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Gorgonthorn and content entities

Ancheim, from Bravely Default (source)

Ancheim, from Bravely Default (source)

Material for tabletop RPGs is often grouped around specific types. For example: spells, monsters, classes, magic items, hexes, dungeons, NPCs, and so forth. Some of these types may be more complex than others. Thus, a published dungeon might include magic items and NPCs. Much of the utility of RPG content revolves around the effectiveness of presentation form. For example, is a monster better communicated as a page spread, with standardized stat section, picture, and extensive fictional ecology, or as a set of incomplete stats and a few sketched sentences? There may be benefits to both approaches. The online DIY scene has generated a number of innovative approaches in this area, such as the one page dungeon template (and resulting explosion of variations on that theme).

Some entities have had more attention than others. Browsing blogs, it is hard not to stumble over new monsters especially, but also classes, spells and magic items. Dungeons require a bit more investment for creation, so there are fewer, but there are still many out there, especially with the one page dungeon contest driving content creation. Towns, however, despite being necessary content for many play styles and an excellent way of communicating setting, are rarely created and shared. By town here I mean any kind of somewhat sheltered and civilized area. PCs may primarily rest, recover, and restock in a town, but a town can also be a site of adventure.

What makes a good town? The canals of Venice, the slums of Midgar in Final Fantasy 7, the clockwork town of Ancheim in Bravely Default, the treetop Inn of the Last Home in Dragonlance’s Solace, the Acropolis of Athens. A town does not have to be strange to be good, though that can be an easy way to add interest, but it has to be distinctive in some way. Places that feel real are memorable. Thinking generally, at least two or three notable features is probably a decent rule of thumb. Extending this to tabletop games in particular, I would also add several specific rules hooks as well, such as Uxa the town of apothecaries being the only place where universal antitoxins can be purchased. Such features give players a reason to care about where PCs are. If all towns are just inns and item shops, location does not matter, but if you can only learn time magic from the Chronomancers of Dundasmael, the town itself becomes adventure fuel in addition to supporting atmosphere and setting.

As an experiment in creating such a location, included below is the town of Gorgonthorn (PDF version), a town perched on crags overlooking deep pools of water where giant crustaceans are harvested and the clerics wear masks. There are many ways that this presentation could still be improved. Gorgonthorn is still too wordy, and more setting could be presented through tables or rules than prose. Further, little attention has been paid to information design or layout directly.


Gorgonthorn

The town of Gorgonthorn is built on rocky scrub-filled highlands. It clings to a collection of perilous rocky outcroppings that are riddled with fissures hundreds of feet deep. Dark pools of frigid water lurk at the bottom of the fissures. Within these waters thrive a hardy form of spiny, cantankerous crustacean known as the vergomult which ranges in size from a single coin to a whole treasure chest. Harvesting the vergomults is dangerous and painstaking work, and often requires descending into the rocky crevasses, and braving the razor-sharp stones. Potential rewards are great for those that are skilled, however.

Wooden walkways and narrow bridges are generally required to navigate between buildings, with the exception of the central market, which is the now-smoothed remnant of some ancient foundation.

Gorgonthorn has no walls, but is defended by three tall, slightly crumbled watchtowers (originally built by some long dead conqueror), high ground, and numerous hazardous deadfalls (some artificial and lined with stakes) which are familiar to the local soldiery. One tower has a functional scorpion siege weapon mounted at the top, generally pointed toward the wilds. Positioned on the edge of ruined badlands, Gorgonthorn is also a common waypoint for adventurers and treasure hunters seeking glory and gold in untracked places.

Laws of note

  • Sorcery in town is only permitted by members of the local Order of Mystery.
  • Masks must be worn when in public on the weekly holy day (purchasable at the Sacrosanctum).
  • The ancient right of trial by riddle is null and void.

Social status is indicated by the extravagance and expense of holy day masks.

Buying items in Gorgonthorn

Most minor items (torches, rations, daggers, rope, etc) can be purchased in quantity (within reason) at rulebook prices. See below for details about merchants and sellers.

More significant items (such as suits of armor, heavy weapons, scrolls of magic spells, potions, and so forth) are limited in supply, only 1 or 2 of each specific kind of item available during any given game session. Items with limited supply should not be assumed to accumulate if PCs do not purchase them, as NPCs are customers as well.

Purveyors of fine adventuring products

Inn

This is Gorgonthorn’s main inn and hostel. Provisions, rations, sustenance, and long-term room lets may be found here, along with Grand Vergomult, the house specialty dish. Basic room and board is 10 GP and will cover one person between adventuring excusions.

  • Room and board between excursions (10 GP)
  • Prepared ration, one day’s worth for one person (1 GP)
  • Grand Vergomult feast, may grant reaction roll bonus (100 GP per plate)

Armory

This unnamed shop is marked by a pair of crossed wooden swords above the door. The proprietor is not a weapon smith, and relies mostly on commerce for supplies, though there are several craftspeople of vergomult chitin that make armor, shields, knives, and arrowheads out of that material.

Order of Mystery guild house

It is said that long ago the Order of Mystery spread across many lands and allowed philosophers to join in profitable congress. Many laypeople still believe that the rulers of civilized lands are little more than puppets of the magisters. Those more knowledgeable know that the Order has long been riven by jealousy and fear into feuding sects, and each guild house is essentially independent. The courtyard garden of the guild house is perpetually in bloom. The current Magister is the ageless and imposing sorceress Arvilia.

Members of the Order may purchase spell scrolls at listed prices:

  • Scroll of first level magic-user spell (100 GP)
  • Scroll of second level magic-user spell (200 GP)
  • Scroll of third level magic-user spell (300 GP)

Anyone may pay to have a weapon temporarily enchanted:

  • Enchant a weapon, next attack at +1 and deals magic damage (50 GP)

Sacrosanctum of infinite purity

The Sacrosanctum is a temple of law presided over by three high-ranking (but non-martial) clerics. These priests can craft the items listed below and turn undead as first level clerics, but otherwise have no special abilities. Several jewellers and porcelain sculptors are employed by the Sacrosanctum to craft holy day masks.

  • Healing potion, restores 1d6+1 HP (100 GP)
  • Scroll of protection, pick between undead or lycanthropes (300 GP)
  • Antidote, revive a character slain by poison if administered within one exploration turn (500 GP)
  • Bless a weapon, effect as holy water added to next attack (50 GP)

House of the warlock

Technically a rebel and apostate in the eyes of both the Magister and the Sacrosanctum, Tanser Noor has understandings with (or knowledge of dark secrets regarding) the significant town power holders, and thus is tolerated. Tanser’s small wooden house requires navigating a steep, rickety wooden stair (absent handrails) fifty feet down into one of Gorgonthorn’s many crevasses. There is a large bucket on a pulley operated mechanism that Tanser uses to bring supplies between his house and the town proper. He has a sweet tooth and will generally not be home unless a dessert of some type is placed in the bucket and lowered down prior to knocking on his door.

Tanser has the ability to magically conceal his home (the chance of finding a secret door may be used if a full day is spent searching). He generally only does this when outsiders of high office or strange aspect visit Gorgonthorn.

Items available:

  • Love potion, as charm person spell, imbiber will fixate on next interlocutor (100 GP)
  • Poison, save or die if ingested by human-type (100 GP)
  • Voodoo doll, requires a dear possession or part of the target, works on human-types (500 GP)

Other establishments and important locations

Sheriff’s mansion

The town of Gorgonthorn has never had a proper grant of nobility, but it is ruled in practice by the Sheriff, who controls a small, independent soldiery that keeps order and protects the town. The sherif’s mansion is an imposing (but somewhat crude) stone building located across a wide, wooden bridge from the main market square. The Sheriff generally encourages adventurers (as long as they do not stay in town too long), as they bring money and can fulfill frontier bounties without needing to risk proper soldiery.

Ossuarium trevixus

Within this long, low clay brick building are interred the bones of Gorgonthorn’s dead. Proper interment costs 100 GP. The bones of the poor are cast upon the rocks after the flesh is burned away for purification. The ossuarium is operated by the priests from the Sacrosanctum. The building itself predates the establishment of Gorgonthorn.

Vergomulter houses

These cubic domiciles are crafted from clay bricks and shelter the less wealthy residents of Gorgonthorn. The clay bricks are stamped with good luck charms and signs of bounty before being fired. The residences have flat roofes and are often stacked, requiring a ladder for access. Up to two people may reside in a single room.

  • Purchase of a residence (500 GP per room)

Specific beats general

Reading the 5E PHB, it seems to me like one of the differences between older (as in pre-WotC) D&D and newer D&D is that character abilities more often manifest as “specific beats general” rules. For example: monk class feature: Stillness of Mind: starting at 7th level, you can use your action to end one effect on yourself that is causing you to be charmed or frightened. This is, of course, explicitly discussed as a design principle (page 7), and I think the same language was in 4E as well, though I do not have those books conveniently available to check at the moment.

There are some of these sorts of things in earlier D&D also, though not nearly as many. The paladin’s lay on hands ability is one such power, as is turn undead, and, perhaps, spell casting in general. But they were not nearly so prevalent, and the few classes that made heavy use of this sort of design (as did the AD&D monk and bard) felt different, and maybe even a bit off, like they didn’t fit the system quite as well as classes like the fighter, thief, or magic-user. Spells are the standard bundles of reality distortion available in earlier D&Ds, and while they do certainly increase PC play complexity (especially for those classes that need to make spell preparation decisions also), spells are a bit more cleanly separated from the underlying game engine, compared to the myriad discretionary class features present in the newer editions, and also are usually resources that must be spent, as opposed to options that may continually come into play.

As a matter of game play, such “specific beats general” abilities are cognitively heavier than the choices necessary when playing most classes in older editions. They are part of a catalog that must be kept in active memory. You need to remember that you have Stillness of Mind available as an option when you need to end a charmed or frightened effect. Is this qualitatively different than the equipment inventories that develop with medium to high level characters in older D&D? I am not sure. In any case, equipment inventories are also an aspect of characters in newer D&Ds, so at the very least, when comparing complexities, the comparison is A compared to A + B.

I can’t help but think that the card design paradigm of Magic: The Gathering contributed to this trend. Even when considering alternative system approaches before the onset of WotC D&D, most games seem to focus less on little bundles of rules that accrete to PCs as they develop, and more on a fixed collection of measurements that improve (attack tables, skill ratings, and so forth). For example, the attributes, abilities, and backgrounds in Vampire: The Masquerade are mostly all on the character sheet for all characters to begin with. Characters develop vertically more than horizontally. This is not necessarily meant to be condemnatory, nor is it any kind of ironclad principle (as I am sure there are plenty of exceptions), but it does seem like drift in design sensibilities.

Dark Souls magic

Almost all of the Dark Souls rules are somewhat applicable to the tabletop context, but the magic systems seem especially so suited. There are three magic systems: pyromancy, miracle, and sorcery. There are “classes” associated with each, but any character can level into the various kinds of magic by increasing the appropriate stats. Each magic requires a characteristic implement be equipped in order to cast spells of the given type. Each interacts with PC stats in a slightly different way, and the number of overall spell slots, which must be divided between all types of magic, is controlled by the attunement stat. Spells must be prepared (“attuned”) at bonfires, which is the equivalent of downtime or recovery in D&D, and may only be used a limited number of times before resting again.

Pyromancy is the simplest type of magic. There is some intimation that it is more primal and less sophisticated than sorcery. It is often associated with swamp dwellers, symbolic of exclusion and the primitive. There is a similarity here to the distinction WotC D&D makes between wizards (pseudo-academics) and sorcerers (wild talents, magic by lineage). Pyromancy power is not affected by any stats, other than the slots from attunement needed for spell preparation, and their power is dependent only upon the strength of the pyromancy flame used, which is the characteristic implement.

A pyromancy flame can be upgraded independently by spending souls, which, remember, function like both GP and XP. Most pyromancy is simple attack magic, fireballs and so forth, though there are also a few defensive spells, such as iron flesh and flash sweat (which increases defense against fire damage). From a game perspective, pyromancy gives players a way to get access to magic damage by dumping souls into an upgraded pyromancy flame and a few pyromancies without needing to increase level at all, assuming a PC meets the (very low) attunement requirement to be able to prepare any spells at all.

Sorceries are more academic, and higher precision. They often have intelligence prerequisites, and spell power is affected by intelligence. A character that wishes to be a competent sorcerer must dedicate a number of levels to the sorcery-oriented stats. The characteristic implement is the catalyst, often depicted as a wand or staff. Unlike pyromancy flames, or weapons, catalysts cannot be upgraded. You must find better ones.

Though there are several attack sorceries (such as soul arrows, which are basic “magic blasts” that also have the useful function of tracking enemy movement to some degree), there are in addition many utility and misdirection spells, such as aural decoy (which lures enemies away by creating a sound elsewhere), fall control (as feather fall), and hidden body (basically, invisibility). I have been playing a warrior and have only dipped lightly into sorcery so far, so I do not have much direct experience with these spells beyond soul arrows, but for a combat-oriented action RPG, there are a surprisingly large number of spells that seem to enable non-combat creativity.

Miracles are the province of the cleric, and are mostly, by default, as in D&D, defensive or restorative. However, the miracles a character has access to depends on which covenants are formed. For example, if you join the gravelord servant covenant, there are miracles that call giant phantom blades to attack your enemies. This is a fascinating system, reminiscent of “clerics of specific mythos” in 2E D&D, but much more dependent upon action during play. Further, a covenant comes with clear, objective factional duties and restrictions. I do not fully understand exactly how this affects gameplay, but what I have seen of the periphery makes the covenant system one of the most interesting aspects of Dark Souls design, and one that has been highly influential over my conception of clerics as servants of immortals in the world of The Final Castle. Beyond this contextual aspect, miracles work similarly to sorceries, requiring attunement at bonfires, and dependent upon the faith stat for power. The characteristic implement, which must be equipped to call a miracle, is the talisman.

This system design engenders several different kinds of trade-off. First, there are the advancement decisions about which stats are increased during level up. While strictly speaking it is possible to grind souls and increase everything, in practice this is tedious, and further unnecessary to be successful*. If you are just playing the game to explore and overcome challenges, you will naturally need to choose between physical capability and the various kinds of magic. This mode is also more applicable to the tabletop context, where grinding dynamics are minimized or nonexistent. Second, there is the cost and availability of various spells. Third, when you set out from a bonfire, you must divide your available attunement slots between spells. If you have four slots, for example, two could be miracles and two could be sorceries.

Fourth, and most importantly in terms of the gameplay experience, you must wield the appropriate implement to cast a given spell. While encumbrance rules do not prevent you from carrying everything with you (an aspect of the game I find somewhat strange), they do prevent you from equipping more than a few items, and switching between items that are not equipped during combat is asking for a quick death. In practice this means that you have a primary and secondary equipped item in each hand that is east to switch between. The left hand is usually occupied by a shield and either ranged weapon or tool (such as the skull lantern). This leaves the right hand for (likely) a melee weapon and magic implement. The final result of all of this design is that it is impractical to ready more than one kind of magic on a given excursion. Fifth, and finally, casting a spell has a more or less lengthy animation and thus requires a trade-off consideration in terms of when you start to cast a spell, as enemies may take advantage of that time or your vulnerability.

* At least in single-player mode. If you are into PvP it is likely different. The fact that grinding souls might make a big difference in the viability of character power is part of the reason I have little interest in PvP.

Two approaches to ability scores

Traditionally in Dungeons & Dragons, there is a relatively sharp divide between inherent character qualities and the main capabilities that interact with important game systems. If we were talking more abstractly about what makes up a person, one might see nature and nurture in this split, but that is not quite it, because there are many aspects of a character that would most properly be considered nurture (such as AD&D secondary skills) which have little impact on game capabilities outside of the occasional edge case.

As you have probably already guessed by now if you have any experience with D&D, this division is realized by ability scores and character class. The former may have some influence on marginal effectiveness of the later (such as a dexterity bonus to missile attacks), but it would not be unreasonable to say that ability scores represent a characters raw potential whereas class represents something more about a character’s particular life experiences and training.

A major benefits of this approach is that two characters of the same archetype can be differentiated without needing to resort to more complicated trait or skill systems. For example, traditional D&D rules support both charismatic, leader fighters and brutal, strong fighters in a way that gives mechanical weight to the distinction without undue complexity. This is possible because most important game capabilities are either located in class (attack bonus, weapon proficiency, spell casting, thief skills) or static across all potential character build options (such as the 1 in 6 search chance).

In this older approach, ability scores are relatively static, baring supernatural augmentation. If a first edition fighter begins with 10 strength it is totally conceivable that the same fighter will still have 10 strength at 20th level, assuming the character manages to survive that long. Despite only being of average strength, this imaginary fighter will still be competent, because increasing combat effectiveness is tied mostly to class level.

Another approach is to treat stats as more direct measures of game effectiveness rather than seeing them as a way to describe the totality of a fictional person. Third Edition takes a few steps in this direction with its regular (every fourth level) stat increase, though this is small enough that it can still be understood as minor fictional personal growth, staying within the “nature” conception of ability scores. Other games take this further, such as Green Ronin’s Dragon Age (which I have previously discussed in more detail), where each level an ability can be incremented and, for example, stealth is just a dexterity test, meaning that characters of any class can improve into that area.

The recently released Fifth Edition D&D version 0.1 basic rules are closer to this second style. Very few bonuses are directly traceable to class. For example, there are no class-based attack bonuses. Instead, there is a general level-based “proficiency” bonus which applies to different things. Proficiency in something can be awarded by background, race, class, and presumably feats (though the details of feats will not be revealed until the publication of the Player’s Handbook). The proficiency bonus ranges from +2 to +6, and otherwise the ability score bonuses apply to all tasks. So, a fighter could gain proficiency in thieves’ tools (thus being able to apply the proficiency bonus). A wizard could get better at shooting bows by increasing dexterity during one of the regular chances to increase ability scores. These opportunities happen approximately every four levels, though it varies by class, but they grant a +2 or two +1s, making the improvement more impactful than how it is done in 3E.

At first one might say that this is not all that different than the older approach. It’s just a few bonuses, right? If you actually look at the numbers though, the way things work out is that most characters, if the player cares even a little about mechanical effectiveness, will end up with 20s (which is the max) in the ability scores most important to the class. At this point, if you can assume that all melee fighters will end up with 20 strength and all wizards will end up with 20 intelligence, the ability score system is no longer attempting to describe the “nature” side of the equation.

This is not a bad design decision, but I think it might be frustrating for players expecting something with a feel like 3d6 down the line. That set of random numbers, in addition to providing game bonuses, is also something like a personality profile. That use of ability scores has been marginalized, which may be part of the reason that other personality mechanics (ideals, bonds, flaws, inspiration, etc) were added.

Dark Souls uses a similar scheme. Class in that game determines only initial stat values, starting equipment, and starting spells. It is possible to level a “warrior” character into, essentially, a sorcerer by improving attunement and intelligence scores. The system is elegant and easy to understand. It is probably slightly more flexible than is appropriate for a tabletop game, which will almost certainly involve multiple PCs cooperating. Dark Souls, however, being at heart a one player game, needs to support accessing different strategies through the same fictional avatar. Though there are some cooperative multi-player features, most of the game is not about a party of adventurers solving problems by working together. That said, the way the stats are improved, and what they affect within the game world, are almost directly appropriate to the tabletop context, and are interesting to compare the “increase ability scores” models that can be seen in Dragon Age and Fifth Edition D&D. For reference, the Dark Souls stats are vitality, attunement, endurance, strength, dexterity, resistance, intelligence, and faith.

In The Final Castle, I have also settled on an approach where stats are more about game capabilities than complete representation. Like Dragon Age, the scores are much smaller, what would be probably recognized as the “modifier” in D&D terms, and each time a level is increased one is incremented. The basic array is described here (strength, dexterity, constitution, magic, perception, charisma), though the mechanics have changed somewhat. Starting values range from 0 to 3, with no possibility of negative modifiers, as with the original Gravity Sinister system, and the 3-18 number is no longer recorded, though it is used to determine initial values. I am also considering narrowing the scope even more for some of the abilities, to make it even clearer what is going on, such as replacing perception with aim. The current improving bonus from perception sits uncomfortably with the scale of the d6 skill rolls (once perception reaches +4, the basic skills such as search and listen become optimal, with only 16% chance of failure).

The rise and fall of the Harbinger

As previously mentioned, I have been working on a system which is the evolution of my earlier Gravity Sinister work, also informed by my experience running OD&D over the past few years. This is coming to fruition as an integrated coupling of setting and rules. I am calling the project as a whole The Final Castle, after the fortress/dungeon which is the center of the games I am running with it.

Here is the background summary, which is also the intro to the current Player’s Guide draft. This draft is actually a text-complete finished document that has already seen some play-testing but will need to see more before I decide on the best way to release it.


Scion of the immortal Basmophael, the figure known only as the Harbinger claimed to herald the next phase of reality. The Harbinger moved inexorably across the known lands, unleashing monsters previously imprisoned in the dark places of the earth, and promising great power to those that would recognize the new dominion.

The arrival of the Harbinger was always preceded by a fortress that would tear itself from the ground. Then, the legions would pour forth, destroying all defenders. If the settlement was not annihilated entirely, the leadership would be replaced with a loyal servant, and the fortress would wither, soon becoming little more than a looming husk. Then the cycle would be repeated elsewhere.

The sempiternal courts took no action, assuming that they would be able to endure any human turmoil. The agents of Basmophael, however, infiltrated their hidden strongholds. Some surrendered and were corrupted. Others fought and were reduced to shadowy echoes of their former glory. Few remain.

Using subterfuge, an alliance of champions entered the Harbinger’s castle by means now unknown. With great hubris, the Harbinger had taken insufficient precautions against such a daring attack, and was subdued, though not destroyed, as destruction was beyond mortal power. The Harbinger’s armor was found to be a locus of Basmophael’s power, though it too was impervious. Unable to destroy the panoply, pieces of the armor were divided among the champions for safekeeping, but the Harbinger’s will was underestimated. Many of the panoply bearers that escaped have since been driven mad, compelled to return with the armor to the Harbinger’s fortress. Thus, the divided panoply remains held by occupants within the castle, each scheming to acquire the entire suit, as it is said to allow full control of the castle’s terrible armaments.

Unlike previous castles, the final castle has not withered, though neither has it belched forth new armies since the armor was disassembled. Rumors say that the Harbinger’s generals and creatures have fallen to internecine struggle. The final castle broods darkly over surrounding battlefields, which seem to be slowly expanding, inch by inch, day by day, despite the absence of any true fighting since the daring infiltration that seemingly ended the Harbinger’s war.

Two steps removed

Matt Finch just recently posted about an adventure design dilemma. He has a large number of areas that need consistent and thematic contents. There are, however, too many areas to make it practical to stock each individually. Thus, random tables for stocking. The choice is between many separate source tables versus one big table of results created from the results of said source tables (an X Y with Z complicated by A, with each variable drawn from a different table, or some similar composite).

I would suggest that the work involved in putting together the second sort of thing is a big part of what makes Vornheim easier to use than Seclusium. Despite the fact that Seclusium generates interesting results, they require a lot of post-processing. Which is time consuming. So it is worth realizing that what you are doing when you create tables like Seclusium is creating tables to create a table. That is (at least) two steps removed from something usable at the table compared to (potentially) only one step removed.

Related:

Monster design

Gus just posted about trick monsters, focusing on special attack modes (attacks that rust PC equipment, poison, and so forth). While I think attack modes can be a useful device to distinguish monsters, and can add to the puzzle nature of enemies, it is weaknesses and attack patterns that truly add distinctiveness to an enemy. Special attack modes can increase the danger of an opponent, and reward players for learning to avoid the attack (such as fighting poisonous giant spiders only from range), but can also make monsters more of a hazard to be avoided rather than a puzzle to be solved. This is not necessarily a bad thing–I certainly think pure hazard monsters have a place–but there are other opportunities available in monster design as well.

First, let’s review some weaknesses present in classic monsters. The basilisk can be petrified by its own gaze, though few guidelines other than requiring light at least equivalent to a torch are given. The bulette is AC -2 in most places, but only AC 6 under its raised crest and AC 4 at its eyes. Presumably those areas can be targeted using called shots. Chimeras have variable AC based on front, side, and rear. Dragons are vain, covetous, greedy, and vulnerable to flattery. Surprisingly, there seem to be few elemental vulnerabilities. Salamanders, which are fire based monsters, take an extra point of damage per die from cold attacks, and there are a few other cases like that, but, for example, while frost giants are immune to cold, they do not seem to take any extra damage from fire attacks. Many (all?) undead take damage from holy water. Rakshasas are killed instantly by blessed crossbow bolts. Puddings and oozes have a nice collection of reactions to various attack types that are too complicated to list here but have some interesting effects on gameplay. Giant slugs are not actually vulnerable to salt.

Many “vulnerabilities” are actually just the only way to damage a monster that is otherwise immune to attack. Lasting damage can only be dealt to a troll using fire or acid, for example, and wights can only be damaged by silver or enchanted weapons. This penchant for increasing monster danger by making them impervious to everything other than a few carefully chosen attack modes is appropriate for some creatures when easily intuited (ghosts being immune to physical blows, fire elementals being immune to fire, and so forth), but may not be the best approach in all cases.

Attack patterns are rarely seen in traditional D&D monsters, and this is a shame, because they potentially allow players to learn about monsters experientially in addition to via clues and rumors. 4E has a few nods in this direction, though they are more often phrased as capabilities and concerned more with balancing numbers than they are with encoding combat dynamics (the 4E approach to monster weaknesses was more about the four different defenses, which unfortunately are more about monster level than anything else). Giving some attacks a “recharge” limiting its ability to be used sequentially is a nice, usable mechanic, however.

I have been playing a lot of Dark Souls recently (more on that later in the form of a massive upcoming post), which has exceptionally good monster design. So as an exercise, I will stat up the Asylum Demon. Minor spoiler warning here I suppose, though this is only the first boss in the game. It is really part of the tutorial level, so I feel justified in potentially exposing some secrets. Now, this should be a massively punishing encounter if faced head-on, but should be possible to defeat, even for a basically equipped first level party, if approached intelligently. I added some touches of my own to help migrate from the video game to the tabletop context. I chose this monster in particular because it is essentially a physical beast that does not rely in its design on vulnerability to specific energy types or similar things and effectiveness fighting it should depend primarily on tactical decisions. Numerical scale assumes OD&D but would probably work okay in B/X or AD&D as well, with slightly lessened difficulty.

Here is a good video of the fight against the Asylum Demon.


Asylum Demon

Asylum demon gonna step on you (source)

Asylum demon gonna step on you (source)

HD 10, AC as chain (5/14), movement as encumbered human (lumbering walk and awkward flying). Any human not lugging a chest or similar oversized object will be able to outrun the asylum demon.

Asylum demons are horrific, bulbous, brutal demons. They are often guardians unable to range extensively from their post.

Several enemies near: horizontal weapon sweep attack, +10 vs. AC, 1d6 damage, compare one attack roll to all nearby enemies.

A good target at reach: hammer slam 2d6 damage, save (vs. stone?) for half.

No enemies near: fly awkwardly up towards biggest cluster of opponents and attempt to position for good attack next round. Any opponents that do not scatter additionally subject to stomp next round for 1d6 damage, save (vs. stone?) for half.

Weak in the mouth, back of neck, and rear shank. Called shot to the mouth is possible with reach (if adjacent or climbing/grappling) or missile weapons at -4. Accessing the back of the neck requires either jumping from above or climbing first. Successful attack against the mouth or rear shank deals +1d6 damage and to the back of the neck deals +2d6 damage (other additional backstab damage may also apply).

Immune to ranged attacks from human scale missiles such as arrows, bolts, or hurled spears. They “stick it its leathery hide ineffectually.”

Clues: it roars periodically, “exposing pink, fleshy mouth skin.” Anyone behind the demon should notice the “mottled, unprotected rear shank” (though note the demon will never expose this area unless proactively flanked). Consider including balconies or other high vantage points nearby to allow for jump attacks and make sure to mention them when describing the area initially. Asylum demons are huge, lumber brutes and their heavy treads can generally be heard though several walls.

Salvage: asylum demon hide is useful for making leather armor that is particularly protective versus piercing attacks (as plate versus piercing, 1d6 suits worth per demon skin). The weapons they carry are quite fearsome, but may require superhuman strength to wield effectively (yeah, this depends on some other subsystem or ruling that I am not going to get into here).


Is this too much text for a single monster? Perhaps. It is always hard to gauge for yourself how useful a writeup will be to others since, as the author, you already have a good idea in your head of what it is you are going for, but I think this compares favorably with many published monsters, and I think the trigger/action format, with important points emphasized, would be easier to use at the table.

The 2E monstrous manual presented foes as a collection of common game stats (AC, movement, HD, THAC0, etc) along with sections on combat, habitat/society, and ecology. While there are nuggets of useful game info buried within these page-long entries, and some creative world building, for purposes of running encounters it seems like some other categories might be more useful. Triggers for different kinds of attacks, clues to weaknesses, and guidelines for placement, as shown in the asylum demon entry above, are all candidates. Also, fears, hates, and desires. Some such things can often be derived from common knowledge (such as wild animals or carnivores being able to be distracted with rations or livestock), but other details may merit a mention (for example, the wraiths in the Vaults of Pahvelorn will often not molest intruders if they are brought sacrifices to drain). I clued that with remains of previous sacrifices.

All D&D examples in this post were drawn from the 2E Monstrous Manual because it was nearby.

Delegating dungeons and rotating referees

Hex crawl idea:

  1. Decide, as a group, on basic aesthetic (or agree to allow genre to evolve)
  2. Generate wilderness map (probably randomly), place starting town
  3. Each player creates one PC
  4. Each player creates one dungeon and places it on the map
  5. Each player creates a hook or rumor for their dungeon
  6. Players decide which hook to pursue
  7. Author of that hook is referee next session

If a dungeon is cleared, that player makes a new one, places it somewhere on the map, and adds new rumors to the main rumor list.

Map grows organically as needed.

This could be made more complex in various ways, resulting in a richer setting (each player also responsible for a town? a set of fleshed out random encounters? the encounter table for a given region? a custom class or race?), but I think one PC and one dungeon per player is the fertile core. Rotating referee duties spreads the prep load around and works against overly comprehensive world building. The juxtaposition of different styles creates a world with more diverse influences.

In praise of aborted projects

This blog has featured a succession of various rule sets and enterprises. Hexagram, Gravity Sinister (the “JRPG Basic” rules), and Wonder & Wickedness. There have also been others which I have not talked about publicly. Many of these will likely never see publication. Wonder & Wickedness is a 95% done thing with some commissioned art and publication arrangements, and though some details have not been finalized, baring unforeseen calamity, it will certainly be finished and released. I will have more to say about that in the future. Compiled house rules for my OD&D Vaults of Pahvelorn setting will definitely be a free PDF download at some point too, once I get the motivation to get back to working on those dungeons again.

The great thing about doing things this way is that one develops a basket of interesting and more or less complete subsystems, setting ideas, and frameworks that can be mined at will. I started working on something else recently, and found such a backlog to be extremely useful. Each time you roll the boulder a bit farther up the hill, and sooner or later something comes to fruition. At least that has been my experience. Expecting quick results is just asking for demotivation.

Obviously, if you make a commitment to others, you are obligated to deliver, but if you are working just for yourself, I do not think it is a bad thing to dart here and there, following the muse’s call and alighting on whatever takes your fancy, especially if that decreases the friction of getting started on something at all. I guess this is another way of saying, do not worry too much about throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, especially in the context of hobby play/work, and that expecting everything to develop into some fully realized thing is both unrealistic and counterproductive.

Marking the dead

Sunday afternoon I spent running Barrowmaze in person, using my standard inchoate, experimental mix of new house rules. The PCs cleared out a good number of barrow mounds, but didn’t venture that far into the dungeon proper after a TPK (eaten by shadows). Both players ended up with halfling goblin PCs by the end of the session, after losing a magician, fighter, and cleric to the dungeon, along with a rather large number of retainers. What’s the point of all this. The deceased stamp! That is all.

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