Yearly Archives: 2015

Hexagram crafting

Several times over the past few years I have tried to create a Diablo style loot and gear generator that would work elegantly with a traditional tabletop fantasy game. This is hard, and I have not yet come up with something that I find satisfying. It is hard largely because I feel torn between writing something overly general and something overly specific. Ideally, such a generator should interface with the setting monsters, but then those need to be nailed down and the generator becomes less useful to any other setting that deviates from the setting implied by those monsters. That realization leads to a turn back toward generality, which tends to be too schematic and not particularly atmospheric.

VRA 1 mentioned the old 3E era tabletop supplement Diablo II: Diablerie which has such a generator. It is actually not bad. The prefix-item-suffix approach has potential and the volume of content alone is enough to create interesting sounding item names. Many (though not all) of the attached mechanics, however, are mostly just numerical inflation. Bonuses to attack, bonus HP, etc. It could be used, but would require so much at the table ruling and interpretation that it almost does not feel worth it.

So I have decided to try approaching the problem from a different angle. Rather than building the generator beforehand, instead I will build a game system that will build such a mechanism naturally as the campaign progresses. This sidesteps the problem of bland generalness versus specific atmospherics completely. The first time a component such as a mineral or monster part is used for crafting, a particular augmentation becomes associated with that component. Augmentations can either be taken from a list of examples or improvised using that list as guidelines to appropriate power levels. Harvesting monster parts takes one Dungeon Turn. The material and augmentation will also be added to the general gear generator table. I still sense a small amount of hand-waving here, but I think this is close enough to a workable mechanism that the remaining details will naturally reveal themselves through play tests. I can see this easily applying without fuss to just about anything, even things like gems, leading to an interesting gamble: sell that ruby for coin, or have it forged into some piece of gear?

Power inflation should be possible to keep in check through a combination of the always operative gear degradation rules (all items not made of adamant still have at least a 5% chance of being damaged during use depending on quality rating) and abilities that refresh only during haven turns. For example, I could see adding a lightning burst augmentation which would allow an adventurer to add a die of lightning damage to one successful attack per excursion.

Crafting is something you pay a Haven NPC to do for you during a Haven Turn. Though I would not say no to a player that wanted to take a crafting Expert Skill such as Smith or Brew, I am not going to include it as an option in the text because 1) I suspect (though am not sure) that it would feel suboptimal compared to skills usable within a dungeon and 2) really I am not trying to write Shopkeepers & Spreadsheets.

Specifically (now for the player-facing Haven rules):


Repair: To repair a Damaged item, pay a smith 1d6 × 10 coins. Once a particular repair cost has been determined, it will not change on subsequent Haven Turns.

Forge: To forge a weapon or piece of armor from special materials, pay 1d6 × 100 coins and consume the materials.


Brew: To brew a concoction from special materials, pay 1d6 × 100 coins and consume the materials.

Smiths and Alchemists can each carry out up to 1d6 tasks per Haven Turn.

Copernican Sovereignty principles

I am going for several things with Copernican Sovereignty both in the setting and with the rules.

Copernican Elect (Gunka no Baltzar)

Copernican Elect (Gunka no Baltzar)

The setting is not supposed to be gonzo in the genre-bending sense, but it does shift aesthetic and technological registers dramatically between campaign regions. The lowlands controlled by the Copernican Elect serves as a kind of metropole in contrast to the adventurous hinterlands. The style of these two areas is thus intended to be different. I see the Elect with a vaguely Napoleonic or even Axis styled militaristic demeanor, though not mapped to any particular Earth culture. The more extravagant Elect may present themselves in a fantastic and less conventional manner. Ideologically, they are half scheming Roman patricians building family dynasties and half messianic modernists. They have managed to subdue the gods and harness their power for mortal benefit and certainly this is Progress with a capital P. Many “monsters” in the lowlands are creations shaped from god-matter or artifacts powered by god energy, such as the multi-hued Dractonothopter airships or the giant Panzer armor suits piloted by Copernican Knights.

Adventurers (Final Fantasy Legends)

Adventurers (Final Fantasy Legends)

The simultaneous existence of different levels of development, with adventurers coming from the wild side, is something that deserves a separate post. I want to emphasize that the Elect are not supposed to serve as an evil empire. Though particular members of the Copernican Elect may be adversaries, I could just as easily see them as allies or patrons to adventurers.

In terms of game details, though I have been using some monster books, I do not plan to use any modules. This is approximately the inverse of my last few campaigns, where I often used adapted modules but made up most of my own monsters. I want to focus on building more original dungeons from the ground up. Also, I want to play test the Hexagram rules, and parts of the setting have been tuned for that purpose. For example, I would be lying if I said that the setting backstory of embodied divinities was not largely influenced by my desire to have many gods available for the covenanting rules.

Copernican Elect (Aldnoah.Zero)

Copernican Elect (Aldnoah.Zero)

This brings me to the gods of the setting. If you have been reading my sporadic notes, you may have noticed that I am using many historical deities. For example, both Hades and Osiris are likely wandering around the setting somewhere (and likely at odds, given that they both claim to be lord of the underworld). Part of this is me wanting to use Deities & Demigods as a monster manual. This approach is also influenced by the unapologetic abandon with which many anime and manga drop different cultural elements into a blender. In terms of setting metaphysics, the Great Conjunction merged many or all deific conceptions with material reality, including potentially those from other possible realities. Which is to say, Hades does not imply an identifiable Greece analog within the fictional world. In general, I prefer syncretic fictional cultures over direct references. Though I realize the practical benefit of being able to say Fantasy Japan (or whatever), with a few exceptions (like Hyboria or the Warhammer Old World) I tend to find that kind of setting less interesting.

Adventurers (Final Fantasy 3)

Adventurers (Final Fantasy 3)

This is a lot of telling rather than showing, and I hope the various principles come out more naturally within setting materials as I develop them, but I find it useful to state these things directly both to use as personal guidelines and to give players a sense of what key to play in.

Boons of Ares

One of the base features of the Copernican Sovereignty setting is that characters can form covenants with any god to gain access to the deity’s boons. Clerics begin covenanted, but other characters may opt to form a covenant during play (though no more than one), if they have an exceptional Devotion* (3 or higher). Each god has a specific set of aspect-relevant boons.

Here is a list of boons from Ares, war god.

  • Recruit: weapon becomes hovering minion (L1, A1**) until end of combat.
  • Withstand: cancel up to 1d6 incoming damage (reaction)
  • Smite: add 1d6 damage to successful blow
  • Fortify: a failed morale check becomes a success
  • Persevere: slain combatant fights for one extra round***
  • Arm: conjure a mundane weapon (persists until next resource result)
  • Ignite: wreath weapon with magic fire (persists until end of combat)
  • Encourage: allies inflict +1 damage this round due to war drums

Given the multitude of deities, it would be impractical to create boon lists for every potential god. However, they can easily be created as needed using the existing King of Life boons as guidelines.

* Devotion is one of the six abilities in Hexagram and is kinda sorta like charisma.

** L1, A1 means level 1, armor 1. Traditional equivalent stats are roughly HD 1, AC as light armor.

*** For best effect, the boon caller should shout Fight On!

Daniel Sharman as Ares in Immortals (2011)

Daniel Sharman as Ares in Immortals (2011)

Defeating gods

Following the Great Conjunction, deities can be confronted and defeated in material combat as any other creature. Though embodied gods are extraordinarily powerful, they are also conceptually myopic, limited in their thought to ideas and plans consistent with their aspect, and often arrogant. They have the ability to, through covenants, grant boons to devotees and so are often served by fanatics. Bound gods retain their ability to grant power via covenants. Most clerics of bound gods seek primarily to free their patron.

When a god is defeated (reduced to zero hit points), the victor may either destroy the god and diminish the associated reality principle, collect the remnants as a deindividuated talisman that can be incorporated by another deity, or bind the god to service (though this requires magics known primarily by the Copernican Magisters). Bound gods can then be used to power Copernican devices or spells. However, bound gods remain sentient and wrathful, and until destroyed continue to be connected to any covenanted clerics (considered power thieves by Copernican law).

Given that no god is now safe from direct assault, many deities also scheme against each other, seeking to become sole claimants to ideal offices. In this way, for example, Zeus may seek to defeat and incorporate reality principles currently presided over by Thor, since they both claim the endless principle of Thunder. Gods of opposed concepts, such as darkness and light, also are often at odds.

Hexagram reborn

Adapted from Wikipedia

Image adapted from Wikipedia

The working title for the dark fantasy rule set that I have been working on for a while was The Final Castle, after the tentpole dungeon of its default setting. However, for some time now I have been thinking that it would be better to give the base rules a different name and perhaps work on the setting and module part separately if for no other reason than to expedite finishing the rules (which are very close to being done).

I still like the name Hexagram (based on a previous, incomplete rules experiment). Parts of it influenced work on The Final Castle anyways. Also, as a potential base to build from, Hexagram has a more pleasing ring than The Final Castle.

So, The Final Castle is a setting/mega-module. Hexagram is a rule set built around the Hazard System and a flexible, classless character progression system. Hopefully the change in naming is not too confusing. I am not sure exactly what to do about the blog tags but whatever.

The Great Conjunction and Copernican Sovereignty

In the old books of magic, learning was esoteric. Magicians immersed themselves in study and long practice. Through gradual enlightenment, a magician was able to work their will upon reality, sometimes unearthing lost secrets, sometimes creating new formulas. Those who wanted an easier way, the oath-breakers, bargained away their humanity or the souls of others and welcomed other powers into the world. Wiser (or perhaps more cautious) thaumaturges petitioned divinity for a sliver of power in return for furthering an aspect’s ideal. The many principles of creation thus ebbed and flowed with the strength of mortal devotion.

Then, during the Grand Conjunction, the First Copernican Magister called forth in service all the spirits of hell and heaven at the top of a great great tower constructed as key to the divine mystery. On that day, many suns rose. The night following lasted for a week and skies hosted strange bodies. The Magister opened a spiritual door through which to welcome a divine legion. However, the Magister’s calculations were incomplete or the beings invoked were beyond mortal comprehension. Whatever entered the world that night consumed the Magister. Shadowy giants stepped from this door at the top of Conjunction Tower and were seen walking across the mountainous skyline. The great door remains open.

Magicians and their coteries were not the only ones affected by the Grand Conjunction. In one place, a wolf shaman may have called upon the strength of her patron spirit and rather than the expected rush of hunger and rage, found herself staring eye to eye with the god itself. The aspects of divinity, once abstract and distant, now are clothed in newly wrought flesh, still wracked with birthing pain and half blind in the weak light of constrained ontology. Their new home is strange and confusing, but they remain comparatively the greatest beings across the folds of time and space. The gods are like children walking in a garden of insects, crushing mortals mistakenly or maliciously, cultivating them like prismatic butterflies, surprised at the pain when sometimes stung or bitten.

After the loss of the First Magister, his students scattered from the tower across the land. Some are now mad. Others drive before them chained gods and angels. Many found their way to the old kingdoms of the listless lowlands. With their god powers they defeated the old authorities, and founded the new Copernican Sovereignty.

The Copernican Sovereignty is governed by a class, the Elect, that attempts to subdue and exploit this newly conjoined reality. Elect Citizenship requires demonstration of chained divinity. The ruling families and guilds of the Copernican Sovereignty hand down the god-binding and divinity extraction secrets. The Sovereignty is a loose confederation, led by the Copernicus Prime, a general with ultimate authority but limited to a single five year term. The Prime has no power over law. This power is reserved to representative gatherings of the Elect. While the Sovereignty is not explicitly expansionistic, in practice its influence has slowly spread beyond the lowlands despite the dangers of rogue gods escaping captivity and laying waste to mortal towns before fleeing into reality warped refuges based on their ideal, but now embodied, aspects.

Well-written RPG book survey

I mentioned this on G+ already, but I figure it makes sense to post here too.

Prompted by this post over at Monsters & Manuals, I became curious about what other people thought were examples of well-written tabletop RPG writing. So I put together a short survey.

Click here to take the survey if you have not already and feel free to share. I will probably leave it up for a few more days or a week and may summarize the results on my blog afterwards.

Kane ebooks

Image from Amazon listing

Image from Amazon listing

This is just a friendly note that all or most of the Karl Edward Wagner Kane books are available cheaply now on Kindle. You can get the whole lot of then for less than $30, if you are willing to accept the Amazon DRM. (That link is an ugly embedded search, so if it stops working just do a general Amazon search for Karl Edward Wagner.)

I just discovered Kane over the past few years along with some of the other swords & sorcery classics. For those not familiar, he is basically an antihero sorcerous version of Conan that is even more of a wish fulfillment fantasy, does not have the interesting flaws of the other anti-Conan Elric, but somehow still manages to be a fun and interesting character. My only real criticism is that the dialogue is a bit anachronistic to the point of being distracting, but I enjoyed the stories I have read anyways.

There are six Kindle books, and one is labeled book 7, so I guess the collection is not complete yet. But it still seems to be a good value for books that tend to be stupidly expensive on the physical secondary market.

Inverse swarm monsters


I think this dude was an inverse swarm
Image source: Final Fantasy 7

In a swarm monster, multiple enemies are represented as a single monster mechanically. This is practical because it is easier to manage for the referee and also interesting on the player interface side because a swarm of flying demonic bells might be immune to most weapons but vulnerable to area effects and perhaps sweet singing. (I believe 3E should get credit for this innovation, though I am not sure about that.)

In a recent post, Gus catalogued a number of ways to make solo beasts more interesting and challenging. To this toolbox, I would add the inverse swarm, which is a single enemy represented mechanically by multiple monsters.

So an elder dragon might have head, body, two claws, wings, and a tail, each with a separate attack, different ACs, and its own HP total. This avoids the biggest weakness of beasts versus adventuring parties, which is the limited number of actions the monster can take (1, or maybe 3 for a claw claw bite routine) compared to the 6+ chances an adventuring party gets to take on the attack roulette wheel each round. It also allows interesting strategies, like disabling particular abilities.

The only real downside is that the referee needs to spend some thought on the monster, preferably beforehand (though it is possible to improvise a less complicated inverse swarm).


Ravenloft as setting

Image by Stephen Fabian from I don't know where.

Image by Stephen Fabian (unknown source)

I am conflicted. On the one hand, I do not think it is a good setting at all. The domains are single-dimensional. Like Megaman bosses. Frankenstein man. Dracula man. Etc. There is little mystery to uncover and minimal scope for players to affect the setting. There is a kind of metaphysical restraint.

I suppose a campaign could end with “beating” Ravenloft, with each domain as something like a level with a boss (thinking again in video game terms). I did not see that at all when I first encountered the setting in the 90s and I do not think it is really present in the actual materials (though admittedly I have not read them in a while). It is something that the referee and players would need to bring themselves (and could just as easily be brought to any other setting). The Hammer Horror cliches are a nice variation from traditional fantasy cliches, but are cliches nonetheless (and can easily result in similar saturation).

On the other hand, the mists are an atmospheric mechanical constraint and explanation. They provide a reason for the relatively static nature of the place and also serve as a form of magical-realist logic that can give the setting a dreamlike sense of archetypal reality (much like the mythic underworld or the setting of Dark Souls) if handled well. That is, the distinctive part of Ravenloft seems to be a good justification for having multiple, target rich environments. I am not sure that such justification is really all that necessary for a satisfying game though.

This reflection was prompted by Jeff R.’s recent posts on what makes a good setting.