Monday, June 30, 2008 Adventure!

World Adventure Writing Month is go, with spiffy new web digs and a flash new logo!

My temples have been distended with Encounter Critical scenario ideas for months. It's gotten out of hand, to tell you the truth, and it's time to peel back the ole skull and start scooping my brains out onto the page. If all goes well I'll end up with a three-part adventure which will feature a haunted hospital, a sexy robodroid nurse, walking dead, a secret cult in the basement of a clown boxing school, warlock mimes, an ettin and his oak tree blunderbuss, rabble-rousing goblins, and a crooning Frankenstein. Time permitting there may be freight trains and hobos. If it ends with a battle royale at a wedding slash summoning of Things Which Oughtn't Be, well then so much the better.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Road Runners, Swamp LARPing & Hannah Barbarians: Influences

James Raggi, he of the lamentably long blog title, has challenged his readers to list their gaming influences. I'm late to the podium and all the good answers are already taken, so here are some of my own haphazard influences.

As with many others Howard, Lewis, Lovecraft and Vance are definitely influences, especially the latter two. I cut my teeth on Conan and the Pevensies, and reread The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Dying Earth and the Cugel tales every couple years. I could also write about latter-day Lovecraftian Thomas Ligotti, or Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile, or Bradbury's October Country, or Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. Perhaps I should say a word or two about Gygax's Dungeonland modules, EX1 and EX2, two of my long-time favorites.

But in truth many of my influences are quite a bit less high-falutin'. I've described my ideal D&D setting as a hybrid of Thundarr and Barbarella, and my current passion for Encounter Critical and Mutant Future brings that sort of pop culture bricolage surging to the fore. Rather than discuss five influences separately I'm just going to ramble about a bunch of things in the context of the TV and books I loved as a lad.

Swords & Saturdays / Hannah Barbarians
The earliest role-playing I can remember doing is racing around the house on Saturday mornings, hopped up on Cocoa Puffs, running at top speed from the back den to the living room at the front of the house only to stop on a dime, say "Beep beep!" and tear off again. Such is the foundation of my sophisticated gaming tastes.

HerculoidsThroughout my childhood I spent many a Saturday watching TV off and on all day long, and even now I'm inspired not just by the heroic adventure and strange monsters of the Herculoids, Jonny Quest, the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon and Thundarr, but also by the slapstick and surrealism of Pee Wee's Playhouse and Looney Toons. The day I figure out how to make the Freleng Door Gag work in a dungeon I'll be a very happy monkey.

If I could get away with it, many an afternoon would find me back in the den after lunch. The local stations had chopsocky movies, the Creature Feature on WXON-20 (which rocked the freak-out bit from Zepp's "Whole Lotta Love" during its bumper!) or the Chiller Thriller on WKBD-50. I soaked in everything from dubbed Shaw Brothers flicks to Hammer Films to Godzilla and a parade of other kaiju.

Dad's garage/The Salvation Army
Lest you think I spent all my free time sprawled in front of the idiot box or caroming off the walls, I should say that I've always been an avid reader as well*. Since so many of the pulp and fantasy legends who influence me have already been written about, let's talk about dime novels, trashy paperbacks, and hand-me-down books by hack writers.

I remember looking at the marvelous reading lists in Gygax's DMG and in Moldvay Basic, but I can't pretend they directed my reading much. In fact many of the books of my youth were fantasy, horror and sci-fi paperbacks I came by more or less randomly-- browsing yellowing books filed two deep on the shelves above my dad's tool cabinet in the garage, or the used books at the Salvation Army thrift shop or the paperback SF section at the library. I can't even tell you the authors or titles of most of these books. Probably just as well forgotten.

Nonetheless, for all the crummy cliched tales I read of lone American ninjas or post-apocalyptic soldiers, there were glints of gold among the dross. The swords and sorcery epic about a sea turtle cursed by an evil wizard into the body of a human warrior and questing to return to the ocean had a memorable high concept going for it if nothing else. Then there was the eerie yarn about a modern man who explores a series of tunnels connecting one tenement basement to another and ends up trapped in a cavernous svartalfheim beneath the earth. Or the one about a dystopian near future in which assassins compete in an annual international killing tournament that ends with a duel so absurd it's awesome: the last two standing square off in a frozen arena with battle axes and ice skates!**

Of special note is Steve Vance's (no relation to Jack) Planet of the Gawfs. I found this one at the SA thrift in a white label "generic" edition rather than the groovy cover shown here. The plot is as garish as the cover: a virus causes grotesque mutations in those it doesn't kill outright, and the surviving God AWful Freaks are exiled to a distant jungle planet, where Lord of the Flies shenanigans ensue. A few mutants manage to hijack a starship and return to earth to seek REVENGE! Was it a big steaming pile? Very possibly. But there's this: I haven't owned or read the book in 25 years and I can recall all of the above and a scene in which the starship's intercom is explained to a primitive mutant as "Magic talking box. Much ju ju." A work of art for the ages it ain't, but this kind of mutants and mayhem is just the gonzo ju ju I love in my games.

*And lest you think I never went outside at all, be it known that I spent many an afternoon slogging through the wooded marsh behind our house, wielding a stout hardwood cudgel, battling my way through rotten limbs and thickets in lieu of legions of orcs. Yes, I was a solo LARPer, this is my shocking true tale.

**If you can identify any of these books, please leave a comment!

SEE ALSO: The ORIGINAL Illustrated Catalog Of ACME Products

SEE ALSO: Monster Index at

MP3: Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble, Powerhouse (Out of Print - Used CD)
MP3: The Moog Cookbook, Whole Lotta Love (Compact Disc - Download)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

John van See's Excellent Lexical Nimbus

Vancian Magic II
(Jack Vance word cloud created with Wordle, using text from recent posts here and at Jeff's Gameblog. Click to magnify... )

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Rhyme Stealer

Continuing in a fey theme, I dug out a rather nasty sprite I wrote up a few years back, the rhyme stealer. In two versions, the 3rd Edition original and Labyrinth Lord.

sculpture by Petra Werle
Rhyme Stealer

Small Fey (Sprite)
Hit Dice: 1d6 +1 (4 hp)
Initiative: +8 (+4 Dex, +4 Improved Initiative)
Speed: 20ft, fly 40ft (good)
AC: 15 (+1 size, +4 Dex)
Attacks: Bite +5 melee; or Small rapier -1 melee; or composite shortbow +5 ranged
Damage: Bite 1d3-2 and poison; or Small rapier 1d4-2; or composite shortbow 1d6
Face: 5’x5’/5’
Special Attacks: Dissonant song, rhyme stealing, spell-like abilities
Special Qualities: SR 16
Saves: Fort:+1 Ref:+6 Will:+2

Abilities: Str:7 Dex:18 Con:12 Int:16 Wis:11 Chr:20

Skills: Bluff +9, Craft (luthier or violin maker) +11, Escape Artist +8, Hide +8, Listen +6, Move Silently +8, Perform (song) +9, Search +9, Sense Motive +4, Spot +6, Tumble +8, Use Magic Device +9

Feats: Dodge, Improved Initiative, Mobility, Weapon Finesse (bite)

Climate: Any land
Orgranisation: Solitary or heckle (3-6)
CR: 3
Treasure: No coins; 50% goods and items
Alignment: Usually chaotic neutral (always chaotic)
Advancement: By character class (Bard)

Rhyme stealers, sometimes called bardbanes or sharptongues, are prankish sprites who delight in mockery and insult. Capricious and wild at their best, rhyme stealers tend to be far more malicious and cruel than their fellow sprites, and are avoided if not despised by their brethren. It is said that some elven communities appoint archers specifically to discourage rhyme stealers from disrupting theatrical and musical festivals.

Renowned for their skill at building lutes, viols and fiddles, their cutting wit and knack for twisting a song against its singer makes them feared as well as admired among bards. A bard will occasionally seek out a gathering of rhyme stealers to challenge them at flyting, a battle of improvised poetic boasts and insults which is the rhyme stealers' favorite sport.

Rhyme stealers are slight of build, resembling pixies with black or red hair, dark eyes, long, beaky noses and sharp, needlelike teeth. Their mothlike wings are patterned in brown, black and red, and their feet are clawed like a crow's.

Rhyme stealers are generally cowardly, preferring to taunt their victims invisibly and from a distance. They have been known to harry travelers for hours in this manner. However, they can be cunning and deadly foes when necessity or whim drives them into combat. Using their dissonant song to weaken their enemies, they favor attacking with spell-like abilities and arrow fire, darting in to nip at disabled foes with their poisonous bites.
Dissonant Song (Su): A Rhyme stealer's wild and melismatic song unsettles all who hear it, causing all foes within 30 feet who fail a Will save (DC 16) to take a -1 penalty to all attack and damage rolls and a -2 penalty to saves against fear affects. These penalties last so long as the rhyme stealer sings, and for five rounds after the singing stops. Creatures who successfully save against this effect cannot be affected by that same rhyme stealer's dissonant song for 24 hours. Essentially, this is a perversion of the bardic music ability inspire confidence, and works the same with regard to actions taken while singing.
Rhyme Stealing (Su): With a successful opposed Perform check, a rhyme stealer can disrupt the effects of bardic music, using a cruel pastiche of the bard's words and music to cancel her abilities. For ongoing effects such as inspire courage, competence, or greatness, this Perform check must be made every round. Used against a bard's fascinate or suggestion abilities, rhyme stealing allows the bard's target a new saving throw.
Poison (Ex): The rhyme stealer's bite is mildly poisonous (DC 11), dealing initial and secondary damage of 1d3 Charisma.
Spell-Like Abilities: At will -- invisibility; 3/day -- cause fear, ghost sound, sculpt sound, shatter; 1/day -- shout. These abilities are as spells cast by a 6th level sorcerer.
Skills: Like other sprites, rhyme stealers receive a +2 racial bonus to Listen, Search and Spot checks. They also receive a +4 bonus to Craft (luthier or violin maker) checks.

Let's pare that back to something more basic:

No. Enc: 1-4 (4-16)
Alignment: Neutral or Chaotic
Move: 90' (30') Flying: 180' (60')
Armor Class: 3
Hit Dice: 1**
Attacks: 1 bite or 1 weapon
Damage: 1 hp or by weapon
Save: Elf 4
Morale: 7
Hoard Class: III + IV, VI (gems, jewelry and magic only)

Special Abilities: Like pixies, rhyme stealers are invisible unless they choose to be seen (or they are magically spotted). They can attack and remain invisible, and will always gain surprise unless they have already made themselves known with their singing and taunting. Their dissonant song has the effect of a blight spell within a 30' range, i.e. -1 to morale, attack rolls and damage. Their bite does only 1 point of damage but those who fail to save versus poison are cursed. Typical victims are cursed with warts and boils all over the face (-4 to Charisma), loss of control over speaking volume (affecting the victim's ability to whisper while scouting or to yell out a warning, for example), or phantom bells and laughter echoing in the victim's ears (-4 to hit, magic-users must save vs. spells to successfully cast spells).

SEE ALSO: Petra Werle's fairy sculptures, in particular the marvelous Histoire(s) naturelle(s) series. Piskies and bogans like this or these do much to dispel the gauze of cuteness usually draped over fairy folk.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Changeling: A Half-Elf variant [revised]

Noisms posted a trio of excellent elf variants drawn from folklore this week, and I thought I'd try my hand with a Half-Elf class. I've thrown out the Tolkienian underpinnings and taken my influences from folklore and fairy tales instead.

I am wondering a bit about balance. The class has some big perks -- spell use, unrestricted weapon use, superb saving throws -- but think I've balanced it reasonably well by prohibiting all armor and limiting the spell selection. Feedback is appreciated as always.

Half-Elf (Changeling)

Changelings are born to human mothers but have the taint of fey magic -- some are the result of couplings with sprites, pixies and the like, others may be switched as infants with fairy bairns and returned to the mortal world later in life, and still others may simply be born to parents cursed by the fey.

Many changelings go unnoticed among humans, though all bear some mark of the fairy realm. A changeling with only a minor mark will often pass as a hedge wizard or wise woman, or may even adventure incognito as a magic-user. Those with more obvious fairy marks usually take some pains to conceal them, for changelings are mistrusted and even shunned in many communities.

Prime Requisite: Intelligence and Dexterity.
Other Requirements: Intelligence and Dexterity of 9 or greater.
Experience Bonus: 5% for an Intelligence and Dexterity of greater than 13; 10% for an Intelligence and Dexterity of greater than 15.
Hit Dice: d4 per level up to 12th level.
Maximum Level: 12
Armour: No armor is permitted.
Weapons: Changelings may use any weapon. They use the Cleric/Thief attack progression.
Special Abilities: Changelings are immune to Sleep spells and spell-like abilities. They can speak Pixie.
Changelings show some mark of their fey heritage: unusual eye color, straw or leaf-like hair, fangs, fur, horns or tail are typical. At the DM's option the Fairy Marks chart below can be used.
Experience Levels: as Magic-User.
Saving Throws: as Dwarf/Halfling.

Fairy marks
3 Wings (bat, bird, butterfly, etc; not capable of flight)
4-5 Bizarre feet and/or legs (cloven hooves, crow's feet, frog's legs, etc)
6-8 Fangs, claws, webbed fingers (not useful for attacking)
9-12 Unusual visage (facial structure, eye or hair color, ear shape, etc)
13-15 Tail (bird, fox, lizard, pig, etc)
16-17 Scales, Fur, or Bark-like skin
18 Bizarre visage (antlers, beak, bestial features, horns, etc)

Half-Elf (Changeling) Spell List

Changelings use the Magic User Spell/Level table. They neither pray for nor memorize their spells, but draw on the magic inherent in their fey natures. Each spell is essentially an innate ability usable once per day. Like clerics, they can choose from any spell of the levels known to them. However fairy magic is unpredictable: For any level in which a changeling can cast more than one spell per day he or she must determine one spell randomly each time spells are renewed. It is up to the DM whether the random spells are determined before or after the player's chosen spells.

Level 1
Cause Fear (C1)
Cause Light Wounds (C1)
Cure Light Wounds (C1)
Purify Food & Water (C1)
Putrefy Food & Water (let's say this spoils food or fouls water in amounts equivalent to Purify)
Remove Fear (C1)
Resist Cold (C1)
Faerie Fire (D1)
Pass Without Trace (AD&D D1)
Charm Person (M1)
Sleep (M1)
Ventriloquism (M1)

Level 2
Bless (C2)
Blight (C2)
Blindness (AD&D I2)
Silence 15' Radius (C2)
Detect Invisible (M2)
Invisibility (M2)
Knock (M2)
Levitate (M2)
Magic Mouth (AD&D M2)
Mirror Image (M2)
Phantasmal Force (M2)
Wizard Lock (M2)

Level 3
Clairvoyance (M3)
Dispel Magic (M3)
Fly (M3)
Haste (M3)
Cure Disease (C3)
Cause Disease (C3)
Infravision (M3)
Protection from Poison (D3)
Gust of Wind (AD&D M3)
Remove Curse (C3)
Curse (C3)
Suggestion (AD&D M3)

Level 4
Create Water (C4)
Control Temperature 10' Radius (AD&D D4)
Tongues (AD&D C4)
Hallucinatory Terrain (M4)
Charm Monster (M4)
Confusion (M4)
Dimension Door (M4)
Wizard Eye (M4)
Polymorph Self (M4)
Polymorph Others (M4)

Level 5
Create Food (C5)
Quest (C5)
Feeblemind (M5)
Teleport (M5)
Hold Monster (M5)
Magic Jar (M5)
Pass-Wall (M5)
Telekinesis (M5)

Level 6
Anti-Magic Shell (M6)
Find the Path (C6)
Speak with Monsters (C6)
Projected Image (M6)
Part Water (M6)
Reincarnation (M6)

MP3: Bill Jones, The Tale of Tam Lin (Compact Disc - Download)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Epic Level Vanth: Pops Okkult, Mad Scientist

Here's another from my Encounter Critical rogues gallery, done primarily to see how a very high-level character might turn out. One of the neat things about EC is that level advancement requires the completion of a special task -- a new spell for a warlock, a new territory discovered or mapped by a pioneer etc. In Jeff Rient's review of the game he points out that this is "a great way to put the ball into the players' court. 'Hey, I've got enough XP for level 4. Would you guys help me rob a bank?' " It's also a fun tool for brainstorming NPC backgrounds, setting details and plot hooks.

The Mad Scientist class advances in level by making scientific discoveries, new inventions, or uncovering Truths Humanity was Not Meant to Know. In the process he gains a new mutation each level...
Chaim Soutine, L'Homme Au Foulard Rouge
Papadamos Ozymandias Kulintang
Mad Scientist 9
DEX 12
ESP 15
INT 12
LUC 10
MAG 15
ROB 10
HP 49

Saving Throw 99%
Melee ATT/DAM 14%/-7
Ranged ATT/DAM 59%/+1

Blind: radar sense compensates.
Hypertrophied Limbic Node: messianic urges; see below
Invisible Friend: daemonic valet whispers aphorisms, riddles, elder secrets, pertinent quotations from forbidden manuscripts, and sartorial advice.
Laser Eyes: D 1-8, 22"/250".
Life Sucker: D 1-8 to all within 30', regain 1-8 hp. 1/hour.
Micro-Climate: controls weather within 5 feet; usually damp with icy mist or lit by the glare of alien suns.
Mimic: camouflage adds 10% to Invisibility.
Mutated Psionic Lobe: +2 ESP, -5 STR, as noted above.
Photophasic Allergy: laser & phasic damage x2.
Smoldering Pores: robes always charred and holey, smoke curls from nostrils.
Transmogrifier: take physical form & attributes of any creature, gain up to double hp.

ACTS OF RENOWN: Eldritch Dalliances & Discoveries
2. Investigated the wreck of the Good Ship Lollypolyp
3. Found the lost Tentacularium of the Mantopi
4. Discovered the secret genealogy of Asa Goodman Thoth, the Mummy Pilgrim
5. Sounded the Lost Chord of doomed bluesman Matty O’Rilyeh
6. Redrew the blueprint to the legendary Torpedo Star Throne by channeling a Space Phantome
7. Synthesized rare blood isotope needed to unlock the Tenth Vampire Door
8. Serendipitous discovery of a cure for alchemical spore inflammation (fails to enter into widespread usage due to the impractical quantities of gojiron ichor required in its making)
9. Diverted the Moon of the Seven Shackles from collision with Vanth

Lunar Crook as quarterstaff but uses Magic ATT %, with Ensorcel roll can teleport holder and/or one other up to 1500 miles, 1/day.
Scarf of the Mantopi ends animate on command, providing two additional limbs with 7-18 STR, up to 20' reach, can attack with steel foils as Warrior 2 (+28% ATT, +2 damage)
Demon Touched Ring +45% Saving Throw
Kaleidoscope Vest refracts light; dissipates lasers on successful Save (54%)
Folding Laboratory stocked with standard alchemical array.
Tatterdemalion Cloak

The technomancer known as Pops Okkult shows little outward sign of madness. The mutational effects of his researches and experiments have left his body mostly unmarked, and he is not given to grandiose raving and shouting as are some of his peers. If one pays close attention a nimbus of strange light sometimes seems to color his features and twist his shadow, and a whiff of smoke hovers in the air about him. But to most he seems merely a shabby old man in a sooty scarf.

Nonetheless, Pops is driven by a terrible obsession: He believes it his destiny to unlock the Great Writhing Wormhole at the center of Vanth. The fact that this would destroy the planet and scatter all of its people and places into millions of space-time fragments throughout the galaxy is of small consequence. To fund his doomsday plot he travels Vanth by Lunar Crook and scenic tour bus selling subscriptions to Grit and the Eibon Times-Eschatologer.

(complete stats for Pops, the Mad Scientist class and Mutation Table expansion can be found at the Encounter Critical mailing list. Tell 'em Thrazar sent you.)

MP3: Circle, Torpedo Star Throne (Compact Disc - Download)

MP3: John Benjamin Band, More Science (from

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tyros of Vanth: An Encounter Critical Rogues Gallery

In the spirit of my previous post on mash-up settings I thought I'd share some of the posse of first level Encounter Critical characters I've been working on. Puns, wordplay, goofy drawrings, and Google image searches are chiefest of my inspirations.

Wharf Kodaz, Hoodoo Klengon Warlock
Favored of the Klengon Smelt God, He Who Came From Beyond The Stars to Spawn in The Sea, Wharf quests to sail all of the oceans of Vanth. He has 7 toes on his left foot and is prone to exaggeration and salty language. Susceptible to omens and portents.

Dr. Shelby Munreau, Wolf-Headed Frankenstein-Wooky Scientist

Shelby's mother always warned him that his lust for knowledge would lead him to a bad end, but he never listened. He was consumed with his search for the origins of the Frankenstein race. Night after night he'd stay up late with a flashlight, poring over bubbling test tubes and tattered copies of National Xenographic. Mrs. Munreau cried when the hair sprouted on Shelby's palms, and stopped talking to him for a week when his snout and fangs began to grow. She frets over him to this day. What is a mother to do?

At about the time his wolf features developed Shelby also grew a third eye socket at the base of his skull. Soon afterward he began to have visions of a flickering black and white land of craggy mountains, deep forests, and spooky castles. He is convinced that his Secret Eye overlooks the lost homeland of frankensteins, wolfmen, and all of the monster peoples.
Jon-Clyde Dam Vanne, Primitive Robodroid Pugilist, Conversion Model

The Dam Vanne series of conversion robodroid prototypes was manufactured by the Gehenna Motor Corporation in the waning years of their operations on Vanth. Development of the series was discontinued after the boardroom exorcism of former Chief Infernal Officer I-G-Iococca. Jon-Clyde believes himself to be the last of his model year.

A diligent thinker, Jon-Clyde's ideas are often ignored because of his extreme shyness and passivity. He is only assertive with his fists. He is currently unable to switch to his damnation van form due to loss (or theft?) of ignition keys.

Keemo Knobknee, Dwarven Vigilante (Criminal)

Keemo used to be a cop, working undercover in the dockside markets of the City of Thunders. Fired for rough manners and public drunkenness, forced to turn in his badge and his ammo belt, Keemo turned vigilante. He's on the trail of a cabal of potion bootleggers stretching from Thunders all the way to Salty Bay, and he intends to shut them down any way he can.

Alligator Boy & Monkey Girl, Lizard Man Psi-Knight & Planetary Ape Doxy

A free spirit born into a rigidly structured evolved ape hive, Bonita Nobo squirmed under the ant-like conformity expected of her. She couldn't help but stand out, a butterfly among the drones, and fled the hive as soon as she was able. She ended up drifting northward with the Funfair Nomads, and entered service as a specialty girl in Barby Luminea's Le Hot Freak Circus, taking the professional name Monkey Girl.

At the Circus Monkey Girl met the slave guard known as Alligator Boy and both of their lives changed forever. 'Gator Boy had just begun to manifest his psychic gifts when he accidentally mindmelded with Monkey Girl one evening as he escorted her back to her quarters. To their amazement they discovered that they shared the same secret birthmark – an arcane sigil of unknown meaning. The two swiftly fell in love and escaped the seraglio in search of their shared destiny.

(complete stats for all of the above can be found at the Encounter Critical mailing list)

SEE ALSO: The story of Percilla Lauther and Emmitt Bejano, real life Monkey Girl and Alligator-Skinned Man

MP3: The Buzzrats, Under Carnival Skies Compact Disc - Download)

Arduinian Afterthought

James posted an inspirational bit of Dave Hargrave earlier this week.
"Some purists do not like to introduce any character types or monsters into their game world unless they have a medieval or "Tolkienian" flavor or base. This really limits their play possibilities as far as I am concerned, for what better world to accept aliens than ones that already have a myriad of other strange and weird creatures as residents?"
As folks pointed out in the comments to that post, going at genre mash-ups willy-nilly isn't for every DM nor every setting. Laser rifles and bug-eyed men from Betelgeuse are maybe not the best fit for Hyboria (Maybe. I'm unconvinced of this. Considering Clarke's third law and Conan's many battles against tyrannical foes whose power is upheld by forbidden and forgotten knowledge, I feel like Conan vs. killer robots is as thematically appropriate as Conan vs. demon snakes. Cf. Thundarr. But I parenthesize.).

But what occurs to me is that what Hargrave is really proposing is setting as sandbox: Not only the plot and pace of the campaign can be determined by the interests and actions of the player-characters, but details of the setting itself! So again, not something that works if you've got very specific ideas about the gameworld you're creating.

But maybe you can leave in a bit of wiggle room. Cowboys and six-shooters don't fit the guild-ruled metropolis at the heart of your pseudo-medieval setting? Hargrave again: "If [ideas] don't fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don't just say, 'NO!', whittle on them a bit until they do fit." Perhaps there's a wide open space on your map (to the west, natch), where gauchos with bolas and crossbows can guide cattle herds across the wild stretches between a few rough and rowdy frontier towns...

MP3: The Illuminoids, Lugosi's Mongoloid Loser

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Cat Pictures? Really?

Traffic always drops over the weekend anyway, so I'm going to indulge a whim and post pictures of cats and dice. Hey man, whatcanItellya? I have no shame.

Maddie.  She really wanted to chew on that d8.
'Tony.  And that's how GigantiCats made it onto the Encounter Critical monster table.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Sole survivor of the dice that came with my original copy of Moldvay Basic, ca. 1980. It may not be 2000 years old, but it's the oldest in my collection.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Vancian Spell Generator, or, It Pays to Enrich Your Spell Power

They say the advent of the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons means the end of Vancian magic, and I'm a bit saddened by that. Certainly there are other ways of handling magic in RPGs -- leveled or unleveled spells, modular spell creation, energy points, ability or hit point drain, skill- or feat-based, ad hoc effects based on ability scores -- and Vance's eccentric mages are a breed apart from the archetypal wizards of most folklore and literature. And I suspect that as long as "fire & forget" magic has been a part of D & D there have been those who disdained it.

I for one think Vancian magic is very evocative of sorcery as a dangerous and difficult undertaking, particularly well-matched with early editions of the game and low magic campaigns in any edition, and even more so combined with house rules to underscore the riskiness of magic use. Here for example is the wizard Mazirian preparing his spells:

...when black night lay across the forest, he would seek through his books for spells to guard him through the unpredictable glades. They would be poignant corrosive spells, of such a nature that one would daunt the brain of an ordinary man and two render him mad. Mazirian, by dint of stringent exercise, could encompass four of the most formidable, or six of the lesser spells....[He] made a selection from his books and with great effort forced five spells upon his brain: Phandaal's Gyrator, Felojun's Second Hypnotic Spell, The Excellent Prismatic Spray, The Charm of Untiring Nourishment, and the Spell of the Omnipotent Sphere. This accomplished, Mazirian drank wine and retired to his couch.
And here is the varlet Cugel, struggling to apprehend the spellbooks of a captive wizard
One or two of the workbooks he found susceptible to his understanding. These he studied with great diligence, cramming syllable after wrenching syllable into his mind, where they rolled and pressed and distended his temples. Presently he was able to encompass a few of the most simple and primitive spells, certain of which he tested upon Iucounu: notably Lugwiler's Dismal Itch. But by and large Cugel was disappointed by what seemed a lack of innate competence....[A]ttaining even a single spell was a task of extraordinary difficulty. One day, while applying a spatial transposition upon a satin cushion, he inverted certain of the pervulsions and was himself hurled backward into the vestibule.
These illustrations also bring to the fore Vance's colorful, devious and witty spell names. Prismatic Spray borrows directly from Vance, but similarly named spells have been a part of the game since AD&D, which inscribed the early players and characters right into the rulebooks: Bigby's Interposing Hand, Rary's Mnemonic Enhancer, Tenser's Transformation, Otiluke's Freezing Sphere. Named spells had died out by the time of the Third Edition, if not sooner, and the game is a little grayer, a little more pallid without them.

Then again, the game is the players and not merely the rulebooks. With that in mind, I propose a revival of Vancian magic, in name if not mechanic! Whatever version of the game you play, if you want to give your spellcasting more pomp and panache, just after the cut I have the chart for you!

Vancian Spell Generator

d4 & 10100100

While the chart works just fine as a random generator, it can be a bit tin-eared. I find it works best with a mix of random rolls and selected words. Alliteration is encouraged, as is a visit to your favorite thesaurus or rhyming dictionary. And terms can of course be mixed, matched, inverted and perverted as you like. Enjoy!

SEE ALSO: The unique spells of Mostin the Metagnostic

SEE ALSO: Wouldn't you just know it: after the time I spent on my own generator...after going just about blind plugging terms into huge blocks of html to build the table...I discovered someone else had done it already, and done it better. Chris Pound's Language Machines can give you random name lists from Barsoom to Sumeria, with stops in the Cthulhu and Pokethulhu Mythoi en route. And his Dying Earth Spell Generator is superlative.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Playing D&D with my Dad

My dad was always indulgent with my D&D hobby. He surprised me with the Player's Handbook one day after work, and later the Monster Manual too. He sighed and shrugged his shoulders at the art project I made of my monster books. And though I have no clear memories of it I am certain he listened dozingly to many a character background and adventure idea.

I always bugged him to play, but it never came together. Sure, he took me to face the harsh mercies of our D&D playing parish priest, but as I recall Dad deferred to me as I metagamed my way desperately through a few rooms of the pater's dungeon ("The old woman offers you bread and salt." "Don't take it! She's probably a night hag!"). As much as I pestered him, we only sat down to play once.

Looking back, I was outmatched from the start. I was a nine year old daydreamer. My dad was -- and is still -- smart, intuitive and pragmatic. At one point he found a map written in a substitution code which I had laboriously devised. He glanced at it and said, "Here be treasure?" One of the characters I had made for him was a wizard, a homebrewed class based on Ged from A Wizard of Earthsea. I had thought nothing of giving the wizard the power of telekinesis at first level. The first and only combat of our game ended abruptly: "Ok, I use telekinesis to spray the orcs with all of the arrows in the fighter's quiver." My father, powergamer.

We never played again, but I'm thankful for that hour or two, a summer evening many years past, sitting on the porch after dinner playing D&D with Dad. Happy Father's Day, Pops.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Zombie Poll Axe

T-shirt design by A Softer World; click through for storeA few days ago Badelaire made a persuasive argument for the poll-axe as the anti-zombie weapon par excellence and I certainly wouldn't argue. He signed off his post saying, "I just need a motorcycle and a kickass heavy metal theme song, and I'm good to go..." Zombie-killin' metal? Hmmm. This got me searching through my own haphazard metal collection...

I ended up with the soundtrack to an imaginary zombie flick. Now playing at the Max Benign Drive-In (look for the big M out on Highway 6), and at my Muxtape:

Movie name spelled wrong? All part of the drive-in experience.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Borgesian Bestiary: Two Metaphysical Golems

Two recent posts at Monsters and Manuals took Jorge Luis Borges as their inspiration. Here's my contribution to a so far hypothetical Borgesian bestiary for D&D, based on "Two Metaphysical Beings:"

Armor Class: 5
Hit Dice: 10** (60 hp)
Move: 60' (20')
Attacks: 2 fists (and see below)
Damage: 2-16/2-16
Save As: F5
Morale: 12
Alignment: Neutral

The wizard Suligrebos died before he could solve the ten thousand formulae of his magico-mathematical proof of consciousness. The parchments on which he sketched and scrawled his theorems are incomprehensible palimpsests, black with symbol upon symbol and crumbling from the scraping knife and the eraser. Two of Suligrebos' creations survive, a pair of strange golems used to test his formulations. They are gaunt 10' humanoids sculpted from marble, attacking with powerful fists. They are able to see the invisible, and are never surprised. Magic weapons are required to hit them.

Five has a nearly human appearance, with disproportionately large eyes, ears and nostrils, and broad, flattened fingertips. A snakelike tongue forks from its mouth. It hungers for sensation; the room it guards is littered with objects both exotic and mundane: bones and polished stones; scraps of fur, leather and scale; blocks and cubes of wood and glass; jars of dried fruit, spices, aromatic herbs and essential oils; brilliant bolts of fabric; bells, chimes and rattles.

This golem radiates despair. All beings within 30' of Five with greater than animal intelligence must save spells or be so overwhelmed with hopelessness that they suffer -2 to hit and damage while in the golem's presence.

Five is immune to most spells. However, it will be distracted from attacking for one round if presented with a novel sensory experience; if the golem is attacked during this round it will respond in kind. Illusion magic can be used to this effect.

The other golem, One, is more bizarre in appearance, lacking facial features save for a gaping mouth frozen in a silent howl. A whip-like 10' long appendage projects from its forehead, in constant restless motion. Though this is the golem's only means of perceiving the world the antenna whip moves with such incredible speed that it has complete awareness of its surroundings and can attack and defend normally. The golem attacks only one opponent per round, lashing with its antenna and striking with its fists.

The whip does no damage but any foe it hits must save versus paralysis or be stricken with synaesthesia: he or she perceives the world for an instant as the golem does, a blur of fleeting sensory impressions. His or her senses are scrambled, so that color is heard, sounds are tasted, etc. Effectively, the victim is feebleminded and incapable of any action till the next round, when a new saving throw may be attempted. If a victim manages to shake off the synaesthesia, he or she is thereafter immune to the effect for the duration of the encounter.

One is unaffected by most spells. Silence, darkness, and stinking cloud can each prevent the golem from acting for a single round.

MP3: Quartango, Vassalean (Compact Disc - Downloads)
The Charles Mingus tune also known as 'Weird Nightmare,' performed as a tango.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Jazz for Mutants

I have a half dozen half-formed posts in my head, but mostly I've been skimming through the just released Mutant Future. I'm waiting for my print copy to give it a proper sit-down read, and may write a proper review. In brief: it's great, and it takes retro-cloning in a fresh direction. It has leech rabbits, mansquitos, and spidergoats and if that doesn't impress you then frankly I'm a little disappointed. No time to say much more than that tonight, so I'll sign off with some mutant jazz.

(Oh, and like the good Doc Rotwang I did take the time time to roll up a character, a scrappy little mutant raven called Edgar Allen Crow. Stats below the cut.)

MP3: Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Scenes from Childhood: 1. Bombshelter Beast [album out of print - no downloads available]

MP3: Roland Kirk, Rip, Rig & Panic [Compact Disc - Download]

MP3: Pierre Dorge & New Jungle Orchestra, Absurd Bird [album out of print - no downloads available]

artwork by Charles Ermine Hall; click through for gallery
Edgar Allen Crow

STR: 8
DEX: 11
CON: 13
INT: 10
WIL: 12
CHA: 7
HP: 47
AC: 6
Natural Weapon: Beak attack D 1d6-3

Aberrant Form (Enlarged Parts):
Decided that enlarged and strengthened wings would allow Edgar a slow, clumsy flight, at a movement rate equal to his STRx10: 80'.
Dwarfism: only 1' tall, smaller even than his ancestral stock Corvus corax. +2 to hit targets human-sized & larger, -2 damage. +2 bonus to AC.

Mind Reflection: When affected by any mental attack, able to reflect it back at the attacker.

Heavy cloak (AC 8)

Brace of 4 daggers (all but ineffective due to his damage penalties, but he's not above using poison...)
Light Crossbow and 40 quarrels
Flask, flint & steel, mirror, spyglass

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Of Dice, Devotion & Dumpsters

Only this morning I mentioned to my wife that I was looking for a new dicebag, and could she keep an eye out for one on Etsy? So what does she do instead? She hunts up a pattern and knits me one herself! Nifty, eh? Shucks, what a gal!

She had a birthday this weekend, and I want to take a moment to thank her for all the loving things like this she does. I also want to thank her for being patient with my oft bumbling ways. At times I am every bit the archetypal absent-minded professor. Once I left our checkbook on the roof of our car, which was parked on the street. Overnight. I sometimes say that I would forget my head if it weren't bolted on.

In return, I hope she knows how devoted I am to being the man and husband she deserves, even if I may sometimes go about it eccentrically. Say, hypothetically, that I were to rest an envelope containing my wife's birthday present against the wastebasket in my office and forget it there. It would not even occur to me that the cleaning woman might think that something near but not inside the basket was trash, but I can imagine my sinking realization were I to find the package had disappeared overnight. Say, still hypothetically, that there were no time to order a replacement. Faced with this purely illustrative predicament let it be known to all that I would not flinch from my duty, but would bravely roll up my sleeves...and go dumpster diving to prove my love.

So, Happy Birthday, Owl. I may not be a knight in shining armor, but still I bear your token in my heart.