Feb 29, 2012

Coming Back From the Dead

There is no resurrection spell in the Dawnlands, but being dead is not a strictly permanent state. How you come back from the dead depends on where you go when you die and how your corpse is treated.

If you are not buried, eaten or burnt, you come back as an undead monster after a number of days equal to your POW at the time of death. If your body is still intact, your soul is still attached to it. Depending on how you died and what kind of person you were, you may become any one of hundreds of types of undead. These creatures are known as "shur" by the Kadiz and Hill People, a term that means "ghost".

If you are eaten, you are dead permanently. Your soul drifts along on the wind until it passes into an embryo, probably of an animal, whereupon you are reincarnated. Along the way it may drift into other loose souls and merge or entangle with them. You do not remember your previous life once you are embedded in a new body, and the only way to release your soul from its new home is to kill your new self. This drifting process means there are almost always animal souls around for shamans and summoners looking to bind them.

If you are burnt, your soul flies off into the sky to join the stars. The more powerful the soul, the brighter the star. The divine heroes of Dwer Tor automatically explode on death in a burst of heat and light to ensure their return to the sky. Most everyone else needs a pyre. This is most common amongst the Dwer, particularly optimates and thaumates; for priests of the Celestial Herd, and members of various stellar cults like the Leper Star cultists.

To bring someone back to life who is a star in the sky is a known process, albeit one that rarely succeeds. The summoner must know the person's real name, must build a fire, and must write the summons on a piece of paper in red-black ink made from iron and rust which is then burnt in the fire. They must then invoke and venerate the person to be resurrected. This has a chance of working equal to the POW of the dead person divided by 10 (round down). It can be performed once per person per death. A few other methods are known to exist with better chances, including the method the Dwer use to summon their divine heroes back to earth, but the exact steps and materials are secrets. The Dwer would readily kill anyone attempting to study their techniques. Most of the alternate methods are extremely bloody, and involve sacrificing and burning humanoids.

People brought back to life by this method reappear as falling stars somewhere in the Dawnlands. There is no guarantee this is anywhere near the summoner, though the trajectory can be tracked and plotted by expert astronomers. When they return, they have any gear that was burnt with them. The sins of their previous life harden and encrust around them as they return to earth, and these break off and become aberrations, often intelligent and always hostile to the returner. These slither off to cause trouble unless the returner or anyone else nearby can stop them.

If you are buried, either underground or dumped into a water source, your soul enters into the dream world (which is often also called the "underworld" for obvious reasons). This is the most common fate for people who die in the Dawnlands. Getting out of the dream world and back to life is easier than coming back from the stars, but is significantly more dangerous both for you and other people. All that is required is for a priest to cast the spell Otherworld Journey, or for a shaman to enter it through meditation. Then they simply need to find you, and take you back to where they entered from. If this can be accomplished successfully, you appear buried in the ground at their feet, and can be dug up (it helps to have a team of people prepared to dig you up so that you don't suffocate and immediately sink back into the underworld). You reappear with any gear you were buried with.

The problems with this method are mainly finding where the person is and dealing with the denizens of the dream world, many of whom are hostile, powerful and hungry for the souls of travelers. As well, your old body normally becomes a ravenous undead monster that attempts to dig itself out of the ground and consume your new body. All the goods that were buried with it remain there (what you bring back are solidified dream-copies of them). Souls are typically located in the parts of the dream world that belong to the gods they worship. Forest People are typically found as insects in the Hivehome, Hill People and Kadiz roam the open plains as wolves following the Stone Pack, Dwer helots swim as fish in the Great Sea, and the Kaddish can be anything, depending upon their personal beliefs. 

How to Represent Skills Without A Skill System?

Since I decided to start rebuilding Swords and Wizardry, one thing I've been debating is whether to introduce skills or not. Majestic Wilderlands has them, as does D&D 3.x, and most of the games I play are skill-based (WFRP, Runequest).

Skills are useful in that they provide a clear idea about where a character's competence lies, but the downside to them is that they define the tasks a character is most competent at, giving the impression that the character is incompetent at all other tasks. This is the "thief problem" in a nutshell, where the introduction of the thief class in OD&D with its skills for climbing walls, opening locks, etc. cause non-thief PCs to stop attempting to do these things and leave them for the thief. I want to avoid this kind of specialisation if possible, while still allowing certain classes, especially non-casters, to excel at certain kinds of skills or behaviours.

I'm considering a couple of options:

1) Representing core "skills" as class abilities.

It's easiest to illustrate the idea with the following example: The "Trader" class I mentioned in my last post has, as a result of some discussion last night, before a "Smuggler", which preserves the trade-and-treasure orientation while providing a clearer sense of what skills such a character brings to an adventuring group. Smugglers will be concealment experts, who help the party set up ambushes, hide themselves when being pursued, etc. One ability I'm thinking of giving the class is to force monsters / antagonists to reroll their surprise rolls and take the worse result of the two rolls. This represents the smuggler working to help the party move stealthily.

2) Something like the Castles & Crusades prime system

All character classes have two prime requisites. Tests are roll-under on a d20. For all tests except for your prime requisites, you have to roll under your stat. For your prime requisites, you have to roll under 18 or your stat, whichever is higher. This is the system I currently favour. One problems I can foresee is a situation where it seems like something should be part of your class, but it is obviously governed by a different stat than the prime requisite. I am debating whether each class should therefore have two predetermined prime requisites, or one prime requisite for the class, and one the PC picks.

Suggestions and advice are welcome. I may end up using a hybrid of these two.

Feb 28, 2012

A Sketch of a Possible Swords and Wizardry Variant

I really like Majestic Wilderlands, and even more importantly, my PCs like it, since we've been using bits and pieces of it for the Emern game since the 2nd session. Mainly for classes, since no one has bothered to figure out the skill system or used the gazetteer. I borrowed it back from the apartment we play at the other day, and I've been reading through it. I think it does pretty much what I want out of a game supplement these days, which is it provides me with a bunch of ideas for my own Swords and Wizardry stuff.

I'm not saying I'm ever going to write this up in a totally coherent form, but I've been at least thinking of putting together a reference document of material including house rules, ideas for new rules, etc. that I've either used in my Emern game, wish I was using in my Emern game, or plan to incorporate into my Emern game.

A brief summary and list of what it would look like:

Six stats generated by 3d6 in any order: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Acuity, Focus and Grace

No stat requirements for classes.
No weapon or armour proficiencies.
No level limits for demihumans.
No alignment.
Fatigue saving throws.
Level 1 characters start at max HP.
A simplified version of my current death rules involving saving throws.
Ascending AC.
Ascending BAB.

Four races: Human, Elf, Dwarf, Hobgoblin each with one special ability. Humans get +1 to any stat, elves don't have to sleep, dwarves have infravision, hobgoblins get +1 to hit and damage in melee. No species-based stat modifiers otherwise.

New classes: Holy Warrior, Missionary, Priest, Necromancer, Conquistador, Knight, Swashbuckler, Berserker, Rake, Mountebank, Trader, Manhunter, Shapeshifter, Diviner, Artificer, Psychonaut.

An expanded equipment list including common, useful tools that are never on the equipment list (i.e. rasp, machete, twine, brushes). Also, more weapons, including guns. Also, horses and horse stats.

A cleaned-up alchemy and magic item creation system incorporating the potion tables and expanding the same puerile peril to all forms of magical items. Also one for magical beasts and undead things.

An opposed-attack roll system for combat maneuvers with some suggestions for specific maneuvers like tripping, disarming and sundering.

Sweet maps of things.

No skill system.

Some sort of naval system so you can have an awesome boat with cannons and be pirates.

A bunch of different monsters, including toadmen, jaguarmen, leechmen, 60' tall undead laser-eyed sloths, grashkalki, the Caquix, etc.

New spell lists and spells.

Some new religions.

A bunch of my opinions and ideas for running games.

A quick write-up of the Emern setting, which I will probably have to rename to avoid confusion ('Wait, the setting is called "Emern", but that's only a continent, and not even the one the game is set on?').

Feb 27, 2012

Fatigue Checks: A Proposal

I propose that one ought to track fatigue, that this is best represented as a saving-throw like mechanism as opposed to ablative hit points or through making CON checks, and that the fatigue check modifier or target number ought to vary by class and level.

Fatigue is worth tracking because it forms a way to naturally pace the rate at which PCs accomplish things, especially overland travel, dungeon exploration, and combat. As fatigue mounts, the players are encouraged to stop exploring temporarily until they can rest up. PCs can track this situation as it develops, rather than simply waiting for a declaration from the referee that they are too tired to continue or waiting for the wizard's spells to exhaust themselves or until their hit points are nearly depleted.

Tracking fatigue also allows one to have it interact with other mechanics. For example, I've been thinking for a while of having spellcasters make fatigue checks after casting spells rather than having a certain number of available slots to expend. This is the other side of Vancian magic, one that is not well-represented in the rules - the physical and mental demand of memorising and using the spells. A wizard who has cast all their spells is not otherwise impaired in D&D, though I've often seen the reasoning in-game be that the wizard is tired. Having a fatigue check would translate this impressionistic declaration into a concrete status change.

The idea is that a wizard would memorise a small number of spells from each level of spell they know, and be able to cast any of them as many times as they pleased, with the condition that they have to make a pass a fatigue check before each one. Failing a fatigue check could have several possible outcomes based on the referee's taste. The first is that failing a fatigue check could cause the spell to misfire. The second is that each failed fatigue check closes off a level of spells, starting from the highest known to the wizard and progressing down until the wizard is too exhausted to cast even the weakest 1st level spell. I'm sure most of you can come up with other ideas as you prefer.

Other abilities could be linked to the fatigue check. Specifically, I would link clerical turning to it, along with druid shapechanging and lay on hands. Rather than a finite number of uses that must be tracked for these abilities, fatigue checks would provide a way of passing them. Fighters in particular wouldn't have any abilities that required them to make fatigue checks to use, reinforcing the game concept that fighters are characters whose abilities do not "run out" despite not being as fantastical as a wizard's spells or druid's shapechanging.

I prefer the concept of a saving throw-like mechanic over points and CON checks. Fatigue points are extremely fiddly, and integrating them in the above way causes the balance of the mechanics to go wonky. Casters at high levels need tons of fatigue points to expend to cast their spells, so many that fatigue becomes trivial for mundane characters like fighters and thieves who are not otherwise expending their points. It also requires yet another resource to be tracked, one that will probably change even more than HP do.

CON checks are one possibility, but I favour fatigue check target numbers varying by class and level. CON varies more by character than by class, and is hard to improve or change. It means that the quality of the wizard is based more on their stats than their class or level, something I would prefer to avoid.

The value of varying by class and level has been touched on above. It gives yet another point of differentiation between fighters, thieves, and mundane classes from the supernatural classes, one that favours the mundane classes (who have better scores and make fewer checks). Higher level PCs will tire less rapidly than low level ones, having become accustomed to hard living, just as their saving throws improve to represent a greater instinct for avoiding certain doom.

I favour a system whereby there are two kinds of fatigue checks a PC can make. Let's call them minor and major. "Minor" checks are ones whereby a PC is doing something strenuous and needs to stop to catch their breath or recover from a sudden failure of endurance or will. A PC who rolls under their fatigue number must stop what they are doing (fleeing from monsters, casting a spell climbing the rope up the cliff, being engaged in a battle of will with a malign psychic parasite) and rest for at least 1 minute. That's the only penalty in most cases, except for spellcasting, where the caster also loses access to their highest level of spells (fatigue checks for any reason cause this). Minor checks are meant to be used in situations where constant, strenuous effort is required, and ceasing it will have negative consequences (being caught by the monsters, needing to find a place to rest while suspended in mid air having the psychic parasite seize control of your mind).

"Major" checks represent physical and mental exertions which could potentially require several hours of rest to recover from. Marching overland, translating ancient writings, training, building things, and exploring a dungeon carefully are all examples. The PC must make a fatigue check after doing these things. Failure means they are exhausted. Until they can rest for 4 hours, they automatically fail all other fatigue checks (major and minor). The idea is that major checks are for extended activities where the PCs are undergoing constant exertion, but where failure isn't inherently problematic, and they can rest at least temporarily before going on. The fatigue check represents their state at the end of the activity.

Fatigue checks can also be used in other circumstances. For example, I would use them to determine whether or not a character wakes up when the camp is attacked - get too tired and you'll sleep like the dead.

Feb 26, 2012

Non-White Demihumans

One of the things I've been trying to do is put together a visual reference document for the Dawnlands. This has involved find a lot of pictures of Central Asian nomads as well as Persians and Arabs. Due to a dearth of good fantasy images, I've been relying a lot on illustrated military history books (Osprey titles), anthropological etchings, and Soviet-era photographs. I've also managed to find a small number of women in traditional dress, though the numbers are unfortunately nowhere near parity.

The big, giant, outstanding problem is finding images for the demihumans. To recap and summarise: Most dwarves and halfings are brown-skinned, going through the range of skin tones you'd find in northern India, with black hair if any at all. Voidmen (originally eladrin) are very dark-skinned like Ethiopians or Somalis. Elves have green and/or brown skin.

When I started, I knew certain elements were going to be almost impossible to find - the oval-pupils of dwarves are original to the Dawnlands. People with argyria dressed in the right clothing for the Mountain People was never going to be easy. Green-skinned elves are not that common except in my own games. The material culture of Dwer Tor probably most closely resembles the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms - think half-northern India, half-Greek - which means that it's not widely depicted in fantasy art. I am disappointed that these are difficult to find, but I understand why they are.

On the other hand, it is almost impossible to find good pictures of demihumans that are a recognisable human race that is not white. The few that aren't white are things like goblins or drow, where they have a fantastical skin tone in the first place. Otherwise, dwarves and elves and halflings appear to be a whites-only club. The few pictures that one can find are generally totally unsuitable. Either they are rough sketches done by an amateur, or in the case of the one high-quality, dark-skinned elf picture I found, it was of a half-naked elf woman who was leashed and being led through a harem. I even tried things like "Greek dwarf" or "brown skin dwarf" in Google to see if I could find a few images, but there wasn't anything.

I've said this before, but fantasy art really does live by the principle that you can be any race you want, so long as it's white. This is a shame, since it makes it more difficult to convey different aesthetics beyond the medieval Northern European and perhaps the classical era. If anything, it's these less well-known eras that need more representation because players are much less likely to have a clear idea of what things look like.

The same is true of demihumans - it'd be nice to see more non-white demihumans, even if we had to put up with stereotypical forms of dress to get them (the separate-but-equal "Every black guy in fantasy is dressed like a Zulu at a summer wedding" problem). For one thing, it would help liberate people's imaginations from Tolkien's influence, but it's also useful in world-building. You might want the PCs to encounter a society of black dwarves on their travels (especially if there are PCs who are dwarves), and having some art that you can point to and say "Here's what these black dwarves look like" would be extremely useful, especially since there are no or few pictures of black dwarves actually in existence in the real world that your PCs will have seen before to give them a clear image.

Various Useful and Interesting Links

Here's an article that Teller, of Penn and Teller, wrote for Smithsonian Magazine about the cognitive behaviour that stage magicians exploit to fool you. There's a lot in it that's of value to referees of adventure games as well.

Chris Pound's name generators. I forget who linked to this the other day, but I found it extremely interesting. Contains a lot of roleplaying setting specific stuff, like if you need some Tsolyani gibberish.

Synergon. I've never been sure if this is a real RPG that anyone has tried to play, or if it's just an elaborate parody.

Exosolar, which is my go to map for harder types of sci-fi, and is the source that caused me to change Traveller jump distances to xe parsecs, where x is the whole number of the jump-drive rating and e is Euler's number. 1 parsec of travel won't even get you to Alpha Centauri.

Fordham University's historical sourcebooks are excellent for research. I'm only going to link to the Ancient History one here, but they have a medieval one, as well as decent coverage of a bunch of non-Western civilisations. Well worth checking out for research for historical games or for when you're creating a pastiche of historical civilisations.

Where I get all my hex paper from.

A dice probability calculator. I've been meaning to write something more extended on the subject, but I think it's tremendously important for referees to know or quickly calculate the probability of some die result or threshold so that you can set difficulties for tasks quickly and fairly. A tool like this is extremely useful if you like games with non-percentile resolution mechanics (I'm a Traveller fan, for example). This one is good because it will check thresholds for you when you click on "At Least" or "At Most".

Just a ton of useful information on various real world languages if you're looking to have your fantasy language sound different than English.

I keep on meaning to construct a whole bunch of languages for the Dawnlands, except I think it would come across as even more obsessively detailed than it is now. This is what I would use if I was to design them though.

Runequest enemy creator. I think this is compatible with MRQII, although I think it was created for MRQI.

Of all the various interesting things Isomage has on his website, the cave generator is the one I like the most. I used it to create the cave maps for Warren of the Leper Queens.

When I run a game set in medieval times, I send this website to the PCs to help them pick names.

Feb 25, 2012

My Dying Rules for Swords and Wizardry

In my Emern game, I use the following sets of rules to adjudicate healing and dying:

1) When you reach 0HP you are incapacitated through pain, unconscious, or otherwise inactive except for rolling around on the ground, spasming, screaming, crying, clutching at the stump of your ass and other non-purposive movement.

2) If you reach -10HP, you are dead, no exceptions.

3) If you are between 0 and -9 HP, you roll a d10 every round, at the start of your turn (we use group initiative, so all the PCs go at once). First round - you survive if you get anything but a 0. Second round - you survive if you get anything but 0 or 9. And so on until you are either healed or dead.

4) Healing takes you back up to 0, and then restores the amount of HP rolled on the die.

5) Going to 0HP, even if you live, usually means some sort of horrendous scar or occasionally mild mutilation. In game so far, this has included having all of your skin burnt off, having your ass cheek bit off, being half-swallowed by a toad, bleeding out of every pore in your body, and so on.

6) Constant use of Cure spells can lead to a weakened immune system, since the Cure spells only cause red blood cells, platelets and plasma to be created. If you go down to 0HP, you may, depending upon where you are, need to make a saving throw the same day to find out if you catch something while your white blood cell count is artificially low.

The Dawnlands: The Mountain People

The Mountain People are the inhabitants of the northern mountain range. They are primarily concentrated in its mountain valleys with a total population of perhaps 50,000. Many are the former inhabitants of Weykuln, though the Mountain People have never been a truly urbanised population and are split politically between numerous petty chieftains.


The Mountain People claim to be descended from a dragon-god known as "Liashkal" who melted them out of the glaciers and set them to live in the mountains and the northern plains. Five hundred years ago, they merged into the kingdom of Weykuln, the end of a century-long process of conquest the Cities of Night supported. Weykuln was hard-pressed by waves of hobgoblin refugees from the north, who eventually overwhelmed it and sent the Mountain People fleeing into the more defensible mountain valleys from the lowlands, where the barrow-kings of the hobgoblins now rule instead.


The Mountain People are composed of humans, orcs, half-orcs, and a few hobgoblins who have politically allied with one king or another for their own advantage. The Mountain People's water supplies are contaminated by silver deposits in the streams and springs they drink from, and mild forms of argyria are extremely common in both humans and orcs (with over 2/3rds of the population having grey-blue or grey skin). The Mountain People is the largest remaining group of Men of the Dusk in the Dawnlands.


The Mountain People's religion is an isolate unlike the shared mytho-religious complex of the Kadiz, Kaddish, Dwer and Hill People. They do claim to have been the first people in the Dawnlands. Their religion is very simple, and is a henotheistic belief. Most clans and chiefs have totems that they venerate informally, that serve as representations of their allegiances. Beyond that, the Mountain People worship a god they call "The Weaver", and who the Kaddish often associate with their own God of Gates, one of the most ancient gods of the Dawnlands. The priesthood of the God of Gates is based in Kaddish since the fall of Weykuln, but they have agents and priests spread throughout the northern mountain range.


The Mountain People no longer travel extensively, though for years they controlled the mountain passes by which passage to the hyperborean north and Kartak-Who-Blinds' empire. While they do have and use horses and wagons, most travel is on foot from one mountain valley to another. They are excellent bridge builders and roadmakers, talents which are rarely called into use these days.

Petty Kingdoms:

The Mountain People are organised into 14 separate petty kingdoms split between various secluded mountain valleys in the northern mountain range. Within each kingdom there is typically a first family who are the "lords" of the kingdom and own the central manor which serves as a strongpoint, with a handful of specialists who form the prominent citizens, and then a large mass of agricultural labourers with few rights. The lords of these domains all claim titles descending from Weykuln, though almost none of them live on their ancestral lands. They are extremely belligerent, towards both the barrow-kings of the hobgoblins and the Kaddish raiders who pass through their lands without bothering to seek their permission. They have begun to hire the Hill People and Kadiz nomads as mercenaries to take the war to the bastions of the north-eastern plains where the hobgoblin barrow-kings still squat in the ashes of Weykuln.

Feb 24, 2012

The Long Narrative: Crappy Plotting

Twists are complicating factors introduced to a narrative to create dramatic tension by delaying the resolution of a situation the characters have found themselves in. They derive either from unexpected changes in the relationships between characters (Vader is Luke's Father), or from unexpected changes in the environment around the characters (the walls of the trash compactor start to crush together). Twists undermine characters' control of a situation. My experience has been that many referees plan twists for their sessions, but then in play often have trouble bringing them to fruition. The management of twists and complications is considered to one of the high arts of refereeing an adventure game, and from what I've seen and experienced, it is one of the most mentally demanding parts of prep.

My suggestion is that you should experiment occasionally with challenges that do not require twists to be interesting. Not just minor challenges of the sort that recur repeatedly during a session, but big ones that form the centrepiece of a session or series of sessions as well. In real life we encounter these situations reasonably frequently and find them challenging and interesting in and of themselves. For example, skiing down a hill is a pleasurable, challenging activity that allows one to have extremely good, if not perfect information, about the challenges one will face (through selecting the particular trail and then surveying it before one begins skiing).

A situation does not require to be twists to be interesting for the purposes of gaming if:

1) It does not have an obvious solution.
2) It requires several sub-processes to all or mostly be completed successfully for its accomplishment.
3) Gathering the information in order to overcome the situation is a significant part of the challenge.

I use all three of these reasonably frequently. They allow me to plan a situation or idea, and not have to worry about fitting a whole bunch of moving pieces together. It's one of the reasons that reconnaissance is such an important part of my games - if you can come up with a plan of action and gather the information you need, the actual solution is often a denouement. 

Based on reading things on rpg.net and elsewhere over the years, I think there is a tendency to deprecate planning and to reduce the amount of time it takes, in order to get to the action of the scene. Planning is not everyone's cup of tea, but I do think that there are a large number of people who would enjoy planning more if it was handled in a more structured and fruitful way. It's the lack of progression and the inability to arrive at a decisive conclusion that gets to them and turns them off from it, rather than anything inherent to the activity of sitting around talking about what might happen if they did this or that. It may also be, with more experienced roleplayers, the depressing feeling that no matter what they plan, the referee is going to throw a bunch of twists that will cause the time spent planning to be entirely wasted.

So, give it a try by designing situations that are complex and multi-faceted, but all the information is there from the get go and the challenge is figuring out how to incorporate it all into a workable plan.

Feb 23, 2012

New Uses for Culture (Own): Songlines

Follow Songline

There are no maps in the Dawnlands, and certainly none among the Kadiz or Hill People. Instead, navigation on the plains of Kadiz is handled by songlines. Songlines are highly structured pieces of music that are used as aids to navigation. Nomads are constantly inventing new ones and trading them to other clans, and a part of the traditional lore a child on the plains acquires is the songlines for anywhere his tribe normally goes. Songlines are named after the people who invent the song, so they have names like "Vangir's Song" (which tells how to get from Dwer Tor to Kaddish, named after a mercenary who made the journey many times). A small number of songlines are secret, and maintained by specific septs or clans to find their holy places or caches or other secret locations.

The number of lines in each verse conveys the number of days of travel that the songline covers. A line is repeated a number of times equal to the duration required to traverse or find the obstacle from the previous feature. The rhythmic measure conveys the type of terrain (the faster it is, the easier the ground), while the semantic content of each line covers the specific landmark to look for and how to find it.

By the time most nomads reach adulthood they know hundreds of songlines, so many that the problem is often choosing amongst all the possible ones they know to most accurately navigate to where they get. Most songlines cover between one and eight days of travel, so multiple songlines may be required on long journeys. The nomads give one another directions by songline for most purposes, and use the sun and pole star to navigate in places the songlines don't cover. A nomad who discovers such a location can win a place in the collective memory of his people by inventing a songline for it.

A character who is attempting to travel from one destination to another accurately must test Culture (Own). Success means they can find their way following the correct series of songlines, which may or may not be the most direct route. Failure means they end up somewhere they didn't expect or take longer than expected to get there. On a critical success, they can piece together multiple songlines line by line to construct a new, more direct songline (which they may then name after themselves), while a critical failure means the character has a failure of memory and dead-ends. They must find and convince someone to teach them a songline to successfully navigate to another location.

Characters may also use this skill to invent false songlines or evaluate potentially false ones for veracity. False songlines may be given or taught to one's enemies to mislead them.

Tagging and Emern Update

I'm kind of a crappy tagger, so I've resolved to get better at it. Since the tags are mainly for other people's benefits, I'm going to propose some tags and changes to tags, and I'd like your feedback on whether they'd be of any use to you.

1) Labeling all my various "Abolishing X" posts with the "Abolishing" tag, since they seem to be popular.
2) Labelling all maps regardless of campaign setting with "Maps"
3) Supplementing the "Runequest" tag with "MRQ2" and "Openquest" depending upon which specific variant, if any, I'm writing about
4) Labelling all "The Long Narrative" posts with "Long Narrative"
5) Adding "WFRP 2e" tags to all posts currently tagged "Thousand Thrones" even if they're not directly about WFRP and more about playing the Thousand Thrones (i.e. Abolishing Preprinted Character Sheets would now also be tagged "WFRP 2e")

I tested out the Emern dice maps and everything, and it's going well, though I have to keep the surveyors from trying to jump massively ahead of schedule before everyone else can catch up. That's good, that means they have the exploration bug. It was a busy session, all forward momentum. We started on Day 3 and ended on the beginning of Day 6 of 30.

In the session last night they encountered a sleeping green dragon in a geyser mudpit that they backed off confronting, and a 60' tall undead sloth with green laser eyes that they are planning to kill next session. The party split up to survey more hexes so that only Bobo and Sapporo encountered it, and they had to run away, but everyone else is gunning for its blood now. Shaqueefa decided to change name and gender to become the feared berserker Chris Brown. A bunch of people nearly got killed by an ambush by giant toads while exploring a swamp, which resulted in someone's right butt cheek being bit off by the toads, and went on until some hungry crocodiles showed up to eat some of the toads. A friendly naga rescued the evil party members when they got stuck in the mud on the bottom of a riverbed and were up to their chests in water without a clear plan of escape. Also there was quicksand, talking to giant lizards and birds of paradise, an avalanche that killed the party's mule that was carrying all the food, three PCs (the ones trapped chest-deep in the river) got tons of insect bites, a geyser sprayed boiling water in someone's face, and there was a lot of panning for gold. The quartermasters drew up a menu of what they cook each day and got 100XP each for it. There's probably some other stuff I'm forgetting too.

Mortality is a bit low right now, since I have a rule that you only outright die if you're reduced to -10HP. Otherwise, when you drop to 0 or below you're rolling around, helpless and screaming, and start rolling d10s every turn. On the first turn, you only die if you roll a 0, on the second turn you die on a 9 or 0, and so on. Otherwise, two PCs would have died tonight against the toads, but some last minute cure light wounds spells saved the day. They did get pretty badly maimed though - Samuelson had his pinky finger and his ass cheek chewed off. CLW cured the latter, but not the former. He's now "Nine-Fingers" Samuelson.

Also, cure light wounds in Emern stimulates the production of red blood cells and platelets but doesn't affect white blood cell production, so you tend to become immuno-deficient if you rely on it too much. Samuelson passed his saving throw against disease though, so he'll be fine in a couple of days.

Feb 22, 2012

Eopolitics: The Hill People

The Hill People's existence is dominated by their former glory as the Children of Night, the preeminent nation and people of the Dawnlands until the belligerent Kaddish engaged in a war of domination that culminated in genocide and the collapse of their civilisation. Even three hundred years after the destruction of the last City of Night, and at least a thousand years since the cities themselves were a single polity, the Hill People still dream of reunifying and conquering the Dawnlands. This dream is stifled by their ongoing destruction at the hands of the Kadiz nomads.

The Hill People are broken into about a hundred tribes scattered across the Plains of Kadiz. The tribes are divided by religion, former city affiliation, and politically, but a great revival of their power has begun in the form of two figures.

The first is Finder-of-Eyes, the great gnollish prophet of the southern desert. The gnolls have always had a tendency towards religiosity within the Hill People, their pack mentality readily ascending to the concept of union and harmony with the divine. Since the fall of the Cities of Night, this has led to religious fragmentation and innovation, as many gnolls turned away from the gods they saw as failing them and began to worship more responsive deities. Finder-of-Eyes has used that pack mentality and religiosity to assemble a mighty army of gnollish tribes who are dispersed across the southern plains. He preaches on behalf of the Silver Oracles of Djala, a cluster of protean devils who inhabit the sunken ruins of that city, prophesying that the time of reunion is at hand.

The second is Jarek the Snake, the most powerful of the pretenders, who is based in the north-western plains. Jarek the Snake claims to be the rightful Dusk King, a title not heard of in a thousand years, when the Cities of Night were unified under the rulership of the kings of Balwan. Such a title is mostly symbolic, but it would bring many of the lesser clans currently resisting him under his rule. In order to fully claim it, he must assemble a powerful artifact known as a "glass grove", composed of twelve massive pillars of imperishable green glass. The pillars will allow him to conduct the coronation and acclamation ceremony a true Dusk King requires. To obtain them, he has sent agents to the ruins of the Cities of Night, which has brought him four of the pillars so far. Once he is crowned, he intends to wipe out the Kaddish, and his people sit on the border of their hinterland, launching probing raids.

Finder-of-Eyes and Jarek the Snake have become even more problematic lately since they appear to have recently concluded an alliance. Many Hill People villages have been reinforced with warbands of desert gnolls, surprising Kadiz raiders looking for easy targets. Altars to the old and new gods of the Hill People have been raised, and the hearts of hundreds of Kaddish peasants burn in the pyres atop them. Jarek and Finder have also begun instituting unheard of reforms. Hill People have been seen riding horses, capturing Kaddish sorcerers to study their art, and trading enslaved Kadiz and Kaddish to the Dwer in exchange for fine metal weapons and army. It is only a matter of time before they feel they are strong enough and strike forth to murder every man between the coast and the desert.

Of the independent tribes not under Jarek's sway, the most powerful are the various warlords serving as mercenaries. Dwer Tor has engaged the Night Owl clan to protect their colonies along the Little Road. The Night Owls are cultists of the Leper Star, and have raised their own dead to handle most of the fighting, neither of which the optimates who hired them knew. Now the Dwer are stuck with barbarous lepers encamped around several key colonies, backed by an army of their undead relatives. Tensions have been on the increase, especially as slaves have begun to be afflicted by the disease.

The Crying Eagle clan under Silen the Eagle has been engaged by Zavak-Who-Crushes in the former kingdom of Weykuln to fight off the Orthocracy's military expedition led by Prime Haek. Zavak-Who-Crushes is the lord of the Gutuk Bastion, one of the westernmost bastions, and one that was bypassed by Haek on his drive to the Maruk Bastion. He pays them in kobold slaves (which they eat) and loot, and they raid Haek's supply train. Zavak-Who-Crushes has also sent them to locate Moon Peak, for if he can capture the gold mine from the Dwer, he hopes to drag them into the war as his allies in exchange for its eventual return.

Finally, the Lich-King of Dlak, who still reigns over the burning dead of his long-destroyed city, has become active again. Long ago, a powerful devil was bound under Dlak, where it has remained since. The stars have come right, and the Lich-King seeks to release it to devastate the Dawnlands and kill as many people as possible. Driven insane by the death of his people, he doesn't care who is hurt or killed, merely about lashing out at those who have the gall to outlive him. His power has attracted several gnollish tribes while his cunning has led them to believe they will be spared the holocaust if they assist him. In truth, he doesn't care about them, except insofar as they can kidnap enough sacrifices to power the unbinding rituals.

Advanced Plunder Ratings

Plunder Ratings are the measurement of how much treasure a monster has in Openquest. They normally go from 1 to 6, with increasing amounts of treasure as the number gets higher. The treasure is predominantly silver, gold and magic items, and the escalation is quite rapid, with magic items making an almost immediate appearance, and gold being present from Plunder 3 onwards.

In the Dawnlands, of course, there isn't much actual coinage in circulation, and in particular, the people of the plains, the Kadiz nomads and the Hill People, don't even use money. This got me thinking about the need to change what Plunder Ratings mean, which led to a transformation of the measurement.

I will be subdividing the "plunderability" of creatures into multiple categories, each rated from 1 to 6 and written left to right like a Traveller Universal World Profile.

The categories are: Edibility, Harvesting, Goods, Money. Ratings are not cumulative.


1) The creature is poisonous to eat.
2) The creature is inedible, often due to taboos. 
3) The creature is unpalatable and requires special treatment beyond normal cooking to eat. PCs with the right equipment can prepare a number of rations equal to the creature's SIZ / 10 from it.
4) The creature is edible with normal cooking. PCs with the right equipment can prepare a number of rations from it equal to 1/2 the creature's SIZ.
5) The creature is considered a traditional food animal. PCs with the right equipment can prepare a number of rations from it equal to the creature's SIZ.
6) The creature is considered a delicacy to be eaten in small portions or is highly nutritious. PCs with the right equipment can prepare a number of rations from it equal to the creature's SIZ x 2.


1) The creature's body is of no value for trade.
2) The most valuable product of the creature's body is a single mundane good (skin, fur, horn). 
3) The creature produces 1d6 mundane goods (skin, fur, horn, rennet).
4) The creature produces a single rare and valuable good for which it is specially sought out. PCs with the right equipment can extract it.
5) The creature produces 1d6 rare and valuable goods for which it is specially sought out.
6) Every ounce of the creature is valuable. The PCs can extract a number of valuable goods equal to the SIZ of the creature with the right equipment.


1) The creature has no goods.
2) The creature has only its personal possessions and mundane equipment appropriate to its lifestyle.
3) The creature has its personal possessions and at least one valuable trade item or one minor magical item with 1d6 magnitude.
4) The creature has its personal possessions, and 1d6 valuable trade items or minor magical items of 1d6 magnitude each.
5) The creature has its personal possessions, 1d8 valuable trade items, and 1d8 magical items of 1d6 magnitude each.
6) The creature has its personal possessions, 1d12 valuable trade items and 1d12 magical items of 1d6 magnitude each.


1) The creature has no money.
2) The creature has money with no intrinsic value (Kaddish scrip, credit notes, debt notices, etc.).
3) The creature has 1d10 silver Dwer coins (known as "dwarf-silver").
4) The creature has 1d10 x 10 silver Dwer coins.
5) The creature has 1d10 gold Dwer coins (known as "dwarf-gold") and 1d10 x 100 silver Dwer coins.
6 The creature has 1d10 x 10 gold Dwer coins and 1d10 x 1000 silver Dwer coins.

Some Notes

Dwer Tor is the only place minting coins in the Dawnlands. The Kaddish use paper money, which no one acknowledges other than them anyhow. Dwarf-silver and dwarf-gold's main value to the nomads is to be melted down and turned into other things, or to be given away as gifts or to buy things from the Dwer or Kaddish in the rare instances one must. It is useless for purchases on the plains. Dwarf-gold is exceedingly rare, since there is only one gold mine in the Dawnlands, and most of its product stays in Dwer Tor to trade with the Salt Men.

Minor magical items include potions, scrolls, blessed items, single-use battle magic charms, and magic point stores. Magical items include reusable battle magic charms, spell matrices, and relics.

Mundane goods are mainly of  used for craft checks of various kinds, and will be valuable to artisans.

Valuable trade goods include items that have required some effort to manufacture including cones of incense, bags of salt, expensive clothing, furniture, ingots of iron, or ink sticks. They may also include rare raw materials like beautiful furs and fangs from monsters, or chemicals that may be obtained only from their bowels. These latter types also include hearts and other organs of interest to cults, experts and specialist organisations for ritual purposes.

Feb 21, 2012

Abolishing Preprinted Character Sheets

So, on Sunday night for the Thousand Thrones campaign (session 3), a couple of people couldn't come, right at the first session where you really had to be there for (the ship we were on was sinking). So the PCs who were there grabbed the character sheets of those missing, and did our best to get them out alive along with everyone else. Along with my Waldemar, my celestial wizard apprentice, I ran Otto the Pit Fighter because his player was out sick. I wrote Waldemar's character sheet out by hand, as I do with almost all of my character sheets no matter the system, but Otto's player had used a preprinted character sheet. This made finding things unnecessarily complicated, and I encourage all of you to stop using them.

One of the many advantages of doing your own character sheet up with a piece of printer or lined paper is that you can make it as complex as you want, which is usually not very complex at all. As your character grows in power, you can add onto it, or maybe rewrite it out so that the formatting is a bit better when your lists of powers start to run into one another. e.g. My wizard's character sheet only lists the skills I have and the talents I have, and I can tell if I do or don't have these things simply by glancing at it.

But a preprinted character sheet has to accommodate all the complexity and variety of the game from the get go. So usually every skill is written on it, and there's a section set aside for "Spells" even though only one person casts them, or in D&D there's always a box for alignment even if you're playing without alignment, and so on. This makes the sheet overwhelming. I can see the two new folks playing Thousand Thrones with us hunting around their sheets trying to find things, and I know that when I was using Otto's sheet (which is the same format as theirs), I couldn't find anything I wanted to, despite being fairly familiar with the rules to WFRP 2e.

Exacerbating this problem is that it never seems like anyone with the skills at laying out documents knows the rules to the game very well. This is most apparent in the miniscule size of spell sections on D&D character sheets, or in the almost hilariously small areas set aside for talents in Dark Heresy character sheets, but similar kinds of problems occur on almost every premade character sheet I've ever seen.

I also think these sheets encourage poor notation. All you have room to write down under the "Spells" section is the name of a spell, whereas a proper wizard player should actually have the mechanical details of all their spells written down for rapid reference so they don't have to hog the book every time they want to cast something or decide which of two spells is more useful or resolve what happens. As you learn more spells, you also write them down, and when you level up, you modify the spells appropriately as part of the process, so that it's very manageable and piecemeal. It also reinforces your own memory of what the spells do, so that you start to remember that Dimension Door in 3.5 doesn't have somatic components and can therefore be used to teleport out of your bonds or be cast while wearing plate armour without a chance of spell failure, thereby building the kind of system mastery that distinguishes the future-archmage from the bloody smear in robes.

Typically, when I run a D&D PC, I use three sheets of paper. One is just stats, one is gear, and one is spells (I almost always play wizards), since those two things eat up the most space, require the most revision, and are often consulted separately from the rest ("Do I still have the chisel?" should not require you to scan past tons of calculations). A separate gear sheet is useful since it lets you organise your gear into sets which your PC can switch between.

For example, Siegfried Hausmann, my limping, atheist doctor with a shotgun in Economy of Force (another campaign the Liber Fanatica guys are playtesting, currently on hiatus until Thousand Thrones is over) has a "town" set of gear, an "adventuring" set of gear, and a total listing of all gear he owns, so that I can say "I put on my good clothes and go to town" without needing to figure out thirty minutes later whether that means that I've brought my medical tools (Answer: Yes). Preprinted character sheets suppress this kind of organisation and present the lowest common denominator in their place.

And finally, the weird spacing issues. Borders, wasted space, tiny spaces between the lines that you would have to have needles to write comfortably between, all come together to make reading and writing on a preprinted sheet completely horrible just as a document. I wish I could slap everyone who ever put the name of the game on the character sheet, since it's usually the largest and most prominent piece of text, just in case you forget you're playing DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS 3.5 or WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY or whatever because someone has concussed you with a handful of dice. Tiny writing is writing it's hard to read, and hard to read means hard to find and slow to reference, and since allowing the easy reference and retrieval of information is the point of the sheet, it directly impacts the value of the character sheet, pushing it closer and closer to "active impediment".

Character Trees From Film Crit Hulk

Film Crit Hulk is one of the better movie reviewers working today, though any given piece by him is a serious investment. Anyhow, I recently read the first section of his article on screenwriting and wanted to pull out one of the practical tools he gives for creating interesting and well-fleshed out characters, character trees. This is written from the perspective of writing characters in screenplays, but I think elements of it are transferable to roleplaying character creation. This comes about 9000 or so words into it:










I've seen these kinds of questionnaires before in game books, and I'm generally pretty suspicious of them, but only because the ones in game books are really bad, and focus way too much on personal history and not enough on mannerisms and portrayal. This one has a much more useful balance.

It's well worth reading the whole article, and its sequel, though it's the size of a short book and written in all-caps. The Film Crit Hulk thing takes a while to grow on you, but it's worth pushing through it for the content, which is very good.

Feb 20, 2012

Diaspora's Dynamic Relationship Maps

Diaspora is the only FATE game I really like, and I've been thinking of writing a review of it sometime. It rationalises the stunt system to avoid the massive lists of Spirit of the Century and Starblazer Adventures, it has has a good balance between its toolbox qualities and predefined content, something a lot of FATE games struggle with, and it has a lot of interesting innovations in how it presents information to players.

One innovation is the use of relationship maps as conflict maps. Relationship maps are fairly common tools these days for managing NPC casts, and Hack & Slash has a good breakdown of how to use them here. I learnt about them in 2001 from Unknown Armies 2e, and I've used them ever since when I need to keep track of dynamic social situations. By providing a reference for how NPCs feel towards one another and what their goals are, a relationship map allows you to improvise more effectively than if you're trying to juggle it all in your head.

A relationship map of the type that H&S is talking about, or that Unknown Armies teaches you to make (a "web map", I'll call it), isn't really a direct artifact of play though. That is, you don't lay it out on the table and interact with it. It's meant only for referees to consult and update. Stylistically, they tend to present individuals, groups or things as the basic units with attitudes and goals forming connections between them. Diaspora breaks with that and encourages you to map the zones of possible attitudes and goals and then to place the PCs and NPCs on the map as appropriate. It provides clear rules for moving between one zone or the other and for interacting with others (which involves attempting to move them from zone to zone). It provides some examples of multiple layouts, and encourages you to come up with your own. You can see a sample of what one looks like on rpg.net here.

I haven't experimented too much with this system, but I think it's a very strong idea with a lot of potential. I'm in favouring of mapping social situations for the same reason I encourage people to do overland mapping, because it turns what would otherwise be a shapeless succession of vignettes into specific, meaningful choices. I think that the zone concept is particularly valuable because it emphasises individuals' movement between attitudes and towards goals. I don't consider the other type of relationship map useless, but I think they do different things. In fact, they complement one another in most situations where you'd need one or the other.

A zone map and a web map can be extremely useful through their contrast. Web maps are great for hierarchies and other rigid kinds of relationships, especially if the relationships as a whole are not primarily goal oriented. For example, I would build a web map to represent a feudal hierarchy's obligations to one another. A zone map would be a useful complement to that when the PCs decide to rebel against their feudal lord, and need to plan or track where everyone in the hierarchy stands on that issue, and how well they're doing gaining them as allies or enemies. You could even drill down so that a zone map exists for each box on the web map, with the zone progress determining exactly how effective or productive each relationship is, which might be a little unwieldy, though you could probably reuse the map a couple of times for similar relationships.

Eopolitics: Dwer Tor

Internally, Dwer Tor is at the cusp of revolution. Through success in wars against the Forest People over the past century, the population of slaves has swelled in the city until they comprise a fifth of the total population, and often an even greater proportion in the far-flung colonies. This has destabilised the helot class, as slaves have taken over agriculture, mining, quarrying and other unskilled or semi-skilled work. Some helots have profited as slave overseers or as specialists like smiths and coopers, and the deme system helps to prevent total impoverishment, but the overall quality of life for helots has been on a long, slow decline.

As well, since most helots are halflings, as are most slaves, there has been a growing feeling of solidarity between the two groups. Inspired in part by the tales of revolution the Kaddish tell about their own experience, numerous violent revolutionary groups have emerged: the Black Blades, the Broken Chains, the Free Banners, etc. They differ in their method and strategies, but the goal is the same - overthrow Dwer Tor, kill the dwarves and voidmen, and institute a halfling-led society where all people will be equal. Many of these groups have established camps in the mountains and forests that slaves and helots can escape to, where they are trained as revolutionary soldiers.

Externally, Dwer Tor's three main concerns are the Kaddish, the Salt Men, and the Kingdom of Falling Stars. The Kaddish were once a staunch ally of Dwer Tor, but with the fall of their last king two hundred years ago (within the lifetime of many dwarves and voidmen still alive) they have become unpredictable and dangerous. There is no centre of power to negotiate with, so the Dwer have opted for containment. They hire Kadiz nomads and Hill People to raid the Orthocracy's southern hill forts and caravans. They have also posted bounties on a number of the more belligerent Kaddish, including Vailax the Screamer, prime of the Dead Horses unit of the Orthocracy's army, who the Dwer consider a bandit.

The Salt Men have been coming for generations to trade with Dwer Tor, providing high quality salt, glass, gold and other luxuries. They once traded with the Kaddish, but with the destruction of Kadhrek three hundred and fifty years ago, they shifted further south. Though the Salt Men rarely speak of their homelands, Krosmil and Haran, from what does come out it sounds like these kingdoms have become an empire, and that empire is aggressively expanding. The most recent ship from Haran brought a new ambassador, Tok Than, who announced that he had come to negotiate the founding of a colony of Salt Men somewhere on the coast to facilitate trade. He was taken into the Palace Eternal immediately, and has not been seen since.

The Kingdom of Falling Stars is the former home of the voidmen. Located far to the south, only the voidmen have ever survived the journey, and they refuse to return. The Great Southern Road, built long ago to reach the Three Towns, has fallen into disrepair, and the jungle has swallowed large stretches of it. The Kingdom of Falling Stars is not forgotten though. The voidmen have told tales of its god-king and his stellar magic, the inspiration for their own Logokratonism. Recently, a single animated statue has come to the southernmost outpost of the Dwer, claiming to bear important tidings from the god-king for his "wayward children". The statue is being transported back to Dwer Tor, though it has not spoken or acted since emerging from the jungle and announcing itself.

Feb 19, 2012

Municipal Geography of Dwer Tor

Dwer Tor is built onto the north-eastern side of a mountain with a large lake at its base. The mountain, also known as Dwer Tor, is snow-capped in winter, though it is geothermally active in the form of a number of hot springs. It is the northermost mountain in its chains, though foothills continue for miles out until they become the plains of Kadiz proper. The snowmelt and the hot springs form a set of streams around the bottom-third of the mountain that feed into the lake. The Dwer have cut an artificial canal from the northern shore around the mountain to a westerly flowing river called the Little Road that other mountain streams feed into. It has three falls along it, each less than 30m high, and there is a colony around each one to help transport cargo.

The city itself covers the bottom third of the mountain, encompasses the lake, and has numerous roads going off into the mountains that are used to transport stone and metal from various mines.

The Palace Eternal

One third (2500m) of the way up the mountain, on a specially built terrace it shares with no other section of the city, is the Palace Eternal, the home of the Dwer king. Most of the administrative section of the Palace Eternal is deep inside the mountain, accessed by entrances - some secret - hidden in the lower city. The palace itself emerges from the rock, with a curtain wall projecting out from it. Through a series of cleverly-designed chutes and channels, the snowmelt of the mountain comes rushing over the main entrance in a great waterfall before splashing through more channels cut through the rock to emerge as rivers that flow through the city into Quarry Lake. The only entrance is a glass-covered tunnel with a stone floor that goes from the curtain wall to the palace proper.

The Palace Eternal is the greatest fortress in the Dawnlands, even more imposing than the hobgoblin bastions of the north. The parts of it outside the mountain are large enough to be just barely visible from the base of the lower city when the smoke of cookfires clears. Many secrets are hidden in the depths of the mountain, and a handful of men could hold it against an army of raging helots. Specially trained servants of the crown who are capable of dealing with the rarefied air are constantly coming in and going out to the lower city bearing messages. They rely on a series of staircases and pulley elevators, some inside the mountain, and most higher-castes who must come to the palace travel up inside the mountain, where the air is thicker. Helots are not welcome unless they are palace servants.

The only structure higher than the Palace Eternal - by decree of the ancient kings - is the sacred pyre where the bodies of kings and divine heroes are immolated to hasten their journey into the night sky.

The Middle Terraces

The middle terraces are a series of loosely connected terraces. The lowest is only a few hundred metres above the low sections, while the highest is perhaps a kilometre up. There are several series of terraces, each with a varying width, length and number of terraces. Each level forms a "neighbourhood", normally supporting several optimate families and several thaumate ecclesia. This typically mean 3-6 compounds, with multiple residences and subisidary buildings. A small compound might only be four buildings and a wall: A residence for the upper-castes, servant's quarters (always separate), a guardhouse and a storehouse. The largest compounds might be a third of a kilometre long and feature multiple warehouses and training grounds, astronomical observatories, temples, graveyards, schools, barracks, or even a vineyard.

The middle terraces circle the mountain, with the most privileged and important residences underneath the Palace Eternal facing east, and the north face preferred to the south face otherwise (because the canal passes the mountain on its north side).

Broad walkways encircle the mountain from one terrace to another, wide enough to allow carts to pass one another, but without railings. This is perhaps where one is most likely to see slaves in the city, as they grade and recut roads and terraces. A number of slave graveyards have been made out of cracks and small caverns in the mountain, and the spirits of the dead are often blamed for landslides, avalanches and falls.

Lower City

The lower city of Dwer Tor is where most of the city's helot population lives. Most of the lower city is sorted into neighbourhoods of about 20 demes (~15-16,000 people), ruled by a single optimate family that administers it for the king. These families change every generation or so (by Dwarven standards ~100 years). The different neighbourhoods are broken up from one another by internal fortifications, orchards, coliseums, theatres and hippodromes, slave barracks, aqueducts and especially markets. It is customary to punish criminals in these interstitial spaces, to show that they no longer have a deme and are cast out. Much of the lower city is clean and peaceful, though occasional reminders of discontent can be found - one of the main tasks of the slaves each day is to scrub off revolutionary graffiti that went up during the night.

The exception to this clustering is the Stranger's Quarter in the northeast of the city, where the Little Road meets the lake. This is Dwer Tor's port, and home for its foreigners and sailors. It is a wild place, unlike the rest of the city. It is the only part of the city that the Kaddish are allowed into (even the Kadiz are allowed more leeway), and the quarter is jammed with religious fanatics, freebooters, and merchants. All visitors to Dwer Tor are considered part of the "Stranger" deme, though this is a customary title without legal standing. Dwer Tor's criminals congregate here as well, having been banished from the rest of the polis. It is the place in the lower city where slaves are most likely to be seen, since they often work as porters, but it lacks the maintenance of the rest of the city since no particular family or deme is responsible for it. In heavy rains it floods very slightly, perhaps half a foot, (the rest of the city is on higher ground) and this is the only time it is ever cleaned.

Feb 18, 2012

Species of the Dawnlands: Hobgoblins

Hobgoblins are a single species that is divided into two populations, the "true" hobgoblins and the soulforged Iron-Skins. The two populations are not interfertile, but the Iron-Skins were created from the base hobgoblin species.

Hobgoblins derive from the hyperborean lands to the north of the Dawnlands, where their greatest population is found in the empire of Kartak-Who-Blinds, who ascended to living godhood 3,000 years ago. Kartak-Who-Blinds is the cruel god of winter, and his empire has engaged in many bloody purges and civil wars, each time sending tens of thousands of refugees fleeing south across the mountains and glaciers into the northern plains.

Hobgoblins are found amongst the Hill People, as well as forming their own societies based on the petty kingdoms who serve Kartak-Who Blinds. The ones found amongst the Hill People are the oldest waves of refugees and live similarly to other members of that society. Hobgoblin architects and engineers built many of the Cities of Night, and their descendants are mostly found in close proximity to them. Their own societies

Hobgoblins have pointed or bulbous noses, and black or white hair. Their skin ranges from maroon to burnt sienna, with sienna more common as that is what their skin tans to when exposed to regular daylight. Their irises are yellow, orange or brown, and they tend to have heavy and low brow ridges. Hobgoblins are taller than men, but less bulky, so that they mass about the same. Their lifespans are comparable to men. Hobgoblins are omnivorous, but require more meat in their diet than humans or elves. They have more canine teeth and their fingernails are often long, hard and claw-like.

Iron-Skins are the only soul-forged species not to derive from Kaddish. In the days of the kingdom of Weykuln, a hobgoblin thief kidnapped a soul-forger and tortured him until he revealed a handful of the secrets of the art before succumbing to his wounds. The hobgoblin thief transformed many hobgoblins into Iron-Skins, using what knowledge he did have, before the katalictors hunted him down. The soul-forgers being pragmatic, they made the surviving Iron-Skins an offer: The soul-forgers would allow one of their members to live with them and create more Iron-Skins, so long as they never dabbled in soul-forging again, and swore oaths sanctified by terrible curses never to repeat what they did know. The Iron-Skins agreed, and since then, a single soul-forger has always been available, even during the Wars of Dusk and Dawn, to create more of them.

An Iron-Skin hobgoblin is a hobgoblin whose skin has been transformed into an iron epidermis. Internally, their bodies have been transformed so that they no longer eat, sleep, breathe or engage in other bodily functions. They can be mistaken for iron statues of hobgoblins by those who don't know of their existence. Most have fine patterns or a light patina of rust, though they can scrape this off without harm.

Iron-Skins live until they are destroyed. Their sense of touch is drastically reduced in the process, which keeps many hobgoblins from wanting to undertake the process, but fear of death is an important motivator. The soul-forgers have made it so that only young hobgoblins may undergo the process, since the bodily strain will kill older and weaker ones.

Iron-Skins are mainly found amongst the Hill People. Hobgoblin refugees from the north recruit them as mercenaries and berserkers, but there is a strong cultural prejudice against them.

Feb 17, 2012

What Can You See When You Look Around?

This is a dice map for when your PCs are riding across the Plains of Kadiz and they stop and suddenly say "What can we see around us?" This dice map answers that questions. You use it in the typical way, dropping a bunch of dice on it and seeing where they land. The map has a little arrow pointing north so you can orient where everything is, or you can just treat that as "ahead of the PCs" if you prefer. You can find the explanations of every landform and type on this dice map on Wikipedia.

Linear features like eskers, canyons, draws and rivers are extended in the directions that the hex segment is, so that esker in the bottom right corner of the dice map runs east-west.

The numbers on the dice for the hex segments convey magnitude. For linear features like eskers or scarp or canyons, treat it as the number of kilometres they extend. For things like meadows and boreal forest, it's the number of square kilometres it covers. For things like smoke or game or sinkholes, it's the number of those things that appear.

If a die comes up "1", then the terrain features it lands on are impassable, even if they're good ones like eskers, draws or meadows, and must be circumvented (requiring skill tests as the referee considers appropriate). Meadows in the Dawnlands catch fire pretty regularly, alvar may be too broken for horses or men to cross safely, the river can't be forded, the forest is too thick to get through, draws may be at risk of an avalanche, and eskers may be treacherous footing whipped by the wind, etc.

If the PCs aren't in any special kind of terrain, the most common kinds of terrain in the Dawnlands are polje and chalk heath.

The Leper Star Cult

The Leper Star

The Leper Star is green-yellow, and it wanders the most of any start in the night sky. The Leper Star is the patron of outcasts, exiles, the banished, criminals, murderers, lepers and revenge-seekers. It is the Sign of Injustice, the Record of Grudges and the Lord of Hate. It is said that it sees everything, remembers everything, and hates everything. Its priests know many secrets and demand terrible prices for those who would learn from them.

The Leper Star Cult


The cult is found only in the leper colonies of the Hill People and hidden amongst the murder gnomes of Kaddish.

Type of Cult

Minor Deity - The Leper Star and its followers are reviled, hated and feared, and the religion is unpopular at best.

Cult Skills

Deception, Lore (Astronomy), Religion (Leper Star), Resilience

Worshipper Duties

Priests: Help others to obtain vengeance for their wrongs, and ensure that vengeance is as bloody as possible; Obey the wishes of the Leper Star; Spread leprosy; 

Lay followers: Accept leprosy as a blessing; Obey the priests and the Leper Star

Battle Magic


Divine Magic

All Common Spells plus Call Undead, Fear, Madness, Find (Enemy)

Special Benefits and Notes

When battle magic and divine spells taught by this cult have a cost in gold ducats in the rules, the cost must be replaced by burning one pound of dried humanoid flesh.

The Find spell included in this cult's common spells is Find (Lepers).

There are only two levels in this cult, lay follower and priest. To become a priest, a lay follower must spend 5 IP and have Religion (Leper Star Cult) at 75% or better. They must also become a leper if they are not one already.

Priests of the Leper Star identify their allegiance with green-yellow trappings, include robes, sashes, tents, etc.

Rather than waiting for a specific holy day to replenish their spells, priests must pray while the Leper Star is visible in the sky overhead. This is in the evening after sunset and just before dawn.

Feb 16, 2012

The Long Narrative: Low Concept Campaigns

I am of the belief that the "higher" the concept, the shorter the campaign will be. Therefore, if one wants to run a long campaign, a "low" concept is necessary. A "high" or "tight" concept is one that contains a lot of information about what the campaign will be like, while a "low" or "loose" concept does not. There is not a stiff border between the two, but here are some criteria that I use to judge whether a concept is "high" or not:

1) Does the pitch contain a reference to a specific television show or movie which the DM is trying to imitate?

2) Does it look like we will have to spend a long time between character creation and play sorting out what each person is and how they relate to one another so that the premise won't collapse in play?

3) Do I expect that this is the kind of game in which someone will say at some point "But that's not the kind of thing that happens in [the source that inspired the game]"?

4) Is the pitch longer than one short paragraph?

5) How tightly is the premise going to determine what happens in game?

The basic problem with a high concept is that it contains too much. I have seen pitches or explanations of games that contain within in them the characters' origins, their relationships, and the specific kinds of challenges they will overcome. I find these pitches become less interesting the more detailed they are, as they close off more and more possibilities to engage with the story or world with each word and sentence.

A narrative that is closed, that has a finite universe of possibilities and options which can be fully explored and then exhausted, is obviously one which should end, as it has been completed. The fewer options and possibilities PCs have, the faster the narrative is exhausted. This can be useful if one wants to run a one-shot, or a short game, but trying to drag a game out once this has happened is a recipe for boredom.

In contrast to this, a long campaign relies on underdetermination. Underdetermination is the use of ambiguity, polysemy, surprise, ambivalence and mystery to provide PCs with just enough information to make meaningful choices in their situation while avoiding or obscuring a total comprehension of everything that is going on. You need the occasional intrusion of the unexpected, unexplained, unknown, and unrelated to refresh and expand the narrative.

Underdetermination also pushes PC agency to the forefront. If they don't want to be Power Rangers defending the earth from alien invasion, then they don't have to be Power Rangers defending the earth from alien invasion. Underdetermination means that how the PCs engage with the world is not determined for them, but something that emerges organically in play, and that is subject to revision and change through their choices.

A low concept campaign works especially well when you have a detailed world with lots of possible origins for PCs, places for them to go, NPCs to interact with, and challenges to overcome. You have to avoid having a world so detailed that engagement with it requires the PCs to know a ton of information beforehand, which basically just replicates the same problems as a high concept game through a different means. Or a metaplot that crowds out the PCs and turns the setting into a bunch of high level NPCs jockeying for control.

While I have a lot of respect for Glorantha, I have very little interest in playing in it, since most of the modern adventure concepts I hear people pitch are just a mish-mash of references to canon that convey an attitude of "Let's enact the timeline!" This is something I try to avoid when I write for the Dawnlands, not always successfully, but I want to leave it open enough that individual referees feel that they can "own" it and alter it as they please while still feeling like they are running a "Dawnlands" game.

40K Stars Without Number: Minor Xenos

Dark Eldar

Lenses: Gluttony, Treachery
Government: Tribal (Clan leaders)
Technology Level: Specialised 4 (Advanced Xenotech)
Motivation: Indulgence

In the Tellian Sector:

Dark Eldar pirates and raiders can be found across the Tellian sector. The Tellian sector has many colonies and frontier worlds that are ideal hunting grounds for them. Pech, Chinvat and Granville have all suffered depredations at one time or another. Many of the mercenaries and bandits buying Eldar weapons from Milvanen do so thinking they're buying the horrific, brutal weapons of the Dark Eldar for use in terror campaigns.

Eldar roll 2d6+6 for Wisdom and Dexterity, and 3d6 for all other stats.
Jaded: Dark Eldar XP requirements to increase in level are 10% greater than normal.
Eldar PCs speak Eldar and Low Gothic.


Lenses: Wrath, Tribalism
Government: Tribal
Technology Level: 3 (Basic Xenotech)
Motivation: Waagh!

In the Tellian Sector:

Orks are uncommon in the Tellian Sector, but many systems in the Lost Worlds and the Zul-Kan domains have been overrun by them. Orks are most commonly encountered as sanctioned Xenos aboard Rogue Traders, or being used as mercenaries by unscrupulous magnates. The main Ork presence in the Tellian sector is on the numerous space hulks that trouble almost all parts of the sector. Ork-infested space hulks lurk at the edge of many systems, just waiting for an unlucky traveler to guide them to a nearby world.

Orks get +2 hit points per level and roll 2d6+6 for Strength and Constitution.
Orks roll 2d6+3 for Wisdom, Intelligence and Dexterity.
Orks speak Low Gothic, badly.


Lenses: Journeying, Tradition
Government: Tribal (Shapers)
Technology: Specialised 4 (Advanced Xenotech)

In the Tellian Sector:

Kroot are one of the most common kinds of xenos found in the Tellian sector. Several clans are expanding out of the Zul-Kan Domains, where they have been working as mercenaries for several generations, and into Imperial space. They are mostly found aboard Rogue Trader vessels working security and operations, but it is an open secret that the tech-priests of the Xantholinthic Accretion in the Choraia system have begun trading with them. The Kroot have examples of some extremely interesting xenotech the tech-priests are busy evaluating the acceptability of. The real commotion though, is that one of the items traded to the tech-priests was a mere tenth-generation reproduction of a STC print-out for a new kind of ceramic. The Xantholinthic Accretion has demanded the Inquisition not interfere with the Kroot until the origin of this print-out can be precisely determined.

Kroot may only be Warriors or Psychics (called "Shapers").
Kroot get +1 on their initiative rolls.
Kroot get an automatic free level of skill in Perception, Survival and Stealth.
In order to spend skill points to gain new skills or improve skills they already have, a Kroot must eat at least a kilogram of raw flesh from a creature that possesses the skill at the desired level or higher. Until they eat this flesh, they retain the skill points but cannot spend them.

Feb 15, 2012

The Army of the Orthocracy

The Orthocracy of Kaddish has the largest army in the Dawnlands. The population of Kaddish and its hinterlands is approximately 1,000,000, with the entire adult male population (anyone over 16) theoretically eligible and required to serve in its defense, providing a maximal fighting force of about 490,000. This would depopulate the city of course, and the army has never even approached this size, even during famous campaigns such as the Winter Invasion or the Wars of Dusk and Dawn.

The modern army of the Orthocracy is approximately 25,000 living soldiers, organised by college. There are approximately 50 colleges at any given time in the city and its hinterlands, with most surviving from the time of the revolution. The largest college, the College of the Red and Blue Snakes, is 50,000 strong, while the smallest have only 3,000-5,000 members. Despite this variance, each college is responsible for providing a flat levy of 500 men a year to the army. Smaller colleges will occasionally hire the services of mercenaries or strike alliances with larger colleges to supply under-recruitment forces. As with everything else in Kaddish, no actual law prevents a college's recruits from failing to show, though the colleges from districts surrounding its home district will often commit a few atrocities to encourage recalcitrant colleges to do their part. It is not uncommon to hang a few random citizens at the edge of the district holding placards calling them deserters and traitors to the revolution to encourage the otherws.

New recruits gather on Revolution Day in late spring at the Muster district, one of the exurban districts of the city of Kaddish built around a fortress known as the Bastion. The Bastion is a massive fortress surrounded by sprawling parade and camp grounds that was built during the Wars of Dusk and Dawn, and is located to the southwest of the city proper. Soldiers on active duty are forbidden to enter the city, except for Muster, until their term of service is complete.

At Muster, recruits are sorted, trained and elect their officers (who are typically orthocrats or their agents). The persons responsible for this over the centuries are the servants of the Undying Strategists, who also form the war command of the Orthocracy. The Undying Strategists are a group of undead generals bound by curses and oaths to forever defend Kaddish and its people, starting from the reign of Thranisphane the Twice-Killed. Their bodies and minds are animated by the thrones they sit on, in a dark chamber known as the Black Room at the top of the Bastion. New generals are added periodically when particularly brilliant strategists die, and it is considered the greatest honour the Kaddish can bestow on them. The newest general has rank precedence over the rest, one of the neophilic flourishes the Kaddish delight in. Upon assumption of their position, the new general is renamed to break all connection with their former life.

From the chamber, the Undying Strategists communicate with the various warlords, arch-sorcerers, captains and officers of the army on their campaigns. For distant forces, they use undead ravens bound to their service, while those capable of doing so are allowed into the chamber to speak with them. Most of the Undying Strategists are trained gnostics, and capable of using their magic to influence external events from their thrones in the Black Room.

Kaddish soldiers are trained by the undead servants of the Undying Strategists and by veterans of the last year's muster who have returned for another year's service. They are drilled in the various calls and responses the Kaddish military uses, and then cross-trained in their specialist tasks, including construction and engineering, orientation, wilderness survival, maintaining their equipment, animal-handling, etc. Officers learn the basics of logistics and resupply, scheduling, camp set-up, and tactics.

Current doctrine and strategic needs dictate that the Kaddish military is mainly deployed in small forces of between 100 and 1,000 soldiers. These are broken up across the hinterlands, preventing raids by the Kadiz and Hill People. The largest continuous deployment is about 5,000 men who remain behind at the Bastion to defend the city. Deployments are usually composed of soldiers from a single college, or if a larger force is required, as few colleges as possible, to prevent bloodshed provoked by old rivalries. Deployments are encouraged to select names for themselves to create esprit de corps, and if they accomplish some notable deed, they will be remembered under that name.

The actual Kaddish command hierarchy is extremely flat. Soldiers elect an officer for every hundred men, who is usually referred to as a "Captain". The officers then elect a single "Prime" who is charge of the deployment, answerable only to the Undying Strategists. He will elect a successor in case he is killed, but until that time the successor is formally of equal rank to the other officers. In a well-run deployment, each of the officers will take on a functional role, but there may not be enough officers to fill all the various duties required. In this case, officers will double up or pawn the duties off to their soldiers. In general, the Undying Strategists allow primes great latitude in their operations, and interfere mainly to coordinate major campaigns or to pass intelligence to them.

As a result, the quality of leadership is extremely uneven, and often factionalised within each deployment. This prevents any prime from being able to amass a fighting force capable of threatening the city itself. As well, captains and primes are only paid upon their return to the Bastion at the end of their service, so that they cannot bribe their soldiers. Ordinary Soldiers are paid halfway through their year, in Kaddish paper scrip.

The vast majority of "deployments" theoretically involve defending a static position, but primes are encouraged to be aggressive. The Kadiz nomads and Hill People are highly mobile on raids, but become much less so when encamped and guarding their livestock. The attitude is that the best defense is a constant offense, and the Kaddish raid as aggressively as any plainsman. Soldiers allowed to keep whatever loot they can take, and this forms the bulk of the wealth most of them end up with.

The vast majority of Kaddish military equipment is extremely poor, as weapons and armour are produced rapidly and cheaply rather than well. Most wear leather armour and helmets, and carry either crossbows or long spears supplemented with daggers. However, the sorcerous power of the Kaddish and their willingess to unleash horrors that turn the stomach of the other peoples of the Dawnlands acts as a force multiplier. It is a rare deployment that does not include at least one graduate of the Nightmare Halls who serves as living artillery.

As well, the Orthocracy's soldiers often bring along its less conventional forces. These include fanatical warrior-cult mamluks, vampiric thralls, living weapons created by the soul-forgers, bound devils and spirits, undead warriors, coffin-golems, worm-wolves, tulpa-shoggoths, experimental magical weapons, and so on in an endless catalogue of the Orthocracy's sins. These forces are committed before the more valuable lives of the soldiers are risked to stagger and horrify the enemy into retreat. Dead soldiers from both sides are reanimated to serve again and again, until their bodies are useless pulp.

The Kaddish, scions of a city filled with such horrors, are unaffected such sights, which would frighten a plainsman. As well, despite their poor pay and company, the Kaddish military is known for its high morale. The vast majority of the Kaddish still believe in the goals of the revolution, and tales of the horrors of the Children of Night have become legendary. They see themselves as the thin line holding back the traitors, cannibals and monsters that haunt the plains. Cunning speakers are trained as propagandists at the Bastion, provided with arguments, reasons, chants, slogans and other tools to stiffen the hearts of the soldiers and keep them from running in close fought battles. Banners and music help them track the progress of the battle and their role in it.

Famous Units of the Kaddish Military

The Locusts - The Locusts are composed of soldiers from the College of the Uplifted Sword, the Third Ward Freemen and the College of the Bolstered Spirit. These are the forces of  the Redhand, Third Ward and Pits districts respective. They are led by Prime Haek Cala Makar, a priest of Red-Handed Makar and a member of the Uplifted Swords. At 1,500 men, they are the largest military force on active deployment in the Dawnlands. The Locusts are currently active in the old kingdom of Weykuln, where they are attempting to destroy the various hobgoblin bastions which have proliferated there since the fall of Weykuln. Haek has instituted a scorched earth policy, burning the hobgoblin latifundia surrounding their bastions while leaving the actual fortresses untouched except to catapult the corpses of the hobgoblin's kobold slaves over the battlements.

The Dead Horses - The Dead Horses are composed of soldiers from the Traitor Slayers, the college of  the Spire district, and most are devout followers of the Screaming God. The entire unit is trained as cavalry and mounted on undead horses. They are led by Prime Vailax Ana Ilgon, also known as "Vailax the Screamer" (for his religious affiliation). They are just under 400 at current strength, but are split up into smaller raiding forces. They are engaged in guarding caravans making the long overland trip from the Orthocracy to Dwer Tor and back. They are known to preemptively attack nomad encampments to dissuade them from interfering with the slow-moving wagons. The optimates of Dwer Tor suspect that they slay any excisemen or inspectors from Dwer Tor who they encounter while out of sight of the city's walls.

The Harrowers - A small but famous unit composed of former members of the Poor Men, the college of the Granary district. They are led by Prime Lun Shora Kanth, known as "Patriot Lun", son of the famous priestess Shora Dulni Kanth. The Harrowers have long since passed their time to muster out, but they remain the field, working against the Hillman chieftain and pretender, Jarek the Snake. A small force, now under thirty men strong, they are all experienced veterans devoted to preventing Jarek from crowning himself the King of Night or of Kaddish, as he claims descent from both lines. A driven, almost fanatical band, the Harrowers have never returned to the city from their deployment ten years ago, and they launch constant raids on Jarek's followers to undermine his authority. They are even known to have worked with the Kadiz from time to time to thwart the elf's accumulation of the sacred glass pillars he needs for the coronation ritual.

Abolishing Sex-Based Attribute Differences

I'm sure you can guess that if I don't think a hulking lizard man and a halfling should have different attribute rolls, I also don't think modeling the difference between sexes is particularly worthwhile. In practice, actual sex-based attribute differences are almost always the result of sexism and privilege, since they very rarely spend time getting sex-based differences right.

There are many reasons why. Here are some in brief:

1) The attributes in D&D and most other Method I games are not precise enough conceptually to be able to accurately model sex differences. Dexterity is a good example of this, since it mashes together a bunch of different abilities including gross motor coordination, fine motor coordination, proprioception and kinesthesia, all of which have different statistical ranges of ability between the sexes. Which one of these concepts should dominate?

2) The attributes in D&D and most other Method I games are not precise enough numerically to be able to accurately model most sex differences. Most sex differences are fairly statistically minor. To actually model the difference, there needs to be at least a 5.5% difference in maximum values (which is about the value of 1 pt. of a stat in D&D). Most sex differences are nowhere near there. There are a small number that are great enough to overcome this threshold, but these do not uniformly favour men in real life, whereas in old school D&D they uniformly do.

3) Sex-based differences tend to ignore obvious areas in which women do better than men. The most obvious are in life expectancy, overall health, and pain tolerance. If one wants to model sex-based differences in D&D using the "stat limit" system, then by the same logic by which women's Strength is limited, men's Constitution should be limited. I am, so far as I know, the only person who has ever proposed this, and I find it has no traction even amongst people who bang on about the virtues of sex-based attribute differences for realism's sake (who are all themselves men). Similar cases can be made for other attributes as well - Wisdom, where men might experience lower caps due to a greater predilection for serious mental illness.

4) Sex-based differences tend to assume that men are the norm and women are exception or alterations to that norm, when of course the opposite is true both statistically and embryologically. It would make more sense to treat women as the norm if we are interested in realism, and modify men's stats, rather than vice versa. 3-18 should represent the range of a women's capabilities, with men mostly overlapping with that range.

I will set aside the "It's sexist" and "It expresses hostility to female players" and "It tells female players that you think they are inferior to men" because they are all so obviously true as to not require further elaboration.

I don't see what sex-based attributes actually contribute positively to the game, since the "realism" argument here is so baseless for the reasons given above that one might as well right "Chicks Blow!" on your forehead in sharpie. It adds an additional level of complication during character creation, it is poor simulation, it causes one to avoid choosing to play a group comprising over half the species, and the differences between individuals is already captured in the individual's instantiation of the 3-18 range already. It's positive contributions to complexity of choice and gameplay are... Nothing.