is part of what makes using Seclusium feel somewhat cumbersome in practice, despite the large number of interesting juxtapositions.

This leads me to a hypothesis: the optimal number of tables needed to create a complex, unique game entity is around 7, probably at least 5, and almost certainly less than 10. Beyond 10, I suspect there will be diminishing returns from the the extra degrees of freedom. Less than 5 inputs, though perhaps useful for many things, seems to offer more room for elaboration (given that you are trying to create something that will play a large role and thus should have a decent amount of detail). It is probably not a coincidence that this seems related to the magic number seven.

What constitutes a single table is somewhat mutable, as two d6 tables could be combined into a single d66 table (36 entries), thus “number of tables” here is really a proxy for some other category relating to complexity, so you cannot take this “rule” too literally. That said, such combination of tables can be a technique in and of itself, as it allows the author to potentially do more work for the end referee at the cost of using slightly more storage (two d6 tables require 12 entries, while one d66 table requires 36 entries).

In general, I think this comes down more to an issue of layouts than anything else, but it is still worth considering the various tradeoffs when creating a tool. Compare the somewhat pre-integrated d100 tables of Vornheim to the many small tables required by Seclusium, for example. Another related technique is tables with multiple columns that can either be used with one roll (just read across all columns) or multiple rolls (one per column), as can also be seen in the Vornheim table below.

Part of the Vornheim aristocrats table

Part of the Vornheim aristocrats table, for comparison

Contest winners

NIN Closer video frame

NIN Closer video frame

At the end of last year, I held a contest where the theme was the Nine Inch Nails song “The Becoming.” I got some submissions. Then I took a long time to actually read and evaluate all of them (apologies!), but as of last week the winners were determined and notified. Prizes were ordered and mailed out. If you did not win, thanks in any case for participating.

First place goes to Mark S. for his Black Ziggurat. Mark chose a copy of the 2013 LotFP Rules & Magic hardcover. The Black Ziggurat is a fantasy bronze age dungeon module which is filled with creative hazards and memorable details. The setting itself is a nice change of pace, without being too alien (it could easily be used as a ruin in a more traditional fantasy setting). The traps, even when they are reminiscent of old standbys, are presented with interesting variations (for example, consider The chamber of spears we guard for eternity, which is a great play on the classics of animating skeletons and spear traps). The theme of transformation is also nicely realized through the person of Naaresh the sorcerer, who was changed by his contact with the void (and effects related to this show up in numerous places within the module as well). Overall, an excellent effort that I think would be good for several sessions of play, and all of it fits on 4 letter-sized pages. There are not many ways I can think of to improve this as a module. If I had to pick something, I would say maybe a few more unique monsters would spice it up.

Second place goes to John M. for his Millennial Worm. John chose a copy of the Swords & Wizardry Monstrosities book. This adventure scenario focuses on the final stage of a dimension-hopping worm’s life cycle. The creature itself is also the adventure location. In addition to the concept itself, there are some interesting mechanics presented for how to actually handle adventuring inside a giant creature. This is not a case of just calling room one of the dungeon “the stomach” and leaving it at that, which I appreciate. Each area also has a mechanical “shift effect.” As for potential improvements, though all the encounters are atmosphereic and creative, the dungeon map itself is somewhat simplistic and linear. I do not know if this is really avoidable though, as the design is somewhat constrained by how digestive systems work. Perhaps some map complexity could be introduced by creating a more fantastic anatomy or integrating built structures into the creature’s body. (Note: if you print this one out, you probably only want to print the first nine pages, as everything after that is license legalese.)

Several other entries can be found on other blogs:

Discussion of other submissions will have to wait for a future post, however.

Automating Random Tables

Abulafia, if you are not already familiar with it, is a Wikipedia-like site for automating random tables. It allows you to create tools like this page, which is an automation of Patrick’s excellent experimental complex generator. However, Abulafia is not always a good solution. Specifically, it:

  1. Requires the internet
  2. Is not appropriate for automating tables from books that are not free
  3. Needs a human to activate an account
  4. Has a format that is not as elegant as it could be

This is not to say that it should not be used, but just to point out that there is space for alternative tools. This became particularly salient to me recently when I was using Seclusium, which has a large number of tables for each entity generated, on the order of 10 or 20 tables per thing. Rolling dice and pondering at the same time can be a useful technique for creativity, and I don’t want to discount that process entirely, but when there are this many tables I prefer some automation. For this reason, I hacked together an ugly little Ruby script which would allow me to do this locally with minimal hassle.

I created* my own random table format because I wanted minimal syntax. Why should every item require programming language cruft? That is not very accessible to non-programmers. What is my format? One file per table, one entry per line. This ends up being barely any format at all, which is perfect.

Without further ado, here is the core engine of the script. I will explain below how to use it, and provide an example.

Dir.foreach('tables') do |item|
  next if item == '.' or item == '..'
    File.readlines('tables/' + item).map(&:chomp)
  define_method("#{item}") do
<%- # Place template below this line -%>

Now, that may look like a mess, but you don’t really need to understand it. In english, what it does is read each text file in the tables directory into an array, which is also wrapped with a random accessor function (that’s what the define_method call does).

Just download this example, which is an automation of Telecanter’s magic item spur. You will need to have ruby and erb installed** and be willing to open up a terminal. I use the ‘$’ character to denote a shell prompt.

$ unzip
$ cd telecanter_magic_item_spur-2014-01-20
$ ls tables/
$ make open

The “make open” command will generate random results, write them to a datestamped file, and then open that file in your default browser. You should see output like this:

  1. bright clothing that animates shadow of power level 4 (out of 10) with range touch
  2. wondrous/weird clothing that deludes space of power level 6 (out of 10) with range area effect
  3. scarred armor that dispels demi-humans of power level 1 (out of 10) with range area effect
  4. ornamented clothing that evokes earth of power level 8 (out of 10) with range area effect
  5. mundane weapon that conjures animal of power level 3 (out of 10) with range wielder
  6. scarred weapon that shields fire of power level 8 (out of 10) with range touch
  7. bright uncommon item that deludes monsters of power level 9 (out of 10) with range wielder
  8. ornamented armor that conjures mineral of power level 3 (out of 10) with range wielder
  9. ancient clothing that distorts animal of power level 3 (out of 10) with range distance
  10. dark clothing that divines mineral of power level 10 (out of 10) with range wielder

You can also delete all generated files by running “make clean” within the directory (but don’t do that unless you actually want to remove the result files).

To create your own generator:

  1. Copy the zip file to a new file and then uncompress it
  2. Rename the resulting directory to whatever makes sense for your new generator
  3. Create the new random table files within the tables directory
  4. Rewrite the random_table.erb template to reflect the output you want
  5. Zip that new directory if you want to store it as a single file or share it

The template is standard ERB format (you can google that), but the core of what you need to know is that to generate a random value, use:

<%= tablename =>

Hopefully it should be clear from the example random_table.erb file. The full generator-specific code for Telecanter’s magic item spur is, ignoring the loop:

<%= descriptor %> <%= type %> that <%= verb %> <%= noun %>
of power level <%= power %> with range <%= range %>

Given that this is ERB, you also have the full power of Ruby at your disposal if you want to do something complicated.

Remember, there’s nothing special about the random table files. They are just text files with one entry per line. Given that the template generates HTML output, the format of the resulting output can be customized using HTML however you like. You can see in the magic item spur example that it uses an ordered list.

Unfortunately, making this work on Windows is beyond the scope of this post, and for that I apologize. I suspect that all you would need to do is install Ruby though. Similar code in JavaScript would be more portable, but for various reasons the table file format would not be able to be as simple (because of browser security models not allowing direct access to filesystems), and I’m not really interested either in writing JavaScript data structures directly for the tables or in writing a converter.

I also know this is pretty janky beta-level code, and there are probably many ways to break it, but it has been really useful to me so I thought I would share it in any case.

One known issue: don’t include strange characters in the ERB file directly, as Ruby has some Unicode issues. Strange characters should be fine in the random table files, but may look ugly. You have been warned.

* “The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from.” — Andrew S. Tanenbaum

** This should be true on all Macs with a relatively recent OS, I think.

Thanks to Josh Symonds for answering a few Ruby questions.

Orphone’s magical item generator

Image from LotFP store

Image from LotFP store

The Seclusium of Orphone of the Three Visions (from hereon, “Seclusium”) is a set of tools and procedures to help referees create a wizard’s stronghold.

As the first part of what will probably be a collection of posts on this book amounting to a review of sorts, here’s an example of using chapter 8, which is a magical item generator. The chapter is approximately 15 A5 pages that consist almost entirely of tables and lists. All of these results are interpreted in the light of previously determined facts about the wizard, the stronghold itself, and the circumstances that led to the disappearance of the wizard. I chose to focus on the creation of a magic item first, because I think it shows one of the strengths of the book, which is how the individual components can be used by a referee to help jumpstart content creation.

I’m working on a seclusium that is a collection of islands on a placid expanse of sea that is all columned verandas, richly carved wood, and fluttering silk curtains. Notes in parentheses are my own musings and ideas as I work through the results of the generator, making sense of the juxtapositions.

  • Physical object
  • Occurring here naturally or by some unknown process
  • The wizard has put it into its appointed and proper place
  • It is a magical tool, changes the way an adventuring rule applies: searching
  • The item protects the seclusium from outside magic
  • Its use introduces a minor irritation into the user’s life
  • Its use attracts the attention of others beyond the wizard’s control
  • To bring its power to bear or to come into contact with its power, the item is to be: displayed
  • (Something naturally produced at some place on one of the islands)
  • Gives a penalty to the searching rules (some sort of camouflage?)
  • It caresses and flatters your plasmic self, like an intimate or treacherous friend
  • (Waters of invisibility, “displayed” means washed in, if drunk something else happens)

Okay, what can we do with this? My first thought from “occurring naturally” was that it was some sort of spring that naturally produced a potion. Protecting the seclusium led to a variation on the potion of invisibility (which also fit with a penalty to searching). From previous work, I know that the wizard also has imprisoned enemies within the seclusium, so perhaps an enemy trapped in the spring is the source of the magic. That is enough info to start nailing things down.

There is a spring on one of the islands, within which is trapped Iakkend the Obscure, a wounded and bound sorcerer, and one of the many enemies of Foriophere. The pool is deep but clear, and an observer that peers into it carefully can see an indistinct struggling form chained in the depths. The blood of Iakkend, who is a master of illusion and misdirection, has suffused the spring and granted it magical powers. Any object washed in the waters will become invisible for one day as long as it remains near the sea (slowly fading back into sight over the next several hours). Foriophere has also learned a technique to make the effect last semi-permanently (and this is the source of the invisible structures on the islands), though such use will not be available to PCs unless they discover the required procedure and additional ingredients elsewhere.

The potency of the spring water is limited though, and there is only enough magic for 1d6 applications (which can be either bottling or direct immersion). The water glitters with an opalescent sheen when it is empowered. The magic will slowly seep back into the water Iakkend bleeds (another 1d6 doses will become available after a day passes). Bottled potions of concealment have a limited lifetime, and any older than a few weeks has a 1 in 6 chance of not working.

If the water is drunk rather than used as a wash, the drinker must save versus magic or become a vessel for Iakkend. While so possessed, Iakkend has access to the drinker’s senses, and can speak using the drinkers voice. Further, he may compell the drinker to take actions, though each such attempt allows the drinker another saving throw, and a successful saving throw causes violent retching (expelling the potion) and the termination of all influence from and access by Iakkend. Drinkers also gain the ability to see any concealed, hidden, or invisible objects for the duration of Iakkend’s influence. Thus, though Foriophere uses the power of the spring to hide certain aspects of the seclusium, it also offers a potential foothold for Iakkend to influence the world again, and so is a danger.

This process certainly led to a unique item that I likely would not have come up with on my own or if using a different generator. The result is more involved (in a good way), and situated in the context of the fictional location. It was also, however, not quick, and required time and deliberation to use. It is one of the better magical item generators that I have used, and I will definitely return to it for future inspiration, even outside of creating a wizard’s stronghold. As should be clear from the list above, the many degrees of freedom will likely result in a wide variety of qualities, and there are also many subtables related to magical entities which did not come up here at all because they were not relevant to this particular item.

In addition to tables that help you create magical items, the way Seclusium presents special abilities is interesting. The point of magic is that it lets you break the rules. That is the role of magic within the game; the ESP spell, for example, in OD&D, is presented as basically a super-reliable way to listen at doors. It is worth keeping this in mind when designing magical items. What part of the rules does the item interact with? You will recall that the generator result told me that the item modified how the character interacted with the searching rules, and applied a penalty (which I interpreted liberally). Thinking about rules interface directly in this way guarantees that the item will have relevance to adventuring.

The book is not without its flaws, which I will touch on more in future posts, but hopefully this should give some idea about the style and potential value of Seclusium. The hardcopy can be purchased from the LotFP store, and the PDF is also available (sans watermarks, happily) from RPGNow.


You're going to die in there (source)

Cropped image from here

I just recently watched the first season of American Horror Story, which was way better than I expected (Jessica Lange in particular is wonderful, but the entire cast does a good job). Rather than discuss the series in detail though, here is a review in monster form.

After death, sometimes spirits remain trapped partially in the material world, unable to cross over completely to the next phase of existence (be that some unknown Elysium or only pure nothingness). This can happen either due to black magic or spontaneously out of a particularly horrific death. Ghosts are trapped in incompleteness, forever yearning for that which they sought in life, be it companionship, insight, victory, or something else.

Ghosts have free will but are stuck, to some degree, in the mindset they were in at the time of death. The longer they remain bound to the material world in ghost form, the more extreme this becomes, until they become, to a mortal perspective, insane and completely fixated upon past concerns. All ghost actions should be performed with an eye to the ghost’s longing. Most ghosts are not immediately violent (though some are), but instead are manipulative, seeking to extract from the living what is needed to fill their hollow, unending existence.

Within their domain, ghosts may use minor telekinesis and telepathy at will. They may also physically manifest. This material form should be listed in standard stat block form, and will generally match statistics in life, with several minor adjustments, as noted below. The material form of a ghost will often reflect the method of death (visible wounds, and so forth), though such marks may be suppressed by the ghost with effort or occasionally forgotten. When material, ghosts may be hurt, and even slain, exactly as if they were mortal, though such a death will not permanently destroy the ghost. If slain by mundane means, a ghost will reconstitute within one exploration turn (10 minutes). Despite being dead, ghosts can still feel pain (though it is muted somewhat by their alienation from the warmth of life), and thus being killed often puts them in a foul mood. If slain by magic or mystical means (including holy water and turning), a ghost will take a full day to reconstitute. Every decade of bondage adds another hit die (usually to a maximum of 10), and the difficulty of turning a particular ghost should be proportional to its hit die total.

Ghosts may only leave the location to which they are bound once per year, on All Hallows’ Eve. Otherwise, their influence is limited to the place of haunting or actions taken by mortals in proxy. If this location is a structure, destroying the structure itself may temporarily prevent the spirits from affecting the world directly, but any new structure built on the remains of the old will slowly come to be haunted by the previous location’s spirits. And anyone living long near the ruins will feel a strange compulsion to build on the site.

Anyone slain in a haunted place becomes a ghost themselves, bound to the same location eternally. Such places can become quite crowded. Some ghosts may be laid to rest by righting some past wrong, or satisfying their hunger finally, but others are insatiable, especially if things have been stolen from them that are irreplaceable.

New 52 Wonder Woman

Cliff Chiang's Wonder Woman

Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman

The most recent revamp of Wonder Woman is one of the most enjoyable comics I’ve come across in a while. It reads like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman by way of Image’s recent Saga. I first noticed the series because of this fantastic cover (issue 24, october 2013), and promptly burned through the first three collected volumes on Comixology in two days. It is, so far, the only comic other than Rat Queens that I have considered buying individual issues of as they come out, rather than waiting for the inevitable compilations.

There is a kind of Lichtensteinian feeling to the art that is reminiscent of some stylized comic golden age, but it also feels recent and fresh (I think this is because of the color and writing). The character designs are also continuously enjoyable. I found myself looking forward to how each of the Olympians would be realized (the only one that I didn’t really care for was Poseidon). For a flagship book, there is a surprising amount of graphic violence, including a horse’s head being severed with a centaur’s upper body erupting from the hole, and Diana’s arms drenched to the elbow in blood from combat. That said, it somehow manages to avoid seeming gratuitous and instead supports a sense of mythological seriousness. In fact, I would say that the art by Cliff Chiang is almost without misstep. The work by Tony Akins (issue 13, 14, and 17, at least) is not as successful for me, and Goran Sudzuka does the penciling for some of the newer issues that I haven’t gotten to yet, and so can’t speak to, but overall the art situation is pretty amazing.

The story itself does not read like a superhero book, which to me is a positive. I have warmed slightly to the superhero genre, but in general I prefer other types of story. As I mentioned above, Gaiman’s Sandman is actually the first thing that I though of when reading through the recent Wonder Woman. This is the story of the interactions of cosmic personalities, many of which are not clearly heroes of villains (though Apollo serves as a main villain proxy to some extent). Like the Olympians of mythology, the dominant feature of most of these characters is a sort of myopic selfishness coupled with tremendous power. There’s also some situational humor that I appreciate (mostly involving Hera).

I will leave you with a few image selections. All images are scaled screen captures from the digital Comixology compilations.

Cliff Chiang's Hades

Cliff Chiang’s Hades

Cliff Chiang's Hera

Cliff Chiang’s Hera

Wonder Woman with a Lara Croft Vibe

Wonder Woman with a Lara Croft Vibe

One Page Dungeon Contest 2014

Bygrinstow's Arena of Blood

Bygrinstow’s Arena of Blood

The time has come again. This year, the torch has been passed from Alex Schroeder, who ran the contest for the last few years, to Random Wizard.

I think most people would agree that the results of the previous One Page Dungeon contests have been some of the most interesting content to come out of the DIY RPG community. Also, because of the terms of the contest, everything must be creative commons licensed, and thus free to use and remix, which ends up being a tremendous resource. Visit the new domain for visualizations (such as slideshows) of the previous entries and winners.

There is a new domain with more info. The deadline this year is April 30, 2014. This is a 100% volunteer and community effort, so it will be as good as we make it.

Dust off your graph paper and spread the word.

Firearms quick reference

Recently, I’ve been playing in an online LotFP game (Dungeon Moon, run by LS of Papers & Pencils) that uses the 2013 Rules & Magic book “as written.” Thus, the firearms appendix is available. After my previous warlock (reskinned elf class) character died to a poison gas trap, I decided to make a gunslinger fighter to take these firearms rules for a spin. Playing a character with lots of guns and explosives where those things are still somewhat out of the ordinary is exactly as fun as I thought it would be (which is to say, a lot of fun).

I have now used the rules for several sessions, and I can say with confidence that I like them. There’s enough variation from other types of weaponry that guns actually feel different, without necessarily being superior in all cases. Damage is good (being 1d8 for all types of firearm), and bullets cancel up to five points of target armor, but a gunner is at increased risk from fire-based attacks (due to the explosive compounds that must be carried), and there is a chance of misfires (potentially wasting a combat action and fouling the weapon). These factors, combined with higher prices, mean that every PC is not likely to upgrade their weapons to firearms at the first opportunity.

So, I am happy with the rules, but their presentation is somewhat confusing. The relevant details are nested between paragraphs of historical background, and prices between the various options are hard to compare, as they use a multiplier per feature design. For example, having a wheellock firing mechanism causes a gun’s cost to increase sevenfold. Adding rifling further doubles that. To make the firearms rules more user-friendly, I created a one-page firearms quick reference PDF that does most of the multiple calculations (the only dimension that is not included in the price matrix is rifling) and also includes all the important rules. It is available under the OGL, so everything beyond the first page is legalese (that is to say, for table use you probably only want to print out the first page). In the process of putting this PDF together, I also noticed that there are actually rules for blunderbusses hidden under the ammunition entry “scattershot.” Thus, the only real omission remaining is how to handle grenades.

Following these rules, the most effective gun combatant is an unencumbered fighter with a high dexterity. A fighter with a flintlock (base reload time: 4 rounds) with an 18 dexterity (bonus of three, bringing the reload time to 1 round) using “apostles” (prepared shot that decreases reload time by 1) has an effective reload time of zero, meaning that they can fire every round (at least, that is how I would rule it). There is still a 10% chance of misfire for every shot though. Even my gunfighter (who has a dex bonus of 2) is considering investing in a light crossbow as backup, though that’s another two encumbrance slots.

Another tactic that I plan on trying is loading a brace of pistols with scattershot, which would serve as a good combat opener (area effect damage over a 45 degree fan with no attack roll needed and a target save for half damage). How to handle firing off two such “breath weapon” attacks in a single round will need a referee ruling though, as it does not seem to be covered in the rules explicitly.

Zoad (fighter 2), image by Gus

Zoad (fighter 2), image by Gus