Thursday, August 22, 2019

Ghouls and Stone Men from 'The Gutter Prayer'

I’m reading right now Gareth Hanrahan’s debut novel - ‘The Gutter Prayer’. It is an amazing dark fantasy book, filled with ghouls, alchemical superscience, bloodthirsty goods and super-powered lepers. It is that good. You don’t know Gareth Hanrahan? Well, he is the guy responsible for 13th Age’s megadungeon - The Eyes of the Stone Thief. When I first heard that Pelgrane Press was doing a megadungeon for 13th Age I was devastated… c’om, the most funny and vanguard d20 Fantasy RPG out there doing a frigging megadungeon?! Then I started reading the book. Oh boy! I have used the Stone Thief in all my 13th Age campaigns (and even in D&D 5E). It does to megadungeons what 13th Ages does to D&D (if you don’t know what that means stop everything and get 13th Age). Gareth Hanrahan’s stuff is also worth your time. He is responsible for an absurd amount of good material, from the The One Ring to Night Black’s Agents. I just treat him like Kenneth Hite: buy it first, read it later, never regret it.

Enough marketing… As I said, ‘The Gutter Prayer’ is a dark fantasy novel focused on the underworld of Guerdon, a city filled with thieves and scoundrels, that sell alchemical doomsday weapons and tries to remain neutral in the apocalyptic Godswar, a world conflict powered by the best version of D&D’s clerics that I have ever seen in literature. But Gareth loves Yog-Sothothery, so Guerdon has ghouls. No your D&D-style undead ghouls. Something more flavorful and close to Lovecraft’s Dreamlands Cycle (which I absolutely love and tried once to mix with Fritz Leiber’s ghouls). Another thing that screams Cthulhu is the past of Guerdon and the origins of the ghouls - there is a Sarnath/Ib written all over Guerdon’s murky origins.

OK, so I loved ‘The Gutter Prayer’ and I also have the bad habit of translating things to d20 Fantasy before finishing the damn novel (hello Malazan Book of the Fallen!). So here is how I would run Guerdon in D&D 5E (its races at least… excluding Crawling Ones, that deserves a special post):


Ghouls: you’re a Lovercraftian ghoul. Carrion-eater humanoids with hooves and slightly canine features. Cunny but bestial, you’re comfortable in dark places and the underground. You constantly fight your unholy urge to consume the bodies of the dead and frolic in the stinky and loathsome depths, but you’re also afraid that your hunger will transform you in the feral form of your parents… deadly predators that stalk the deeper levels below Guerdon. Actually, you’re afraid that you might not only go feral but “live” long enough to become an elder ghoul - a giant and obscene carrion mystic that channels the darkest sorcery and communes with Elder Things best left unsaid. 

Ability Score Increase. Your Dexterity score increases by 2 and your Constitution by 1.
Size. Medium.
Darkvision. 60 ft.
Speed. 30 feel. Your claws and heightened senses gives you a 30 feet climb speed.
Keen Senses. A ghoul has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on scent. A ghoul can also use an action to pinpoint, by scent, within 30 ft, the space where a hidden or invisible creature is (but still attacks such target with disadvantage). Ghouls are naturally attuned to magic and can roll a special Wisdom (Perception) check, with disadvantage, to feel if magic is being used within 30 ft (just the presence of magic, not its location).
Corpse Eater. You have cold, radiant and necrotic resistance. However, you only gain half the benefit of healing magic.
Unholly Hungry. You have advantage on Constitution checks to resist the effects of hungry and thirsty. While you can consume food as a normal humanoid, you find it bland and tasteless. However, if you consume the flesh of a fallen humanoid (at least half a corpse), you can recover 1 Hit Dice plus your level in hit points. You must wait a short rest before gaining hit points in this fashion again. In narrative terms, eatings tons of corpse flesh is a sure way to become a feral ghoul and leave the campaign, but let us leave that to each DM and table.
Criptbound. You thrive in the underworld. While in a dungeon, cave or underground terrain (DM’s call), you can reroll a Strength (Athletics), Dexterity, Intelligence (Investigation) or Wisdom (Perception) check. You must declare your reroll before the DM declares the outcome of your action. You must wait a short rest before using this feature again. 

Stone Men: funny how this one even has the exact same name from the magic plague of A Song of Ice and Fire. Anyway, this one is more dramatic (and definitely best for RPGs). Basically, you’re slowly being petrified by a curse that carries all the stigma and prejudice that leper did in our world. Your fate is literally to become a living statue, entombed in your own body and slowly dying of hunger or asphyxiated (if your lungs petrify first). The only thing that can keep the Stone Plague away - for a time - is alkahest, an expensive alchemical concoction. Meanwhile you’re a moving stone body. The more the disease advances, the more resistant and stronger you are. Its an awesome concept for a novel or RPG - the PC that gets more power but also is closer to death. I don’t remember reading something this cool since the Book of the Shadowlands for L5R.

Here is how I’m doing it. First, to keep things simple, it only works in Humans and it is represented by feats.

Stone Men I
You are afflicted with the mysterious Stone Plague. After the shocking news you probably tried to get alkahest to avoid the worst effects. This feat represents those that failed in that first attempt, either because they were too late or because they didn’t have a way to find alkahest. You suffered the first stage of the plague, gaining a shell of stone shards over your body. You gain the following traits:
  • Increase your Strength score by 1, to a maximum of 20. You have advantage on Strength checks to break or lift things.
  • Your stone skin gives you an AC of 16 (no Dex bonus). You can’t use armor, only shields. Reduce all slashing, piercing and bludgeoning damage by 3.
  • You’re very slow, reduce your speed to 20 feet.
  • You’re bulky. You have disadvantage on Acrobatics, Sleight of Hand and Stealth checks, and automatically fails Athletics checks to swim (you sink).
  • Your unarmed attacks deal 1d4 points of damage.
  • Alkahest: you must take constant doses of alkahest. That means expeding the equivalent of a Comfortable Lifestyle (60 GP/month) just to pay your doses. Failing to do that gives your a Stone Plague level 1. This works (almost) like Exhaustion. Increase your Stone Plague level by 1 after 1d6 days not taking the alchemical drug (the GM rolls secretly) and it increases 1d6 days after (also a secret roll). Only alkahest (or a wish?) will reduce the Stone Plague level, usually by 1 per week at most. See the track:

1) Disadvantage on all non-Strength ability checks.
2) Your Speed is reduced to 10 feet and you can’t Dash.
3) Disadvantage on attack rolls and saving throws. You gain Stone Men II feat, if you don’t have it.
4) Hit points maximum halved. You gain Stone Men III feat, if you don’t have it.
5) Speed reduced to 0.
6) Death by petrification.

Stone Men II
If you stop more than a few hours you’re probably stuck. Here is the rule stuff (besides what you gained before).
  • Increase your Strength score by 2, to a maximum of 24. You can use a two-handed weapon in one hand.
  • Increase your AC by your proficiency bonus. You have resistance against cold, fire, poison, slashing, piercing and bludgeoning damage.
  • Your unarmed attacks deal 1d6 points of damage.
  • You’re too clumsy, especially with what is left of your hands (they probably look more like pads). You automatically fail Acrobatic, Sleight of Hand and Stealth checks (your passive Stealth is 0). You can’t use Light weapons (or anything that requires more finesse, probably stuff like crossbows). Finally, you have disadvantage on Initiative checks. Don’t take this feat if you want to cast spells with somatic components (because you can’t).
  • Alkahest: same stuff, but now you’re paying a Wealthy Lifestyle (120 GP/month).

Stone Men III
You are a living stone golem!
  • Increase your Strength score by 3, to a maximum of 24. Your strength is a danger to you and others. You can’t feel things by touch. On the other side, Stone Men at this level are ridiculously strong, so you always deal maximum damage against objects and structures and can probably walk through a brick wall as if it was paper (5E likes to play fast and loose with object rules, so this trait basically gives your PC “free collateral damage”).
  • Your unarmed attacks deal 1d8 points of damage and you can grapple creatures of any size.
  • You don’t feel anything, remember? That includes pain. You can postone, as a Reaction, any damage, for 1 round. That means that if you took 50 hit points of damage, you can set it aside for 1 round (and if you get healed meanwhile, you can use any healing or hit point recovery to reduce postponed damage). You’re immune to massive damage if your DM uses that rule.
  • You’re immune to petrification, because - c’mon! - you’re already in that stone grave.
  • You have resistance to acid damage, because there is too much stone between the acid and your (remaining) flesh.
  • You have disadvantage on any Wisdom (Perception) check that relies on sight, smell or taste, and fail anything based on touch (you probably won’t feel that halfling on your back).
  • Your petrification is so advanced that stopping for more than a few hours will literally kill you. You just can’t sleep more than 4 hours in the same stop. You have a permanent Exhaustion level 1 (excluding Strength ability checks to break stuff).
  • Alkahest: you need a dose every day basically. That means paying 300/month and probably making you the slave of someone. And the good news is, if you miss your alkahest dose, your Stone Plague level rises by 1d4 instantly (the bad news is that, after the dose, it still only goes down 1 per week).

Friday, August 9, 2019

My D&D 5E Hack

I still have to find time to read Pathfinder 2E, but this tower needs maintenance. So, given that I seem cursed to keep running 5E, let me try at least to write “my version” of the game. Which one is that? I’m glad you asked. Here is my favorite take on “Everyone’s Favorite Second Option” for D&D:

Proficiency Die (p. 263 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide). Why? Because I like a little bit of chaos with my dice. Considering my experience at the table with DCC RPG, the players also like the wobbly effect that a random dice gives you each round.

Background and Personality Trait Proficiency instead of Skills (p. 264 of the DMG). Why? Nowadays I prefer open-ended skill systems, like 13th Age. Also, I frequently forget which skills does what (it is the same with languages, but that is easier to fix). 

No multiclass! Why? Well, first because it is a mess (I’m looking at you spellcasters) and it is always about character optimization (please, go play a video game). Also, I prefer to keep characters concepts simple at the table, because that keeps players focused on the narrative and not on their character sheets.

No feats Why? OK, here it is hard for me. You see, I completely LOVE the way that 5E approaches feats. A good and solid package of traits outside of a class. They are not only awesome, but in my opinion work a lot better than multiclass to customize a character. I just don’t like the way that they are given to PCs “for free”. I prefer to use DCC RPG’s rule “Questing for the Impossible”. You want that feat? OK, so go after it: seek a master, kill a specific monster, collect a few special items, perform a heroic (crazy) quest. It makes feats special (heck, just look at the Dungeon Master’s Guide guidelines for Epic Boons… actually, a few of those are perfect gifts and you don’t need to wait until the 20th level. After all, who plays D&D until 20th level?!). What about humans? I know that most players get humans to gain that feat at 1st level. OK, let them have it. It makes humans unique (and tempting).

Variant Rests Why? Basically, because it keeps players on their toes and avoids some of those metagame strategies that so irk me. The idea is that resting “inside the dungeon” follows the basic rules (1 hour for short rests and 8 hours for long rests). But if the party is on a “sandbox” or “exploration mode” (i.e. outside the dungeon) then a short rest requires 8 hours and a long rest would require 7 days (I prefer to follow Low Fantasy Gaming’s principles and declare that a long rest here requires 1d6+1 days).

At 1st level, your initial hit points equals your Constitution score plus half your class hit dice Why? Alright, this one is radical. I consider PCs in 5E to be special. There are other good heroic d20 fantasy systems out there like 13th Age, Exemplars & Eidolons and Red Box Hack that spell that out clearly (and if you want to play more “down to earth” I suggest retroclones/pre-4E versions of the game, or cool stuff like Maze Rats or Into the Odd). So, for games like 5E, I consider that PCs are special and above the average. Which kind of makes sense, considering how only PCs have all those nifty class traits and powers (particularly spellcasters). Check the NPCs stats on the Monster Manual. Also, before you point out to me that I’m mad, I have 2 other good arguments: (1) D&D 5E did the wise decision of separating attack bonus from Hit Dice. Which means that monsters attacks are not bound by Hit Dice but basically by Challenge Ratings. Which also means that I can finally have a big “brute” monster, with lots of hit points, but also with a terrible attack (however, when it lands an attack, oh boy, that is going to hurt). This simple rule allows to easily change the game’s scale regarding hit points without having to change other subsystems. (2) Finally, D&D Next (the playtest version of 5E) at one point did granted 1st level PC an amount of hit points equal to their Constitution scores plus half their class’ Hit Dice. That is perfect and avoids stupid deaths at 1st level (which should be lethal, but not impossible in 5E… if I wanted a “Hard Mode” RPG I would just use OD&D or previous pre-3rd Edition games).

Now you can play your damn 5E with all class feature that you so much love and I can run the (almost) rules light game that I want. See ya!

Saturday, July 27, 2019

What I’ve been reading - Tequendria Fantastical Roleplaying

Tequendria Fantastical Roleplaying - The Dunsany RPG

I’m a great fan of rules-light systems (hey, I’m an OSR guy! And I usually associate that movement with rules-light and practical RPG systems). More than that, I’m a total Lord Dunsany fan! You don’t know Lord Dunsany (a.k.a. Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany)?! Google it! But to make it short: Dunsany is an amazing fantasy author who was an important inspiration to other 2 authors that I really like (and you probably know): Tolkien and Lovecraft. If you want to start Dunsany my suggestion would be The Gods of Pegana (and also this post and this post).

OK, what I’m talking about is Tequendria Fantastical Roleplaying. This is an awesome PWYW RPG, with 77 pages, by Scott Malthouse (with art by Sidney Sime and Ivan Bilibin!), from The Trollish Delver. It is powered by the Unbelievably Simple Roleplaying system (USR) and has cool OSR-flavor (minimalist but oozing flavor).

You distribute a d10, d8 and d6 between your 3 stats (Action, Wits and Ego) and pick one of the 20 Archetypes, which give you Starting Specialism (skills and knacks), Starting Equipment and an Ability (kind like a Feat from d20 Fantasy games).

The Archetypes are amazing and tell you a lot about the surrealist and weird flavor of Tequendria: Aethership Pilot, Bathraka Cloudmind, Celador Knight, Doomgaunt, Ember Goblin, Fallen Monarch, Gravekeeper of Zum, Hand of the Blue Court, Icur Sorcerer, Jewellery Thief, Khartoov Griot, Long Wizard, Moonblade, Necronaut, Priest of Mana-Yood-Sushai, Questing Dwarf, Reapermancer, Savage Elf of Allathuria, Tulthian Warrior and Vunsa Mystic.

Each Archetype is cool and gives so many ideas and images that you practically want to focus an adventure on each one (they also are great seeds for NPCs organizations and factions, easily used in other RPGs… I wanted to change a lot of them into 5E backgrounds or d20 prestige classes). For example: 

Aethership Pilot - “As a young lad, he dreamed of soaring through the aether, feeling the rumble of the star engine and the wind in his hair. Now he lives the dream, his face blackened by aether dust and a grin across his face. Whether it’s soaring over the Bounds of Leng or sailing over the vast Kuth Nebula, he is at home in the Aether.

Doomgaunt - “Born from the skeleton of the last goliath, Doomgaunts are blackened constructs of bone and marrow. Their blue eyes piece through a dark visage, a rumbling voice that few soon forget - the Doomgaunt is an abomination to some and a saviour to others.”

Long Wizard - “Stretched and distorted, the Long Wizards of Buckfast Reach are 8ft goliaths, their beards swaying by their ankles. They smoke pipes of crushed drake horn, feeling a high that powers their magical abilities. In the small hours they can often be heard singing the traditional song of the Long Wizards - a low, ghostly hum, a tale of ancient ships crossing the aether and the birth of stars in the firmament.”

Some archetypes are so “Dunsanyian” that make me want to open a book from author right away - like the Fallen Monarch and Priest of Mana-Yood-Sushai. Other plants the seed for the setting, telling us about the fairy-like Blue Court, the violet moon, the grand thief Thangobrind, the people of Khartoov and their battled against the otherwordly demonic Kaido, the purple-skinned and horned Tulthian.

The next chapters are small and right to the point, showing us equipment, spells, treasure, magic items and the USR rules (with are intuitive and light, easily fading in the background during the game).

After that we reach the World of Tequendria itself - these are all short entries on a lot of cities, realms and famous locations. The game doesn’t lose time with minutiae and useless details. Tequendria reminds me of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, which were based on the work of Dunsany. We learn about the glass palaces of Babbulkund, seat of Queen Faria, dark-skinned and green-eyed; about the forest of Allathurion, lair of the Gnomes of Zuf and of Savage Elves, who live inside the hollow trunks of Gulgar trees; about the coastal City of Durl, where the Hand of Iyfer emerges from the water to crush fleets; about Vunsa, a city that moves through the desert; the Tower Unvanquishable; the Dim City of Carcosa; the red dwarf of Xoth (who are astronomers of the Aether); etc. The setting is a wonderful read.

The next part of the PDF is the Bestiary, full not only of animals and famous monsters (like dragons, giant eagles and the Yellow King itself), but also of Dunsanyian creations such as Gibbelins and Gnoles.

Tequendria closes with guidelines for creating or reskinning monsters and “Selected Works of Lord Dunsany” (Idle Days on the Yann; Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller; and The Fortress Unvanquishable, save for Sacnoth).

Sunday, July 21, 2019

About unorthodox cantrip casting (and the caring of psychic worms)

Keeping magic "magical" at the table is one the most important aspects (and challenges) of tabletop RPGs for me. Like it or not, most games end by treating magic as just another resource, which is natural because they are - well - games! (some try to "innovate" and end up doing the opposite by leaving 99% of the magic "system" at the hands of the Narrator, which also does not help).

In my experience, the feeling that magic is a mysterious and dangerous force is usually proportional to the player's knowledge about how magic works. In my last Conan 2d20 campaign, which was heavily inspired by the Black Company novels, I established that no PC could start the game with magic. That means that sorcery was entirely at the hands of the NPCs. The impact was amazing - every time a sorcerer showed up or the players suspected that magic was involved, the entire party went in full alert mode, ready for ANYTHING. And that's basically how magic should work in my opinion. It should either be tense, unpredictable or costly - in other words, it should have a narrative impact in the game (not just another resource, like ammunition or gold). I briefly talked why this worked so well with Conan 2d20 in a previous post, if you're curious (the short answer: that RPG magic system is a mess and thus works better for NPCs/monsters).

I had recently a very cool experience with my current D&D 5E table regarding magic. A part of the table is new to RPGs and thus approach the game with fresh ideas and thinking outside the box (we grognards are a jaded bunch, having already memorized what each spell can and cannot do). The result was that the new players, by asking questions and trying to push the game's limits, helped me to established a more dramatic feel to magic.

Most of the times when a player wants to do something different with a spell, my first reaction is to clarify what the rules says that it does. I don't like to say "No", so if the player give me a cool idea or asks if she can twist a particular dweomer in this or that way - oh boy! - I usually give full support. I try to bring it down to risks and negotiation. My current "official" stance with D&D is that memorizing and casting a spell "by the rules" isn't the only way to use that spell - actually, that is only the safest way (I've to write an entire post about the subject yet, including a few ideas of mine for Chaos/Corruption magic and why I think must "Dark Fantasy" games don't get it in my opinion). So, what I mean is that the rules as described in the Player's Handbook are the "traditional" and "approved" way of casting (if there was an Order of High Sorcery in my setting, casting magic without following the Player's Handbook would be a crime and result in the PC being branded a renegade spellcaster). Diverge a bit from that and you might gain more (or more probably might blow it). Some d20s already have that kind of risk/gambit in their basic systems (hello, DCC RPG).

Well, this is what happened: One of my new players reached the 3rd Fighter level and decided to become an Eldritch Knight. He looked over his spells and asked me if he could use the cantrip Message to telepathically talk with other characters. I explained how the cantrip worked and then he asked if he could use it to "telepathically attack" his enemies. At that moment I thought a bit and said: "Sure, roll an Arcana check". He didn't rolled well so I told him that his PC contacted a black market seller for "forbidden spell components". The seller offered him a "psychic worm", a disgusting purple and pulsing worm that was a cerebral parasite. If the PC placed the worm in his ear and let it live inside his head, feeding it with "black lotus powder every 7 nights", he would be able to use Message as a mental attack (on the spot I decided for 1d10 psychic damage against a visible target within 30 feet, no save but requiring complete concentration for the entire round). Just let me tell you that the face of the player when I described the entire cerebral-parasite-black-lotus stuff was priceless. Oh, he did buy everything, worm included, but didn't have the courage to actually use thing. It was a great scene and brought home the idea that magic is scary, weird and probably fitted only for the insane.

Art totally unrelated to "psychic worms".

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Elves and Dwarves... and Conan!

I love new campaign settings and the nostalgic sense of the unknown you get by reading them for the first time (that's my HC SVNT DRACONES Rule). Another thing that I really appreciate is a well-done reskinning - taking something now and twisting into new and exciting lore.

I once tried to do a Sword & Sorcery setting by giving a new face to D&D traditional races... actually, I failed miserable at that goal, because I completely created the races (here are my "elves", "halflings", "half-orcs" and "dwarves", all for Pathfinder 1E). As you can see, it was indeed a "reskin" most of the time - I kept the mechanics but changed the flavor.

However, let me show what I always considered impossible: keeping D&D races (and their mechanics so far) but adding a pure Sword & Sorcery flavor, of the kind you usually see with Ashton Clark Smith and Robert E. Howard). I'm talking about the new Sword & Sorceries series, a 5E collection of adventures that place in the Broken Empire setting and is published by Arc Dream. I talked about and created new material their first adventure - The Sea Demon's Gold.

I still remember avidly seeking and reading every scrap of lore of some (now famous) settings that I could get me hands on. Examples are the amazing Iron Kingdoms, when everything we had on them was the Witchfire Trilogy or Golarion, when Paizo was still publishing the first volumes of Rise of the Runelords. That was an amazing experience and I'm repeating it now with Broken Empire - not exactly through their adventures (which are great) but by their pre-generated characters.

Yup! Go over to Sword & Sorceries and read the character backgrounds of Saurga, Hannatamtu, Enu, Ajusuuji and Aimina. Particularly, read about the non-humans adventurers (that's Enu and Ajusuuji). The Broken Empire's take on dwarves and elves - i.e. within the context of classic Sword & Sorcery tropes - is awesome! Without changing a single thing, they managed to give a new face to those otherwise very traditional and Tolkienesque races. The way that Ajusuuji learns magic is also very interesting, because it keeps all of D&D rules working but within what appears to be a Low Fantasy scenario. Read it! It is that good!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Unearthing Arcana: Sleep

OK, here is the first post if you’re curious why I’m offering the variants below. Basically: because spells like Sleep “bypass” hit points, which are the standard way of defeating enemies in D&D. No, there is nothing wrong with the players having more options to defeat the monsters. I love when my players think outside the box (and I’m a great fan of crazy stunts in combat or of players that like to use grapple, for example). My issue with spells like Sleep is that they’re lazy/boring ways to defeat enemies. If at least they party used them to place a powerful monster in sleep and them sneak by, that would be fine; but the truth is that most tables use Sleep to kill lots of unconscious enemies without giving it a second thought.

Let’s see if past versions of this dweomer are of any assistance:

OD&D’s version: A Sleep spell affects from 2-16 1st level types (hit dice of up to 1 + 1), from 2-12 2nd level types (hit dice of up to 2 +1), from 1-6, 3rd level types, and but 1 4th level type (up to 4 +1 hit dice). The spell always affects up to the number of creatures determined by the dice. If more than the number rolled could be affected, determine which "sleep" by random selection. Range: 24"

Alright… no help at all here.  Looking at AD&D 1st we get a lot more details (for example, I didn’t knew, but it seems possible to order a target to “sleep” using Command). In fact, the AD&D 1st version let it clear that you can kill a victim of sleep at the rate of “1 per slayer per melee round” (you gotta give Gygax credit, the guy was consistent). AD&D 2nd tries to lessen things by stating that attacks against sleeping targets are “automatically successful” (which is very “videogame” but not at all reasonable). I believe that if you’re using the Player’s Options rules or D&D 3rd we can safely assume that sleeping targets are victims of a coup de grace.

I checked some other Fantasy d20 and found either the same version of the spell (or no spell at all). One curious case was Arcana Unearthed/Evolved (one of my favorites d20s), where there’s no offensive Sleep spell but lots of beneficial spells around the theme of sleeping and dreams. Another of my favorite d20s - that's Fantasy Craft - clearly states that sleep is a terminal situation (i.e. you are toast) and usually grants a bonus on the saving throw for any PCs.

Let’s see what interesting variants we can make (note that one doesn’t exclude the other):

1 – No Rest for the Wicked – The caster ushers a Power Word that sends the target(s) to sleep in the Dreamlands. This is a deep sleep, from which the target can be awoken only through magic or damage. The Power Word comes from the Dreamlords, who desire slaves to work for them. Thus, killing a target of this spell offends the Dreamlords, who punish the caster and the killer by trapping them in the Dreamlands. This curse can be felt by anyone before they kill a target of this dweomer. While cursed, a short rest requires 24 hours of sleep and a long rest requires 1d6 days of sleep. The only way to get rid of the curse is to appease the Dreamlords (for example, after a ritual, the Dreamlords inform that caster that she must place a full tavern to sleep and keep them slumbering for “three days and three nights” or any other crazy idea of the DM). 
2 – Through the Gates of Horn & Ivory – The casters opens the Gates of Dream, placing the targets in a deep and comatose sleep. However, each victim of this spell is a living vortex from the Dream. Killing or wounding a target forces the attacker (and caster) to roll a saving throw against this spell. Clever parties often use this spell on a guard, and them use the sleeping guard to place more guards in sleep (they often have to carry their spellcaster, who usually also falls into the Dream). An interesting side effect of this spell, is that there is a 50% that any target passes into Dream through the Gates of Ivory, thus gaining insight into the future. If the caster waits for the spell duration to pass and talks with the target, he may gains the benefit of an Augury spell (just roll a 50% to see if the a target speaks the truth, the caster can’t know for sure, although if he’s also one of the victims, the DM might tell him if he crossed the Gates of Ivory or Horn).
3 – Little Death – The caster places the target(s) in a comatose sleep so deep that most assume that they’re dead (magic or a successful Medicine check can verify that the targets are only sleeping). The target(s) only awake at the end of the spell’s duration or through magic. That’s the good news. The bad news is that killing a target will bring her back as a vengeful undead (the DM decides the type of creature and the time… maybe the victim returns right away, as a wight, or perhaps it waits for the best opportunity, attacking as a wraith later while the caster is without slots or trying to gain the benefits of a short/long rest). This is a necromantic spell.
4 – The Burden of Mortality – What distinguish mortals from gods (or the dead) is that only mortals actually have to rest (rest, not dream). This dweomer works by transferring a caster’s fatigue and “sleepness” to the target. Killing the target actually backfires the entire thing, inflicting 1d4+1 Exhaustion on the killer and the caster (automatically, no save). The good news is that if the caster has Exhaustion, casting this spell either reduces the caster’s Exhaustion by 1 or affects +1d8 hit point of targets. The caster can only reduce his Exhaustion by casting this spell once every 24 hours. This is a transmutation spell.
5 – Dreams of the Old Ones – The caster send the target(s) in the dreaded dreams of the Great Old Ones, in the darkness between the stars. The target(s) are left sleeping but screaming and writhing in agony at the horrible revelations of those timeless entities. Awaking or killing a target from this spell sends a psychic backlash against the caster and the one responsible for awaking or killing the victim, inflicting a temporary madness (check the Dungeon Master’s Guide). The good news is that if the caster listens to the target’s ramblings for the entire spell duration she gains Inspiration (the Great Old Ones are beyond time and space, and thus able to see the unfolding of future events from multiple perspectives).
6 – Sleep Without End – The caster beseeches the rulers of Feywild to trap the victim in the deep dreams (or nightmare) of the Fair Folk. Only magic or a trigger will awake the victims. Names aside, this spell actually has a base duration of 10 minutes, although it is said that using a higher spell slot can increase the duration considerably (possible to permanent at 6th level). Killing a victim of this spell inflicts the wrath of the Fey against the killer and caster, who grow old (they gain an elderly appearance, suffering a -2 penalty to all die rolls, half Speed, dealing half damage and having their hit point maximum reduced by 25%). The curse can only be lifted by another Fey Lord or a wish. Here are some crazy triggers to awaken a victim without incurring the curse (bizarrely, the knowledge is intuitive to anyone who approaches a victim):

Roll a d6!
  • 1 – You must kiss the victim (and both must succeed at a Charisma save or become madly in love with each other);
  • 2 – You must give to the victim your must valuable or powerful item and you can’t remove it from them for the next 7 days;
  • 3 – You must tell them (and everyone around), in a loud and clear voice, your deepest and darkest secret;
  • 4 – You must swear to never hurt or let them be hurt for 7 days;
  • 5 – You must obey them as a servant for the next 7 days, otherwise you’re polymorphed in some small animal for the same period (or a lycanthrope or maybe even a kobold or goblin, in the last case forever);
  • 6 – You acquire a fey bane for 7 days: (1) you can’t touch iron and are vulnerable to it; (2) you must always tell the truth and any oath is binding; (3) you can’t accept help or gifts from anyone unless you pay for it the correct price; (4) you can only gain the benefits of long/short rests while naked and in the wilds.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Stuff for ‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’ adventure

Howdy folks!

As one of the playtesters of Shane Ivey’s awesome adventure I don’t think I’m the best person to offer a review. You don’t know what ‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’ is? It is a 1st level dungeoncrawl for D&D 5E, offering a brief glimpse in the author’s Broken Empires setting (more info here). In this adventure, you play raiders tasked with exploring a disturbingly organic temple (with lots of Yog-Sothothery) in a godforsaken island.

I’m obviously giving some SPOILERS from now on, so don’t read if you want to play this adventure later!

Here is basically what I liked or did with ‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’:

- It is a 1st-level adventure that fulfills what a campaign starter should do in my opinion (i.e. leaving a few loose ends for the DM to explore, like a possible warlock pact with the Sea Demon herself) but it is also perfect for a one-shot game (because it offers everything that a good game night needs in one package). Usually, when someone asks me to run for them a “traditional dungeoncrawl” – i.e. Old School style - I use the ‘Tower of the Stargazer”. Now, when someone who already plays D&D (or d20 Fantasy in general) asks me to start a new game, I use “The Sea Demon’s Gold” right away.
- It has a strong theme (Lovecrafthian horror + dungeoncrawl, without going into cliché territory) and it throws you directly into the chaos (the first combat encounter is one of the best I’ve read in a long long time). 
- It is an interesting read, giving you lots of ideas (the Sea Demon herself is a good new deity/demon lord/kraken to use as a villain or evil patron and the Sea Folk is a nice addition to any campaign setting).
- Like the DCC RPG adventures, it uses its own monsters and breaks some conceptions of what dungeoncrawling is at low levels. I had a player asking me to start a game at 3rd level, because he wasn’t much interested in “killing goblins and kobolds that were sacking farms”. What I did? I started a 1st-level game using ‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’ as an answer. 
- Although written as a 1st-level adventure, the entire thing is easily adapted to higher levels. With a minimum fuss you can run it on the spot for 2nd or even 3rd level parties. In fact, because its implied setting is indeed ‘semi-historical’, it has a really strong S&S vibe and uses Cthulhian-style adversaries, I’ve already hacked versions of “The Sea Demon’s Gold” for other RPGs (it is that easy). One for Modiphius’ Conan 2d20 RPG, using only monsters stats from the Corebook (you can also use it on Mongoose’s excellent Conan d20). The other version is for a Call of Cthulhu/BRP game where the party plays 9th century vikings raiding a lone Orkney island. The adaptations required were minimal because the dungeon itself is quite somber and avoids goofy or “gamey” elements (c’mon, even the gelatinous cube is basically a shoggoth when you see what it does in the setting… it is there as a horror element).

OK, here are a few things I added when running the adventure for D&D 5E. I hope it can also help your table.

The Heart of Iron crew

As you know, the first part of the adventure is all about surviving a merciless encounter with the Sea Folk. The basic idea is that the party has established some connections with the crew of the ship, the Heart of Iron, and they will try to save those NPCs during combat. Those relationships depend on your style as a DM and on how much time you want to spend roleplaying things before they get messy. At one of my tables, we spend one entire session just roleplaying with the crew, while at another I felt that the players would appreciate just rolling dice to see with whom they have created bonds. In both cases, I created small secrets and weird stuff about the crew - enough to draw the players in and make them remember the NPC that I was going to try to kill in the first encounter (a fun commentary: at one table, the roleplaying created rivalries between PC and NPC, so that the players actually tried to use the first encounter to toss the rival NPC in the seas).

The adventure provides us with 2 named NPCs (captain Helia Lin Haerrean and sailor Pitaja, and invites you to create more). Here’s the crew that I use:
- Captain Helia Lin Haerrean is a no-nonsense leader and a fearless woman (from an exotic land of your home setting). Her best friend (and fellow adventurer) is Riala (see Alahir below). The first time I run ‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’, Helia was actually the only survivor of the first expedition to the island and only escaped because she made a pact with the kraken. She was ashamed of her past but also needed to offer more sacrifices to the Sea Demon in one year or she would begin to transform in some kind of monstrosity (a deep one/sahuagin). In another run of the adventure, she owned a priest money because of a raise dead spell and her time was running out.
- Sailor Pitaja is a carefree young ex-pirate. I portray him as a friendly NPC that loves to gain (or lose) money by gambling. There’s always a player who likes the idea of carousing.
- First Mate Alahir is the weird NPC. He’s a brute man, always drunk and menacing. The entire crew is afraid of him and bizarrely he has the trust of Captain Helia. He has a temptress as his mistress, the fair lady Riala. Riala can only be seen at night, while has husband is passed out at his cabin. Alahir is the NPC that I created to be hated, but inquisitive players will find his relationship with Riala weird and possibly investigate it. Actually, Alahir and Riala are the same person and the woman is the true face of this NPC. A curse acquired in Riala’s adventure days with Captain Helia forces her to become an ugly and brute man during the day. Riala is so disgusted with her state that she spends most daylight hours drunk, channeling her hate against the lazy crew. One party at my table had his PC fall in love with Riala (and he was quite shocked when the truth came out) while other party actually managed to kill Riala while searching for Alahir.
- Sailing Master Hasfullihatrandy a.k.a. Master Nose is a gnome born on sea and fated to die if he ever touches land. He is a strange creature, all tattooed that goes almost naked, but with an almost supernatural scent, particularly useful to find good winds, avoid storms and direct the ship to land. In my campaigns gnomes are usually creatures defined by obsession, so this is my “sea gnome”. You can easily change him to a human, also tattooed, and regarded with awe by the crew due to his “magic nose”.
- Master Shoufa is the comic relief. He is the ship’s cook and an open promoter of cannibalism as a way to “steal your enemies’ strength”. He won’t eat any of the crew or the party, only enemies (actually, if he’s a true cannibal or not is up to the DM, because the Captain uses him as way to keep the crew in check). At one table, Soufa was a half-orc, because it fits nicely, but you can use him as a human.
The rest of the ship was just a series of names and small traits, which I used most for flavor:
Rusa (ugly as sin, possibly Hagborn), Jadikira (claims to come from another world with 3 Moons), Kitana (woman, amazing sailor, Shoufa’s girlfriend), Redrik (one eye, one hand, one ear), Bal’zahar (tattooed, no hair), Haddan (wants to be captain), Frog (jumps at everything, Gollum-like), Monkey (a kid, good at the riggings), Luha (another kid, runner), Shafik (strong) and Eyes (curious, want to be adventurer, stupid but lucky).

A Random Encounter Table

‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’ is a static dungeon. Except for the gelatinous cube, each encounter is fixed in place. Clever parties that notice this detail might be able to face each encounter and then retreat for a short or long rest at the ship. There is nothing stopping a DM from making the dungeon reacts once the party gets in, but I particularly likes surprises. Thus, I came up with a random encounter table that I used everytime the party attempted a long rest (or after 2-3 short rests).

Please, bear in mind that the adventure as written already had a deadly trigger for parties attempting a long rest: the aforementioned gelatinous cube. What I intended with the encounters below was to add dynamism and more flavor, just that:

Roll a 1d6:
1 - 1d4+1 Sea Folk. These are “holy champions” sent by the Sea Folk to try to kill the temple’s ghostly priest. The Sea Folk deeply fear the kraken (their goddess), but also want to defeat its priest. A decadent and barbaric civilization, they only approach the dungeon through religion (where a group of “chosen ones” is selected to face the Sea Demon in ritualistic combat). All end eventually killed by the gelatinous cube, which is actually the point of the entire thing (the Sea Folk leaders knows that, and use the champions as “cannon fodder” to keep the Sea Demon placated). This encounter only happens once during the adventure. If you roll it a second time, nothing happens.
2 - 1d4-1 Giant Crabs (a ‘0’ result is just a dead crab). 
3 - 1 Darkmantle.
4 - 1d4 traitorous pirates from the ship, converted to the Sea Demon through dreams.
5 - The Mud Mephit, carrying loot to his lair. Only use it once, after meeting the creature for the first time. Otherwise nothing happens.
6 - Water level raises, making all rooms difficult terrain for the next 1d4 hours.