Friday, April 20, 2018

1d12 Hirelings

1. Esquival the Freshmaker - Obese baker with dreams of being a knight.  Surprisingly tough, but gets winded easy, -4 Svs vs Exhaustion from travel.  Treat as always carrying a Medium Load.  Excellent income means he comes with a coat of scales (let out to acccomodate his bulk, only +3 armor bonus), longsword, sturdy wood shield and enough supplies for a week in the wilds.  Pay as soldier. 

2. Zelga the Begger - Former Guild-Thief.  Maimed (foot sawed off) as punishment for prior thefts.  Reduced to begging in the town square.  Speed reduced to 20ft and -2 AC but Skill Focus in Perception/Disable Device. Starts out with no gear but cloak, crutch and beggar's bowl.  She will accept the lowest level of pay despite her skills. 

3. Pol - A draper's son, claims to be 17 but clearly younger.  Ran away or disowned.  Literate and excellent with figures.  Useless at physical labor.  Offers himself as a clerk (skilled pay) but will take job as linkboy.  Has a dagger, pot of tar and a few torches. 

4. The Dragon - Fire-swallower.  This former circus performer is well-muscled but recalcitrant.  Has an oroborous tattoo over chest and stomach.  Lost his taste buds long ago.   Does not start with gear, shirt or shoes.  Can be hired as unskilled labor (in which case he won't fight) or as soldier (skilled brawler but will eventually demand equipment). 

5. Jon the Bargeman - Tall and hiresut with knotty, powerful muscles.  His broken bargepole makes for a quarterstaff.  No one his age should be as strong as he is.  Sharp-eyed, rarely speaks.  Hire as labor or combatant--will do either without complaint. Mourning his wife.  15% chance every day he departs without a word. 

6. Brian the Chicken-Infested Peasant - A former crofter, Brian suffers from a curse that causes chickens to spontaneously appear inside his clothing.  This is definitely uncomfortable for him (the chickens claw, bite and often immediately shit) but a boon to any party that will adopt him.  Brian produces 1d4 chickens every day unless he is naked or constantly observed (the chickens only appear when no one's looking).  The fowl are violent-tempered and immediately try to escape.   Brian dearly wants the money to pay for a Remove Curse and might do anything to get it.   He has no equipment.

7. Llewyn of Blauders - Llewyn is a skilled rogue who was born into a minor religious sect.  A total pacifist, he refuses to carry weapons or participate in combat even to save himself.  Nonetheless Llewyn is an excellent acrobat, trap-disabler and has a talent for making himself scarce.   Pay as an expert hireling with hazard pay.  He has leather armor, thieves' tools, a bag of marbles and a collapsible 10-foot pole. 

8. Arecilia Dantwidge - This pale, death-obsessed young woman is a noble scion and terrible poet looking for "experience."  She wants to witness combat, poke dead bodies, and examine monsters up close.  She will make a game effort at being a hireling but has no idea how to do basic things like start a fire, dig a pit, etc., tires easily.  Can be a clerk, linkgirl or unskilled labor.  Has a wardrobe worth 35 gp, purse of 100 gp and set of masterwork daggers.  A gang of bounty hunters hired by her parents will arrive to collect her in 2d4 weeks. 

9. Vaughn Meachum - An ex-miner and mason with many useful skills.  Stonecunning as a dwarf, able to recognize metal veins, coal seams etc.  Starts with a shovel, which he wields with deadly skill, and a manual of architecture and engineering.  He is in fact a budding revolutionary and will attempt to secretly organize the party's hirelings against them. 

10. Chauncey St. Claire and His Amazing Pigs - This swineherd (Com3, Skill Focus Handle Animal) has a staff, wallet and three puckish pigs he has drilled to near-perfection.  The pigs are watchier than watchdogs, excellent at foraging and can fight viciously as a coordinated team.  Give them 8 tricks, teamwork feats, alertness and trapsense +3.   Chauncey will expect to be treated as a full party member and also a stream of constant flattery to his handsome and clever animals.  He will not brook sending his pigs alone into danger.  The animals actually know no loyalty and will will eat anyone left alone and vulnerable, including Chauncey. 

11. Ebard the Touched - Once a teller of false fortunes and seller of fake relics, Ebard has since become known as a wild-eyed mountebank.  A wallet of food, some torches and a ratty old robe are all he brings.  He claims that dreams and visions have summoned him to the deep chambers of the earth, there to sublime his mortal existence before an immensity he calls The Caller in Dreams.  He will perform any task so long as a party takes him into the deeps beneath the earth.  Once below he manifests supernatural abilities--either give him the Oracle class or Sanctuary and Know Direction as (Sp)s.   Ebard will continue to serve the party faithfully until an encounter with a Gelatinous Cube, Ochre Jelly or other ooze---whereon he will charge forth to be devoured by the thing, crying "as I dreamed!  I go to join the world-mind!  This mortality is over!" 

12. Jack Ville - The son of poor but proud farriers, this well-muscled youth desires experience and to collect some interesting stories before settling down.  No equipment and knows none but his father's trade, but will shoulder his burden however tasked.  The joke with this guy is he is exactly what he appears to be.  See how long it takes for your players destroy his innocence, for science.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Two Character Record Sheets

Was going through a giant pile of old gaming-related papers (looking for stuff on my unfinished Seclusium of Cyrelle adventure actually) yesterday and found these.  I must have made them early last year: two characters for a half-imagined amalgam of OD&D/AD&D, 3.5 and 5e...?



Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Canticle of the Formless Many

This is for my mainstay campaign setting, which still doesn't really have a proper name.  It's the same setting as my Eastwylde campaign, and the world in which I plonked down The Maze of the Blue Medusa.   It's background stuff for the Stonehold dungeon I'm writing.

*

Don't call them a cult; much less a faith.  The ladies and gentlemen of the Canticle would be insulted at the term.  What they do is no act of faith, but the ultimate act of reason.

To wit: the ultimate act of reason is accept its own impossibility. 

The universe is chaos: growth and decay and the random movement of particles.  Throughout the many worlds truth is change, and the idea of Eternity--with its golden rays and choirs of insipid angels--is the lie.  Creation and destruction, transmutation: paint on the canvas, form growing from clay under the sculptor's fingertips.  This is truth and beauty, invention and imagination.  That is what the Canticle holds to.  It is perhaps best thought of as a collective of artists. 

The Canticle is a coterie of wizards from the western lands.  Specifically a group of wizards born to land and wealth, specializing in the Transmutation school.  There are perhaps only a dozen.  Most of them are more than a century old, perhaps few would be easily recognized as human any longer.  But though they have altered themselves, the members of the Canticle save their boldest and most striking work for others. 

That work may not be devotional in the sense usually imparted to cultic activity, but there is a metaphysical resonance in it as surely as in the transcendent work of all serious artists.  A somebody, at least, an other, grants inspiration and power to fuel his devoted as surely as the architect of the finest Temple can claim his inspiration to be heavensent.  That other is The Formless Many, the Great Warper, an immense Toad of Limbo squatting above the fraying nerves of the cosmos.  Perhaps not a god but certainly no fiend as the grossly limited manichean cosmos holds.  And more than powerful enough to influence the Prime Material through his blessing of manifold mutation.

In his name the masters of the Canticle sculpt flesh and transform matter, juxtaposing and lampooning the dull taxonomy of creation.   When they gather---only a few such salons occurring each century--it's a chance for each to show off in craft and imagination.  Competition such as true artists live for.  At their last gathering for example, exhibits included a woman meticulously half-transformed into a giant centipede; a living man with flesh of crystal glass; a mosaic in precious stones and dragonscale that eats, shits and sings; a girl who grew old in a day, gave birth to herself, and died.  Such gatherings are inevitably ostentatious affairs.  The privilege of birth combined with arcane power and flagrant defiance of the Arcane Order's strictures means each member of the Canticle lives like a prince, if only in their sealed and hidden Seclusiums.  

They are aesthetic hedonists.  Corruption of the body is no problem---any decent wizard should be able to restart his liver or banish a venereal blemish, let alone sustain himself over decades of sumptuous living.  To live below a certain level of luxury would be a disgrace to any of them, and certainly mean exclusion from the Canticle.  [In my setting, most wizards are from upper middle class families at least, and almost all of the very powerful ones, heroes or villains, were born into wealth and power].  Most of these wizards were born in a time period roughly corresponding to the Late Middle Ages, and their outlook is that of any baron standing defiant of a distant throne: my demesne, my land, my people, my house, my money, and I'll do what I like with it all.

The mightiest of the Canticle is the arch-rogue, Cyrelle the Chaotic.  Her infamous Seclusium--towers of pink marble on a grand manor--still lies unconquered at the heart of the trackless forest of Broceliande, in defiance for centuries of the justice of the Arcane Order and the Kingdoms of the West.  Prior to her recent disappearance Cyrelle was perhaps the most hated rogue wizard alive.  Not a few Archmagi and other would-be champions were felled or twisted into mockeries of themselves by her over the centuries.  It is said she is over 400 years old and has the appearance of a great lizard in kaleidoscoping colors; it is said she created her own tiny world to tend as goddess; it is said she gave birth to a demon so powerful it ate her; it is said a host of angels abducted her for judgement in the night; some say she has simply tired of the West and is living large in the Yellow City of Yoon-Suin, tasting the debaucheries of the Slug-Men.


More Prosaically,

So the Canticle of the Formless Many is sort of my version of a secret evil chaos cult.  Except it's more like The Legion of Doom than a traditional army of nameless hooded acolytes.  You have to be 1. at least a level 13 Wizard (that is, Archmage candidate material---a serious badass) and 2. enormously wealthy/landed aristocracy to even join (and ofc., Transmutation as a specialty school is a must.  Most of them bar Abjuration and Evocation or Illusion).   There are at most maybe a little over a dozen active living members, and each one would (or should) be a suitable Boss Badguy for a long term campaign in their own right.

They aren't trying to do anything esoteric like change the world, end the world, summon a god or enact some prophecy or whatever.  I always struggle on an engagement level with "high concept" villains.   These guys are basically a club of libertine aristocrats with Arcane PhDs who like to fuck with and torture people for fun; they're generally not as deep as they think they are.  You know that old horror story about English aristocrats who pay to have homeless people kidnapped, brought to the woods on their estate, and then hunt them with hounds?  Yeah like a wizard version of that. 

However, the Great Warper/Formless Many/Great Grotesque Toad is a very real thing, and the Canticle's activities really do extend its randomizing and liquefying influence on the Prime Material.  You could call it a Demigod I guess; Divine Rank 0.  Not as powerful as the Archangels or the Demon Princes but much more fun.  If the Formless and by extension the Canticle have an agenda, it's "make everybody roll on that d1000 mutations table from Realms of Chaos over and over because LOL." 

Cyrelle is the first (and so far only) Wizard/Seclusium Dungeon I created using Vince Baker's Seclusium of Orphone dungeon generator thing.   She's a 17th level wizardess which makes her probably one of the 10 most powerful humans on the European subcontinent and somewhere in the top 24 for Eurasia.  I did a massive amount of writing for her Seclusium/the Forest of Broceliande; it was way too ambitious for a first go however so I'm starting with the Stonehold as a more modest dungeon of ~50 rooms or so.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Three NPC Adventuring Parties

Shameful Editorial Admission: I have no idea if I would ever fully use the Van Hoeks as written below in my own campaign.  I think my campaign is (or was, before we paused it for Maze of the Blue Medusa) approaching a point where I really might.  However "haha you ran over a land mine now you are dead" is always a tricky thing to drop onto a player.  On the other hand, my players were truly embracing the Combat as War philosophy; I think it not impossible that if I ever do drop the Van Hoeks on their heads it won't take them long to realize exactly what's happening...

1. The Lucky Bobs

Sir Robert Strong (LN Human Fighter [Free-Hand Fighter] 4)
Big, bluff, blonde-bearded; lowlander scots accent. Wears a dashing long green-plaid surcoat and yellow-blue tabard with gold boar ensign, carries a poleaxe and heirloom knight's sword with greater magic weapon +3 etched onto the steel (doesn't have the UMD to use it).  Haunted by an ancestral ghost, which he wrongly believes is a guardian spirit.  The sly poltergeist wants him to die so it can wreak havoc freely.

Build Notes: Balances roles between tying up opponents while fighting one-handed or charging/tripping with poleaxe.  Potions of Cat's Grace, Agile Breastplate important to build.

Maester Taft (TN Human Alchemist 4)
Long-faced alchemist who makes a show of never laughing at Sir Bob's jokes.  Wants to open an apothecary and retire quietly somewhere.  Will stay faithful til the end. 

Build Notes:  Infusion discovery allows him to share his extracts with party members (as potions).  Doesn't like to use his bombs.  After buffing allies he drinks a Dex mutagen and plonks away from a safe distance with crossbow.


Tul-Uq (TN Orc Fighter [Border Defender] 3)
This orc of the "tamed" Northern Nation wears a heavy gold icon of Beatrix around his neck.  Always an opportunity for an impromptu prayer; very eager to show his piety.  Actually a nervous coward.  Hates fairies and sees their workings everywhere.

Build Notes: Heavy shield and bastard sword.  As a Border Defender he's the party anchor, meant to lock down mobile/aggressive opponents.  Too bad he'll always be the first to run.


Bryce Peppers, Bachelor Arcanis (CN Human Wizard 3)
Cocky duelist wizard, always combing his coiffed hair, collar perpetually popped.  Wears three big medallions won in school dueling competitions.   Autonarrates in combat.  Carries a double wheellock pistol and knows how to use it.  Hates dirt.

Build Notes: Key spells Mage Armor, True Strike, Ear-Piercing Scream and Spray of Ice (as Burning Hands but cold damage).  Will have scrolls of Mage Armor and True Strike ready for his allies.

Accompanied By: 1d4+1 hirelings (porters, groom; Bryce has got light covered) and pack-goat.  1d3 mercenaries (guarding supplies/loot only).  Well-treated and reasonably loyal though there is some racism towards the orc.

What's the Deal?
The Lucky Bobs are out for gold and glory but they're pretty much as nice and reasonable a band of tomb-raiders as you'll ever meet.  They might be willing to divide areas of the dungeon, trade info or even combine wilderness camps for protection.  If the PCs act sketchy, Tul-Uq may force a confrontation out of sheer nerves.  The poltergeist will repeatedly try to spook the PCs into attacking and sabotage Sir Bob only at the most critical moment.

*

 2. The Murakami Brothers

Hideo Murakami (LN Human Samurai [Sword Saint] 5)
Handsome, expressionless and impatient.  The elder Murakami is ruthless and bad-tempered but doesn't kill casually.   Loves the oracle, Chizu.

Build notes:  Offense.  Built to charge and power attack, spring back and do it again.  

Maseo Murakami (LN Human Samurai [Yojimbo] 4) 
The more heavily- armored younger sibling, still wears his green goblin faceplate into battle.  Loves the oracle, Chizu.

Build notes:  Defense.  Class ability lets him help his brother evade blows.  Stays positioned to keep enemies off Hideo's flanks.  

Chizu (TN Human Oracle 3)
Ex-prostitute, taken along with the Murakami brothers.  They have her gratitude but not her love.  She's blind but can augur success via a bundle of sticks, and talks with birds.  The brothers never do anything without consulting her, but usually they already know the answer they want to hear.

Accompanied by: Both Samurai have one personal servant apiece to act as porter, messenger and dogsbody.  1d4+2 well-trained local mercenaries (lvl 3 warriors, 2:1 spearmen:archers; one out of six will be a lvl 3 fighter).  The mercenaries have been ordered to protect Chizu at all costs, but their loyalty to a triad of foreigners is low.

What's the Deal? In the land of their birth, the brothers were simple warrior-retainers locked into an ironclad feudal code.  In the "new" land, they are free to be explorers, entrepreneurs and plunder as they will.  They always fight as a pair, watching each other's flanks and charging opponents as one.  They both love the beautiful, blind augur named Chizu and know one day it will be the death of one of them.  If encountered they'll be unfriendly and try to warn the PCs off their claim, but won't attack first--at least not with Chizu in harm's way. 

*

3. The Van Hoek Brothers

It's pronounced "heck."

"Captain" Janek Van Hoek (Human Gunslinger 7)
The elder and the brains.  Ranks in Use Magic Device, crafting traps and mundane bombs (although he's no alchemist).   Wields a snaphance rifle and two double-barreled wheellock pistols, all masterwork, all with True Strike inscribed on their plating.  Carries four additional pistols besides.   At point blank range, he always makes called shots for the head.

"Sir" Bodvyjn Van Hoek (Human Fighter [Armor Master] 5)
He's a big guy and he doesn't talk much.  Carries a hollow-hilted greatsword with Oil of Greater Magic Weapon +2 on a trigger release, main potions are Bear's Endurance and False Life, wears full plate.  He is largely there to be big and obvious and quasi-invulnerable while his brother shoots preferably from somewhere hidden. 

+ One Trap Guy, one Talky Guy, at least one (preferably two) Wilderness Guys.   These will be 1st to 3rd level but may be equipped as one level higher. 

Accompanied By: As many men as they can hire.  Draining the local hireling pool is one of their established tactics.  They'll arrive with at least 18 armed mercenaries: twelve with spears and six with crossbow-blunderbuss combiweapons (made by Janek himself), one out of six being a third-level serjeant who will have a healing potion and two acid-bombs.  These eighteen men think since Janek personally equipped and trained them he wouldn't just throw away their lives.  They're wrong.

What's the Deal?
The Van Hoeks aren't just murderhobos.  They're the murderhobos.  They're the guys who keep an ear to the grapevine to hear tell of someone somewhere making a big score, then swoop in and blast anyone between them and fast lucre.

They're not civilized enough to be called a mafia, but you couldn't say they were just brutes either.  Just enough low cunning and secondhand polish to pose as civilized gentlemen in short bursts. They're relentless, highly and particularly skilled.  At once calculating, sometimes insanely bold, spiteful, will casually endure brutal privation, and move and fortify with the manic speed of army ants playing minecraft.

In short, they're PCs.

You're not really playing NPC Adventurers.  You're playing a pair of rival PCs who treat your setting just like the coldest power gamer ever did.  I don't know why I made them Dutch but I apologize to the good people of the Netherlands.

Use your cunning, and every book about bush warfare, trench warfare, frontier living, caving, and real life criminal organizations you ever read.   These guys are the Final Boss of mundane human enemies who use quasi-realistic weaponry and tactics and aren't wizards or dragons or whatever-the-shit.  If your players manage to beat these guys you should never feel the need to have them fight a squad of goons with billhooks and blunderbusses in a muddy trench ever again.

The Van Hoeks aren't meant to be a purely "random" encounter exactly.  They shouldn't enter the campaign until the PCs have cleared or at least hauled a good amount of wealth out of at least one dungeon, dealt with at least 2-3 rival adventuring parties and have a good idea of what sort of tactics are effective in your campaign.  When the Van Hoeks arrive they'll know the PCs by reputation and already be maneuvering to have the advantage when they're confronted.

Think of it as an all-points attack on your PCs.  You have, loosely, three fronts: The Town (social), the Wilderness (strategic), the Dungeon (tactical).   The Van Hoeks will take time (no more than a few days) to lie low and study their adversaries, listen to scuttlebutt, catch sight of them via telescope, whatever.  Figure out what the weakest link in your PCs' operation is and hit it.  Allies, contacts or patrons in the town might be bribed, subverted or otherwise neutralized.  Sabotage supplies, animals, hirelings.  Anybody they can dig up who has beef with the PCs, any advantage they can deprive them of, any likely place they can begin setting up an ambush.

Be an asshole, but play within the rules.  I would give the Van Hoeks a maximum amount of disposable cash equal to the gear value of a lvl 5 + a lvl 7 Heroic NPC (roughly 10,000 gp)---but I wouldn't give them more than whatever the total amount of cash value the PCs extracted from their last dungeon was.  That should still be in the ballpark of a couple thousand GP minimum--plenty for bombs, bullets, bags of sand, caltrops, alchemical gadgets, precious combat potions, and the wages of a small army of goons, hirelings and agents.

*

They won't take your loved ones hostage (they assume any worthy adversary must be as ruthless as themselves), they won't introduce themselves by stepping into the light dramatically and they will never willingly speak more than a sentence without intermediaries.  It's unlikely the players will ever learn their names.  These are not colorful archenemies to be placed like set dressing in your PCs' path.  They are PC Killers.

Three-quarters cover; elevation; difficult terrain; called shots; True Strike; Darkness; Mirror Image; acid flasks; alchemist's fire; barricades, berms, cave-ins and pit-falls; area-denial, kiting, sniping; it's a simple formula.  Repeat until your players are beaten or limp away and leave the treasure behind.   After all, the Van Hoeks are there for the money.

If you somehow get to Close Quarters Combat with them (within 80' and a relatively unimpeded area of movement) you've pretty much already won.  Janek might--with amped Init, a True Strike called shot and quickdraw--bag one or two of the squishier PCs with headshots before the Action Economy Death Conga brings him down.  Bodvyjn will fight on forlornly and silently, a failed final sentinel.   Asking for quarter would never occur to either of them.
 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

An Aside on Riddles

Riddles are something of a love-it-or-hate-it element in adventure/dungeon design.  Probably the "hate" is somewhat more fervent here: people who dislike riddles really dislike them, and it's easy to understand their perspective.  Placing a riddle in the party's path can be like dropping a giant roadblock right out of the sky in front of them.  Especially if the rest of the adventure rides on their answer---whether the "riddle" is in the classic "Speak Friend and Enter" barred door, or figuring out the significance of a clue in a murder mystery; failing to solve it can mean the mission is abandoned, the dungeon exploration ends there, etc.

In point of fact, this has been my attitude for most of my DMing career; having been on the receiving end of some real bad "solve the riddle or the adventure ends" scenarios, which in fact pretty much ended the adventure.   Recently however as is obvious from my last post, I have come around to allowing that riddles can have a place in adventure/dungeon design.

So let's look at the example riddle I offered and why I think it shouldn't get me defenestrated from DM School.


"I'm hot and sweet, known to be hysterical
They never hear me coming, though my spots are inimical
I'm a master of stealth and silent off the branch I fall
Which is just as well, because I can't hear at all
What am I?

(The answers "Def Leppard" or "a deaf leopard" would be correct)

~
First of all, riddles obviously don't have to come in the form of a lame couplet, Anglo-Saxon alliterative poetry or in any kind of poetic form at all.  At the broadest level, "in the room ahead is a chasm crossed by a gently swaying rope-bridge.  Directly under the bridge is a giant heap of dead bodies in armor and adventuring equipment, all in postures suggesting death by falling," is a riddle of sorts. But for our purpose,s let's assume we're just talking about the familiar guessing-game style riddle I wrote for my dungeon entrance.

The first thing to do, as I suggested last post, is know your audience.   I have two players who were teenagers in the 80s and another at least familiar enough with Butt-Rock to likely know the lyrics to "Pour Some Sugar on Me (In the Name of Love)."  Just pulling some brain-teaser off a website is likely to leave your players annoyed if not stumped; tailoring the answer to them will likely make the riddle 1) more amusing and; 2) more solveable.  And you want the riddle to be solveable.  This is the even more important second thing to do: design the riddle to be beaten.  Absolutely softball that shit.  If experience has taught me anything it's that four guys at a dinner table late in the evening have the collective problem-solving ability of one very drunk guy early in the morning. 

More often than not if you ask a riddle thinking "no way they can't solve this," what you'll get is someone figuring the answer out in the first minute and then the collective intelligence of your players defeating itself as someone else makes a counterproposal, and the "obviousness" quickly disappears in a roundtable of suggestion and rebuttal.   Hence, err on the side of caution.  Make the riddle as "obvious" as you can.  I mean, stop short of "which president had the given name George and the surname Washington?" but you want to make it easy hence A) aim for areas of knowledge where you know at least one player is strong; B) stack your clues. 

If you look at the example riddle I wrote you can even see how it might quickly become "not so obvious" after a round of collective thinking.  "Falling off the branch" may suggest leaf, stem, moss--if they get themselves into thinking about trees rather than butt-rock, "hot and sweet" might suggest sap.   Hell, they might come around to thinking about fantasy creatures and guess "Decapus" since that's a predator that lurks in trees or other heights in Pathfinder's bestiaries.   If the players think too literally, "hot and sweet" stops being a helpful clue and becomes a serious obfuscation. 

This comes back to: remember, you want your players to solve the riddle.  You don't want to "outsmart" them, especially not if the riddle is related to the adventure progressing. 

It's common advice to say: if you want to include riddles/puzzles in your dungeon or adventure, don't make solving them correctly necessary to any progress.  You might, say, have a side treasure room or ancilliary wing of the dungeon locked behind a riddle---relegating it to "bonus content," not the core of the adventure.  

That is good advice indeed.  If the game grinds to a halt because the party has been posed a question it can't answer, you have a problem.  However, there are more ways to deal with this than relegating "Speak Friend and Enter," conundrums to the strictly ancillary.  In my example, while (effective) character death is a possible outcome of guessing incorrectly, there is a possibility that even with no correct guesses some or even all of the party members emerge as Golden Ones---altered, but able to continue exploring the Stonehold.   With this dungeon in particular, altered states and mutations are going to be a strong theme; in other adventures the penalty for guessing wrong might simply be a loss of convenience, an increased risk, losing time or some other resource.

Puzzles and riddles have a longstanding place in not just adventure games but adventure stories in general---the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade both being iconic examples.  Very importantly, I've recently (while running Maze of the Blue Medusa) found that they create important shifts in the rhythm of an adventure/dungeoncrawl.  Without 'brain teasers' ranging from explicit riddles to simply interpreting clues, dungeons can easily become repetitive grinds of procedurally poking each  room and corridor with a 10ft pole and scouting for traps followed by yet another combat. 


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Dungeon Entrance

Given time, this loose collection of ideas will hopefully congeal into a good-sized dungeon module.   For now working title is Stonehold of the Shaper.  It's a classic "explore the wizard's lair" scenario: there was a powerful wizard, he was a very bad man, he has died in a spectacular and public fashion (or has he...) and his sanctum with all its treasures and strangeness lies open to plunder. 

~~

The stonehold lies inside of a massive plateau of limestone, carved out of living rock over decades by a clan of contracted dwarf masons.  These are probably the guys who gave your PCs the lair's coordinates: they were sworn to silence, but only so long as the Wizard lived.  Getting inside the plateau is a matter of walking across the tableland, a landscape of scrub grass and stunted windblown oaks.  Then the plateau's west cliff face must be scaled downwards some 40'.  In the cliffside is a sunken, smooth hole six feet in diameter like a knothole in the sheer stone, virtually undetectable from above or below.

kind of like this but more barren up top


Obviously rappelling down the cliff in heavy armor would be nigh-impossible, unless you run one of those campaigns that skips over such annoying details.   Carrying out something as large as a chest of treasure is likewise going to present serious difficulties.  The cliff towers a little more than 100' high over the grassland below.  If your players want to hire some laborers to build scaffolding or a crane at the top of the cliff I would have it take little more than a month for the necessary materials to be moved out to this remote location, via riverboat partway then mule train to the plateau.  It would then require a few weeks for building; during that time other treasure hunters might attack the worksite, but there won't be any activity coming in or out of the entrance.

There is at least one secret entrance into the Stonehold directly from the tableland, although I haven't figured out where to place it yet.   Another interesting feature of the plateau is a collection of stacks of massive granite blocks, stacked into short pyramids.  The light-colored granite cubes are 5x5x5 feet and each weighs approximately one ton (it should probably be more but we'll assume a fairly low density granite...) There are dozens in all, and although the PCs can't know this yet they cluster directly above the area in the Stonehold called the Arena.  The granite blocks themselves might be valuable to somebody but appraising and moving them would obviously be a serious undertaking. 

Once the PCs reach the hole in the cliff, they'll find that it leads into a smooth funnel of scraped limestone which slopes six feet down into a short drop at one end of a roughly cubical hollow in the plateau.  This chamber is 40x40x40 feet.  Against the wall opposite the entrance is a fourteen foot high band of polished flecked black granite, set into the limestone.  In the center of this wall is what at first appears to be a giant, projecting sculpture of wetly shining gold.

 The smooth gold surface looks like a man's head, half-sunk into the granite, eyes shut and expressionless.  It measures 10' high from bald crown to chin.   The first time someone comes 30' or nearer its eyes open to show smooth gold orbs and the golden mouth moves as fluidly as flesh, or as if the gold were still hot from the smelter.   It will ask the PCs a series of riddles, up to four, opening for one person at a time after each answer (right or wrong) and then admitting as many people as want in after the fourth.   Rather than provide you with a series of riddles I would suggest a DM should think about his players and tailor the questions to them.   For example for my players, I would ask something like:

"I'm hot and sweet, known to be hysterical
They never hear me coming, though my spots are inimical
I'm a master of stealth and silent off the branch I fall
Which is just as well, because I can't hear at all
What am I?

(The answers "Def Leppard" or "a deaf leopard" would be correct)

The head doesn't introduce itself or anything, it just asks questions.  It's not intelligent.  Of course, the PCs could just attack the head---but although its made of soft gold it's heavy enough to blunt and damage any weapons continuously beating on it.  If the PCs attack it with tools, given a few hours' work they might crumple and finally dislodge the giant head (its total weight is probably close to two tons).   Of course they'll have made enough racket by then to be heard throughout the Stonehold.

After a question is answered (right or wrong) the face stretches its mouth impossibly wide apart like The Wall album cover [EDIT: Actually I seem to be thinking of the film poster], the silky wet gold of its lips pulling away from teeth above and below to create a large entryway, through which can be seen the first chamber of the Stonehold proper.   Once a person (it doesn't have to be the one who answered) steps into the mouth, it snaps shut like lightning, leaving the hapless entrant trapped against a giant tongue.  The aperture to the Stonehold squeezes shut as the construct's gold mouth-juices wash over the entrant.

If the answer to the riddle was correct, the person is shunted out through the sphincter in the back of the head, and lands on the floor of the Stonehold coated in gold saliva but otherwise unmolested.  Their voice will be audible if they call back to people in the entry chamber, and vice versa.

If two or more people try to step into the mouth simultaneously any time before the fourth riddle, all but one (pick randomly) will be spat out.  

If the answer was incorrect, the mouth also closes over the entrant.  They are trapped and washed in sticky gold saliva as before, but the fluid isn't inert.  They must make a Fortitude save (DC 15).  A failure causes a complete physical transformation as the former PCs' mind is destroyed and body remade into a golden aberration, head replaced by a whipping tendril, limbs or more tentacles randomly erupting from a twisted humanoid form that looks made of beaten, slickly shining gold.  In game terms it will either have HD as the PC's level or at minimum 3, plus a tentacle and two claw attacks (multi-attack assumed), and DR 5/bludgeoning from their metallic hide.   Armor and other worn gear is destroyed; nonmetallic gear (bedroll, scroll-case, probably rations) is ruined from soaking, but metallic or preserved objects (a sealed jar of oil, a sextant etc.) may be recovered. 

So this, but like a 24-karat sculpture

The aberration is then spat back out of the giant mouth and immediately attacks the party.  It will fight until slain.  Following its demise, the giant head simply asks another riddle and awaits an answer.

If the Fortitude save is made, the entrant is ejected out the sphincter in the back of the head.  They are however partially transformed into a new creature called a Golden One.   Unlike a full mutation, this does not explode any worn equipment though some gear may be lost due to being soaked in vinegar-y gold saliva.

As a Golden One the mutated person is changed into a hairless, shining gold version of themselves with jet black eyes.  Any prior imperfections in their physique are erased, their new flesh of gold beautiful in contour and proportion.  Their type changes to Living Construct (see the rules on 3.5's Warforged), and they will no longer suffer physical drawbacks from aging.  If their Charisma was 12 or lower, they gain plus-two charisma; they also gain plus-two natural armor and a natural slam attack (d4 Med creature, d3 small).

Like this, but naked-er and more uncomfortably sexy

Transformation into a Golden One incurs a DC 17 Will save.  On a failure, the transformed person's alignment changes to Chaotic or Neutral Evil, and they become a willing servant of The Formless Many.  They will seek to spread chaos---wild magic, hedonism, social decay--by whatever means necessary.  The mentally transformed Golden One gains the following supernatural abilities: Detect Law at will, Charm Person 3x/day, True Strike 1x/day.  If the Golden One is at least third level they also gain Glitterdust 1x/day, and at eighth level they gain Chaos Hammer 1x/day.   Relevant casting stat is INT or CHA, whichever is higher.  On a successful save, the new Golden One retains their ego/personality but does not gain any (Su)s. 

If a PC gets transformed into a Golden One who serves the Formless Many, take that player out of the room or pass them a note.  Explain their new personality/allegiance to them. Ideally they should pretend to have been only physically transformed and remain with the party, biding their time to spread disorder or advance the cause of the Formless Many and its earthly cult.  However some players may not like the idea of playing a "traitor," and if that's the case I suggest allowing them to treat their transformed PC as a casualty and roll up a new character, while the newborn Golden One retreats deeper into the Stonehold as a now openly-hostile NPC.

The face will impassively and implacably ask its riddles three times, each time admitting only one person to step through and discover their fate following an answer.  The fourth time, it will ask a final riddle and then admit as many people as want to step into the mouth.   On a correct answer, they all get squished together and then shunted out through the sphincter, nothing hurt but their dignity.

On an incorrect answer, multiple entrants must all make fortitude saves.  Those who pass are shunted out the back as individual Golden Ones and make their Will Save as normal.  Those who fail are transformed into a single combined Aberration and spat out the mouth.  Begin with an Aberration of 3 HD minimum, then add at least 2 HD per person fused (or HD equal to level whichever is higher).  At 5 HD the Aberration is Large, at 8 HD Huge and so on.  For each person in the fusion it gains an additional tentacle or claw attack and +2 natural armor. This final monster's appearance is of multiple bodies, stretched and welded topsy-turvy together into a trunk of gold flesh crowned with branching tendrils and staggering on two human legs barely adequate to its weight. 

What if on the fourth riddle, people give separate answers and then enter together?The Golden Head is only programmed to accept one answer at a time, so in this situation randomly determine which answer it accepts either by rolling d3+ or via eenie-meanie-meiny-moe.


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Blogs Are Where the Good Stuff Is

 EDIT:  Also, need to say somewhere: I went to see The Shape of Water last night, and it was pretty alright.  Probably won't watch it ever again but it's Guillermo del Toro doing his Fairy Tale + Melodrama thing again so you probably know if you like that kind of thing by now.  8/10, solid stuff, a good case for making Fishman an RCC in your campaign.

Every other week I DM a game of Pathfinder, the more fancily-dressed close cousin of D&D Vers. 3.5.  This Sunday will see the fifth session of my friends playing a run-through of Maze of the Blue Medusa, which interrupted our ongoing Wilderness Sandbox-cum-Power Politics campaign, dubbed The Eastwylde.  I don't know how long we will be playing Maze--my original idea was to run it until the players discovered the Megadungeon's exitway, which as I had correctly guessed took three sessions.  I then gave them the option of going back to Eastwylde, but having just endured a near-TPK they were "hot" to get back into the thick of the module and defeat it.  So, the game remains Medusa Maze for the forseeable future.

I wouldn't be running Medusa Maze at all if I hadn't spent the last two years ensconced in the world of OSR (or DIY if you prefer) Blogdom: a world which holds, in the words of my once-favorite webcomics author, "a catacomb so deep there ain't no goodbyes."  A glance to the right at my list of linked blogs provides a sampler of the biggest and best among those I read but there's always more; more creativity popping off like fireworks in this community at a superior level of average quality and originality towards anything else.  No one has ever written a line for Paizo who was fit to wash Arnold K's socks, seriously--or if they had such talent they had to suppress it for corporately-mandated Ikea prose describing the Warmed-Over Lovecraft/Burroughs Do Final Fantasy that is the World of Golarion.

Which brings me colliding into the contradiction at the heart of this blog.  Why am I breaking my back and consequently flopping like a fish to give the tone and pitch of all this rad, mad OSR stuff to my Pathfinder game when I could just, uh.... play AD&D or OD&D or any of the inspired descendants like ACKS and LotP?  I've sounded out my friends on this and they are in fact down to play AD&D or even Three Brown Books if it's what I want; two years behind the screen has earned me the benefit of the doubt at least I guess.

As I've covered elsewhere, I think 3.5 has  certain virtues of its own that aren't to be taken lightly.   And as much as I'm not a fan of most of Pathfinder's "improvements," at its core it is still that game.  There's also the practical bit, that it is basically the game I've played for 17 years.  I know the environment/light rules, and the elevation/crouching/prone/one-half vs three-quarters cover rules, and the rules for grenadelike weapons and even what to do if you want your character to grab an opponent.  That's not nothin'!   A good crunchy combat system is maybe worth the tradeoff of each Player Character being a super-tough battleship of interlocking systems such that PC death becomes a rare calamity. 

But the fact remains all the interesting ideas are in that OSR/DIY orbit.  I mean, have you ever visited Paizo's official forum?  GitP?  The Gaming Den?  By and large dead zones of the imagination.  Efficient counsel if you come to them with a specific rules question, but like, where are the ideas?  Why doesn't 3.5 have a Zak S and False Patrick making some really off the wall shit?  What is so deadening when the PCs can cast light at will and magic missile  three times per day?  Malnourished hacks have managed to write adventures for Superman for 80 years with a better success rate than you'd think so the answer is definitely not "power level."

 One thing I am not is a causologist.  I just made that word up.  What I mean is I don't think the fact that there aren't (or I haven't seen) any really inspired dungeons or settings or whatever coming out for 3.5/Pathfinder right now means there must be some failing inherent to that system; the simplest explanation may be no one's done it yet because no one's tried or the right tryer has yet to come along.  Heck, I could be that tryer.  I won't, I've got other things to do; in theory though, I could.

For the last couple weeks my out-of-session "homework" as DM has simply been to translate Zak and Patrick's combined madness into the rote numbers of a Pathfinder-compatible dungeon: tweaking and making a few small changes (like in room 206 I added an earth floor with a multitude of mushrooms, and I heavily altered room 1.  That's it).  In lieu of doing a lot of creative heavy lifting I have given my fumbling graphite drawings a little more exercise.  I've discovered actually filling in the background with blackness (as you'd see wandering in dark corridors by torchlight) will elevate a rude sketch quite a bit.  I've largely backed away from a lot of the original module's lethality and acquiesced to Pathfinder's base assumption that everything  can be resisted/evaded with a successful saving throw.  Even if the danger's not as high the Maze is still a weird, wonderful place my players have enjoyed nosing around in.  And they haven't even met any of the Torne Sisters yet, each of whom I want to introduce with a BIG (14x11") cool drawing.

 Since I began writing this post I have forgotten what the point I was coming to actually was.  This happens A LOT and is a big reason I blog infrequently.  That means I probably already made the point I wanted to so let's leave off here.