Friday, December 23, 2022

3E OdditE: Archive

I think I've gone on record enough by now, talking about how I grew up on 3rd edition D&D. I've never actually played much of it or Pathfinder 1E, but it's the ruleset I spent the most time with, and through which I discovered my fondness for the character building process. But I don't have any illusions that 3E wasn't an extremely lopsided system prone to bloat and breakage.

It was, or at least tried to be, granular and simulationist with certain facets of play, mostly combat. But it was pretty abstract and vague in a lot of other areas. Or, where hard numbers were given, it's apparent they weren't given the greatest scrutiny during playtesting- a few examples are economics, item weights, and the way the skill system tends to get out of hand and devolve into big dumb numbers (dumbers, if you will) at medium-to-high levels.

In my opinion the biggest gulf in direction, ambition, and quality exists in prestige classes published in core, splatbooks, and the Dragon or more rarely Dungeon magazines. They brought a flavor of player character jank to the biggest tabletop RPG on the market that hadn't really existed outside of the smaller d100 market before then, to my knowledge. Don't get me wrong, I know 2E AD&D kits could be wild sometimes. But you were typically limited to one at a time back then, whereas 3E players were mechanically incentivized to cherry-pick levels from a huge range of base and prestige classes to get the kind of character they wanted, as long as they met qualifications and the table allowed it.

This system and design philosophy allowed prestige classes to be hyper-focused in terms of flavor and abilities, to the point that many were considered really only for use by NPCs, which were built the exact same way as PCs. But PCs could still use them if they were on the table. There was nothing stopping them from tearing open those flavor packets and dumping some or all of their contents into the gooey mélange that was their character gumbo, except maybe the knowledge that it wasn't necessarily a good idea to do so.

All of this is rambling preamble to me exploring some of the quirkiest character options 3E had to offer, dealing mostly but not exclusively with PrCs published through splats and Drag Mag. I know for a fact that dozens, probably hundreds of other people have already written similar-but-better things across blogs and message boards over the past two decades, but it seems fun.

I don't mean to rag on any particular creation for its failings, except in instances where I very clearly am trying to trash something into oblivion. But otherwise, I love and celebrate this kinda junk. It was a weird, new time for writing player-facing material, and it wasn't an easy job.

I'll be pulling most of my information from the "complete" edit of the 3.5E SRD, or by digging into my old collections of books when the material hasn't been added yet. When possible I'll just link to the entry and make reference to it, and if you want to you can read along, to save space reposting entire tables or other minutia word-for-word.

OdditE's so far:

Official Splatbooks

Ambient Tempest (Bestiary of Krynn, 2004)

Hexer (Masters of the Wild, 2002)

Dragon/Dungeon Magazines

Branch Dancer (Dragon #310)

Dvati (Dragon #271/Dragon Compendium)

Githyanki Prestige Classes (Dungeon #100)

Urban Druid (Dragon #317/Dragon Compendium)

3E OdditE: Branch Dancer (Dragon #310, August 2003)

Click here to return to the OdditE archive.

Branch Dancer

The Branch Dancer feels like a logical conclusion of the shallow, "tree-hugging" elf stereotype that D&D products regularly dip in and out of, though notably the class isn't limited to elves or half-elves. You just have to be non-evil, possess a handful of low skill and feat requisites, prove your arboreal heroism to a treant, and get another Branch Dancer to train you.

The Branch Dancer is a 5-level prestige class written by Michael Merls and/or Jeff Quick in the "Rogue and Dagger" section of Dragon #310. It's a class that wants to be a woodland warrior who has grown so close to the forest's trees that they can use them defensively and offensively. The cinematic potential for this is obvious; dodging in between tree trunks to avoid blows, ambushing invaders from the safety of boughs and canopies, knocking someone flat with a wound-up sapling like it's a slapstick skit, etc.

A demonstration by Belkar, of all people.

But in its execution, it uses one of the inexplicably funniest sentences I've ever read in D&D:

"The character essentially gains "tree" as an exotic weapon proficiency."

That line comes from the 1st level ability Branch Fighting (Ex), which does exactly what it says. It lets you use branches as 1d8 damage weapons or double weapons while you're within 5 feet of a tree. At 4th level they go up to 1d10 and count as +1 weapons. Notably, these are branches still attached to the tree- not broken off.

The ability accomplishes what the class sets out to do, but it does so in a way that highlights the goofy steps you have to take to conform to 3E's rules in order to make things work, while still leaving frustrating holes elsewhere for you to interpret. By RAW, you only need to be next to a living tree, but it doesn't say anything about tree size or reach, so that redwood or Vallenwood tree serves perfectly well even if you're standing hundreds of feet below its actual branches. Branch Fighting also grants cover, which means even a sapling is potentially as good as a tower shield.

All of the class' other abilities are similarly tree-reliant. They can speak to trees, spider climb across wooden surfaces like a 10th-level sorcerer, and tree stride as a 9th-level druid, though they can only use each of these twice a day. Developers were leery of giving martial characters "too many" magical or supernatural abilities up until very late in 3rd edition, and it's illustrated here.

I don't know if that feeling was felt by most writers involved with D&D at the time, or if it was something only shared by the editors and project leads who had final say in the matter. I should look into that. Regardless, if the dancer could do all of those at-will they'd fill their modest niche pretty well. But outside of those minute-long increments they feel a little like a ranger deprived of their favored terrain- and most of their other class features.

An unexpected break from this trend can be found in the 3rd level ability Skill Mastery (Ex). It's an extremely simple ability that lets the dancer Take 10 on any climb, balance, jump, move silently, or survival check regardless of circumstances, even when distracted or in danger. It's... not amazing, but just kinda nice to have? You get it much earlier than a rogue would have the opportunity to select their own version of Skill Mastery, and it would be nice if more mundane characters got something similar early on. Or maybe it would have only caused the skill optimization dumbers game to be that much worse for half a decade. Who knows?

One other ability I want to focus on is Instant Fletching (Su). At 2nd level the dancer gains the ability to magically pluck wooden arrows from trees as a free action like they're giant free-range quivers. The arrows are normal in all respects, can be hoarded because unlike similar abilities they don't have a limited duration, and also they upgrade to +1 at 4th level. But it's the back half of the ability's text that interests me:

"Each 20 arrows drawn from a tree reduces its age by one year. Trees generally do not mind this, but the ability can kill a sapling or weaken a young tree with repeated use, so it is generally reserved for mature trees (usually of Huge size or larger)."

It doesn't reduce a tree's lifespan by 1 year, it de-ages it. That's an effect that is pretty rare across 3E rules outside of higher-level magic spells. Sure, it only affects trees, but there are still so many unintended implications and possibilities opened up by this weird wording.

Imagine a dancer pulling a functionally infinite number of arrows out of the forest and giving them to the surrounding communities as a more sustainable source of not just arrows, but everything else a bunch of feet-long wooden sticks can be made into. Trees that bloom or bear fruit only once every few years could be made to provide them regularly, meaning a deep forest village could survive entirely on silviculture as long as the local fey are permissive. Some ancient magical tree somewhere could be reaching the end of its lifespan, and only a group of branch dancers can revitalize it to avert a local catastrophe. Etc. What starts as a bit of shenanigans could ultimately lead to some real emergent gameplay.

The Branch Dancer is not a strong class, not even within the niche it aspires to. It probably is best left as an "NPC PrC", or maybe as a thematic quest reward at the end of a character arc. But it's still interesting to look at and think about. And I think that might be what really matters in the end- it gives me something to write about here, after all.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Commissioned Post: Eberron's Mark of Death

"Any thoughts on the Mark of Death in Eberron?  If true dragonmarks are "creative" forces - as opposed to the destructive aberrant marks - how do you think a Mark of Death might be implemented (mechanically) in a 5e game if one were to manifest?  Also open to adventure hooks!  What's Erandis been up to for the past 3500 (ish?) years?"
— M. Gondsman

You got it!

For the subrace, I decided I'd closely follow the structure of the 5e dragonmark subraces presented in Rising from the Last War, with the addition of some extra character fluff. Death used to be their 13th member, so I think it should have a certain familiarity to it, even as it's doing stuff that is quite different from any of the other marks.

For the dragonmark abilities and spell list, I tried to stay close to the concept of being creative as opposed to destructive, as you mentioned. That was a bit of a challenge, considering how narrow in scope the Necromancy school tends to be. Still, I was able to create a list that is mostly filled with buffing and utility spells that represent a less violent manipulation of life, death, and negative energy. One or two debuffs and combat spells did end up making the cut, but I think that's permissible in light of some of the other dragonmark lists: Making has conjure barrage and Scribing includes confusion, for example.

The adventure hooks were fun to come up with, though they ended up becoming a bit more like adventure harpoons. I see Erandis' schemes being multifaceted, and sometimes disarmingly benign. Make of those what you will.

I know lots of people have taken a crack at this dragonmark over the years, so doing the research without getting influenced by other people's original work was tricky. I hope I did well enough. Enjoy!

Apparently this is the Mark as it was depicted in that Lost Mark trilogy,
which Keith Baker didn't agree with, but it's still a damn good logo.

House Vol

Leader: Erandis d'Vol, at least in spirit.
Headquarters: Illmarrow Castle (Farlnen, Lhazaar Principalities)

The bearers of the Mark of Making are great crafters. The heirs of the Mark of Shadow are expert spies and assassins. The Mark of Healing, healers; Handling, handlers; Scribing, scribes. And so on, and so forth. In a way, it is only appropriate that the bearers of the Mark of Death are all dead— dead, or something close to it.

    But once upon a time, that was not so. House Vol was once preeminent in Aerenal, poised to lead their people against the dragons into a new era of peace and prosperity thanks to their unconventional knowledge of life, death, and negative energy. But those hidebound carcasses in the Undying Court, for all their wisdom, could never stop staring down their withered noses at House Vol long enough to step outside their narrow comfort zone and see the truth of things; that if the elves were to survive, they needed to consider all options with an open mind and eyes unclouded. So what if they reanimated a few corpses, if it meant they survived the onslaught of the dragons?

    Ironically, it was not death that made the Aereni elves condemn their fellows, but life. The life of a child, born out of love and such grand purpose. When Matriarch Minara Vol eloped with a rogue green dragon to produce a hybrid daughter named Erandis, it was out of hope that the union of species she embodied would bring an end to hostilities.

    Minara was right, after a fashion. Horrified by this genetic project and the potential power held within it, dragon and elf united to exterminate every last member of House Vol, right down to mother and child. What survived of the house's allies and servants when the smoke cleared were allowed to live, banished to the bitterest reaches of distant Khorvaire. The dragons and elves did not know that they took with them Erandis' corpse, reanimated by a mother's desperate love, and the power of the Mark of Death.

    Now, the half-dragon lich "lives" a life of bitter secrecy. She has sworn to manipulate events through her many cults to one day unite dragon and elf kind in death, for having refused it in life. Her dragonmark lies useless upon her undead flesh, and her relict house begins and ends with her. And she knows that. No amount of cold, ashen revenge will bring back what was lost.

    Truly, there is no soul on Eberron more marked by death than her.

Variant Elf:
Mark of Death

... And yet here you are, with all the questions and grim implications your existence entails. Perhaps some long-forgotten extramarital dalliance spawned the bastard bloodline of your parentage by mere chance. Or perhaps destiny itself willed you into being; not even Death may die until it has served its purpose. The Draconic Prophecy is as cruel as it is inexorable, it seems.

    There is much you do not know about yourself, least of all your birthparents. People used to say you were orphaned by the Last War, and for a long time you believed that, without even wondering whose side, if any, your parents had been on. The Last War made a lot of orphans, after all. You made your peace with it, and tried to appreciate the life that had found you.

    But then came adolescence, and puberty hit you harder than any other elf in the past three millennia. Your dragonmark appeared in a traumatic near-death experience that left you suddenly, painfully aware of the weight of ages on this world, and your own utter insignificance in the face of eternity and oblivion. And as if that wasn't bad enough, people started to avoid and persecute you. Aberrant, they called your dragonmark. Dangerous. Bad luck. Only one of those was wrong.

    Now, you do best when you're alone and on the move. You hide your mark from others as best as you can, especially from those men with the Karrnathi accents and the green claw amulets who say they have such wonderful things in store for you. You know you won't last much longer without some answers, but where is one to even begin?

If you're an elf with the Mark of Death, you have this subrace, with the following traits.
    Ability Score Increase. Your Intelligence score increases by 1.
    Deathly Intuition. When you make an Intelligence (Arcana) or Intelligence (Religion) check, you can roll a d4 and add the number rolled to the ability check.
    Favored by Dolurrh. You know the spare the dying cantrip. You can also cast false life once with this trait, requiring no material component. Starting at 3rd level, you can also cast gentle repose with it. Once you cast either spell with this trait, you can't cast that spell with it again until you finish a long rest. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for these spells.
    Touched by Mabar. You have resistance to necrotic damage.
    Spells of the Mark. If you have the Spellcasting or the Pact Magic class feature, the spells on the Mark of Death Spells table are added to the spell list of your spellcasting class.


Spell Level



detect evil and good, false life


gentle repose, ray of enfeeblement


animate dead, speak with dead


death ward, shadow of Minara (shadow of Moil)


raise dead

Volal (Volite? Vollish?) Adventure Hooks

1) A small, clandestine group of Seekers led by a mummy abactor has begun a secret war with the Cult of Life. They cannot abide by the use of other people's lives in the Cult's schemes, because it denies them the pursuit of the Divinity Within that they believe everyone should aspire to. It remains to be seen how the Crimson Covenant will react to this sectarian strife.

2) The ranks of the Hornblade Clan have swelled since chieftess Janilya's miraculous and violent ascension. The half-orc's acceptance of outsiders devoted to the Blood of Vol has created one of the most ethnically diverse populations this side of Khorvaire, while their spartan unity of purpose puts the feuding warlords of nearby Droaam to shame. The Hornblades seem intent on proving themselves peers to House Tharashk. But are they a threat, or a chance at stability in the region?

3) A most curious interfaith dialogue is about to occur on the edge of Sarlona. An embassy of Seekers has come to the shores of Adar to speak with several prominent yannahilath of the Path of Light. Despite their many incompatible views, the Seekers maintain, there are strong core values like individual action, transformative change, and community-mindedness that their faiths share. The Seekers have also expressed a desire to learn about kalashtar meditative techniques, and the lightspeakers are eager to spread the Light wherever it may find a place, despite their misgivings. But why here, why now? And does it have anything to do with recent rumblings from Adar's northern neighbor and foe, the Unity of Riedra?

4) Adventurers and government agents in major cities across several nations are reporting on a disturbing trend: some cults of the Dark Six that are occasionally rooted out and dispersed have added a seventh object of worship to their pantheon in the form of the Blood of Vol. Authorities call for investigators willing to go deep undercover in the seedy underbellies of Khorvaire to see what these syncretic "Keepers of Blood" are up to.

5) The Karnnathi fleet recently repelled a large Bloodsail raid and took from it grand trophies indeed: the ships' eponymous blood sails, full of elf ghosts screaming to be returned home to the black shores of Farlnen. Out of personal spite, or perhaps seeking to provoke the Bloodsails, the victorious fleet master refuses to hand over the sails, and is instead agitating populist support along the coast. As the elves' alliance of pirates across the Lhazaar Principalities rattles its sabers louder and louder, an unlikely alliance of Sentinel Marshals and sympathetic Seekers rushes to reclaim the sails and prevent an international crisis.

6) Dolurrh is on the verge of becoming coterminous again, and a powerful new manifest zone has unexpectedly formed in a populated area. Bands of fiend-slayers rush to prepare for the inevitable waves of nalfeshnee demons and worse, while Seekers try to push through the filmy boundary between planes and rescue souls who would otherwise be doomed to oblivion by all the interference with resurrection magic.

7) Several Aereni wizards have been caught dabbling in negative energy magic and undeath. Fearing more necromancy cells and the unknown player who established them so deep in Aerenal, the Undying Court has ordered a sweeping investigation of the islands. Can their agents cut the rot out in time? Will the pursuit of knowledge win out in the end? And what power instigated this?

8) A series of sporadic thefts and raids on libraries and magical archives across the world begins to point toward the Order of the Emerald Claw as the culprits. They seek something deceptively simple: the long-lost name of a rogue green dragon...

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Furt Digs Into: Against The Wicked City

Some years ago I came across Joseph Manola's post on why Central Asia is so good as an inspiration for a fantasy setting. Unsurprisingly I quite liked it, and even commented on it- I can't believe I was entertaining the notion of running a game back then. But then I promptly forgot all about it and the blog.

Fast forward to our calendar year of 48 (goblins are bad at maintaining institutional knowledge, don't ask) and I was Googling around for advice on the exact same subject. I'm a bit of a broken record like that. Fortunately I rediscovered that old post, and by extension the entirety of the Against the Wicked City campaign setting.

The blog bills itself as Romantic clockpunk fantasy gaming in a vaguely Central Asian setting, adding that it might also feature killer robots. That is a factually accurate description, but it only scratches the surface of what it offers, to the point that I think it undersells the whole project a bit.

For one, while the game's influences are ultimately mutable in the hands of anyone who chooses to use them, the word "vaguely" doesn't cut it. Or maybe I'm being a bit of a pedant. To me, being vaguely inspired by a historical era means it is chiefly an aesthetic inspiration, one which can (but doesn't necessarily always) run the risk of being superficial, misleading, or perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

The depth of research into Central Asian histories, cultures, and mythologies is evident here, however. There are several posts on spirits and shamanism (and a shaman class!), all written with a cautious awareness that they are engaging with a still-living continuum of peoples and religious traditions. There is thought given to the vastly different landscapes including steppe, desert, tundra, taiga, etc. and the societies and things one may find in each. There's a list of creatures from Central Asian myths and those of surrounding regions that made me realize how little I know (though I would personally supplement the hortlak with the chotgor that I am more partial to, and swap the shurale out for a playable almas race/class).

I use the awkward conjunction "race/class" because AtWC is designed with B/X D&D or similarly styled OSR games in mind (mixed with one or two 3rd & 4th editionisms like fort/ref/will saves and simple/martial weapon categories), which is the next part I want to talk about.

You all know by now that I turn into a wibbled little ball of stress when it comes to the prospect of character death or bringing the group down with my own personal lack of skill. But AtWC's deliberate merger of B/X systems with the violence-as-a-last-resort hopefulness of capital-r Romantic Fantasy both assuages some of that fear and leaves me feeling strangely compelled. I've touched on Romantic Fantasy here before, after all. It turns what I normally consider to be the engine of countless highly martial dungeon crawls into a vehicle for nonviolent, clever, or even compassionate problem-solving.

It was something I never thought about before, but now that I do it makes fairly plain sense. Why wouldn't you try diplomacy to misdirect or even find some possible common ground with the beleaguered bandits when you know that the narrative has probably supplied them with some names, scars, and humanity, and when you just know that their blunderbusses will evaporate all of your hit points and most of your torso at the onset of combat?

The eponymous Wicked City is an awful place. Founded by a truly evil monarch who may be dead or just abiding in his ominous tower, the city is choked by fear, conspiracy, and the palpable miasma of despair. The land itself is sick and gone Weird in places. Things and buildings move around when they think no one's looking. The city is the near-skeletal husk of a body suffering from the late stages of a metaphysical disease called authoritarianism. Most of its people's hopes were long ago ground down under the endlessly spinning gears of the city's clockwork machinery and the bootheels of the Wicked King's secret police- but only most hopes. The city, or at least the people trapped within it, can still be saved. And you'd be a fool to think its stagnant, systemic violence can be defeated with a liberal application of slightly different, more targeted violence on the part of the heroes. You have to put in the work and fix the broken people, not break them more.

The blog makes a direct reference to studio Ghibli protagonists as the ideal hero for this type of game at times, like Chihiro from Spirited Away. She confronts a strange and hostile new world and rescues her loved ones not by lashing out, but by being crafty, making friends, and practicing humility and compassion. Heroes standing against the Wicked City would ideally be just like that- albeit a bit older, and also equipped with flintlock guns and magical abilities as backups just in case. So maybe they're closer to Princess Mononoke than Spirited Away, but I'm splitting hairs at this point.

That refusal to bend to authority, as well as the refusal to stoop so low as to use authority's tools of force and cruelty, is what really puts the -punk in the clockpunk of this world, which I realize I haven't actually talked about until now.

Yes, there are indeed killer robots. Some of them are small and animal-like, operating on primitive programing not unlike the instincts of flesh-and-blood creatures. Others are more readily identifiable automatons, whether they be intelligent, willed, or servile. Others are truly massive and destructive war-hulks held in reserve like tactical nukes. Still others are brains in jars, or zombies puppeteered by clockwork brains- not even death will prevent the Wicked City from using and abusing its unfortunate denizens to their maximum utility, even if that utility goes toward more senseless misery and waste.

But there's a good deal more tech than that.

There are also gyrocopters, airships, autowinders, repeater crossbows, submarines, calculators, computerized brain implants, and even pocket watches. Primitive steam engines power some of these devices, but not to any extent that the truth of the subgenre tag is threatened.

That all of these outlandish and occasionally very real gadgets exist alongside more-or-less medieval technologies elsewhere in the setting might seem like a case of generic fantasy schizo tech. But against the backdrop of vaguely Early Modern Central Asia, it actually feels like a good bit of historical verisimilitude to me- assuming I'm even using that word correctly.

Central Asia has historically been a crossroads for cultures, which means it has always been an unironic land of contrasts. These contrasts can be social, religious, and political, but they are also material. The Silk Road once spread some of the most state-of-the-art technology throughout the continent and fostered diffusion between the massive states that tried to dominate it. But just a few hundred miles off those trade routes were tribes who lived much like their ancestors did hundreds of years earlier. Russian Cossacks invaded Siberia with muskets and cannons, and Siberia put up stiff resistance with swords and bows; just so, the Wicked King's legions of clockwork mechs must contend with the heroes' grit, pluck, dinky little 1d6 damage weapons, and occasionally a talking bear.

AtWC got some actual play back in the days before the end of Google+, but I haven't found much usage of the setting in the 2020s. Joseph apparently transitioned into working on a similar but distinct sci-fantasy setting called the City of Spires after he realized that, in addition to a number of logistical issues, some of his new gaming group's players had already read all of AtWC and learned secrets they shouldn't have. (Guess I kinda spoiled myself as a player by doing all of this, didn't I?)

I might not ever run a game, but I will probably find AtWC inspiring my own material in the future. It's too good not to let seep in.

There's another reason why I've latched onto the setting like this, if you'll allow me to be a little too real for a moment.

I just really want the setting's optimism to be true.

Central and Inner Asia are in a bad way right now- both the land and the people who live there. The heads of state in Post-Soviet republics fight to maintain or expand their autocratic powers at the expense of their citizens, confident that the only real limit to their behavior is whatever the looming Russian Federation finds inconvenient for its own ambitions. The Aral Sea has shrunk from the fourth-largest lake in the world to a brackish puddle whose main exports are rust and poverty. Deserts are expanding everywhere along the steppe belt. Afghanistan and Iran languish under oppressive regimes inflamed by my own country's equally backwards foreign policy. Lake Baikal, home to the deepest and purest fresh water on Earth, grows increasingly polluted by industry. The ostensibly communist ruling party of the People's Republic of China wields state capitalism like a cudgel to pacify the outside world while it researches new and inventive ways to dominate its own citizens and annihilate the Uyghur people. Mongolia is facing the worst dzuds in decades because of climate change. And most of the international community either doesn't care, or doesn't have a goddamn clue.

I wish some plucky kids would come along and Studio Ghibli things better. We already need a miracle.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Mechanical Musings: A Couple Random House Rule Concepts I've Never Used

Title says it all. I don't really play games, but I often think about playing games, and these are some ideas that have crossed my mind in those times. I haven't experimented with any of them or fleshed them out into tables, and you can probably find a half-dozen other blogs that go into much better and greater detail about any particular one of the concepts I play around with, but it's my show damn it.

Combat is Terrifying:
When the characters aren't starting off as experienced combatants, or when your game is intended to be low-combat but still dangerous, consider emphasizing how frightening combat and both sides of violence really are.

Force attacking PCs to make wisdom/will/vs paralysis/etc. saves before they even roll to hit AC or cast an overtly harmful spell, because sudden and decisive violence is not a reflex most people exercise regularly. Failure means they hesitate or even freeze. And if they are themselves the target of an attack, a certain amount of damage or debilitation suffered should call for a save vs. fear because holy crap that hurt and that's your blood!

The PCs have to succeed (or maybe fail) a certain number of saves or endure enough rounds of combat overall to get desensitized to inflicting and being subjected to violence, and thus stop having to roll. Martial characters like fighters might get a bonus to these "ruthlessness" saves according to their to-hit bonus, or they might automatically desensitize at a certain level. And even when a character has reached that point, consider the mental toll it takes, and the stress it causes long-term.

Make sure enemies that aren't all battle-hardened or utterly single-minded automatons also deal with some of this in the form of morale checks for major setbacks or just for being green recruits. Remind players of the NPCs' human(oid)ity, and offer avenues for diplomacy or escape often.

Obviously don't do something like this without the whole group's consent beforehand. As I write this, I realize it might cleave too close to PTSD, which is very real for some people.

Journey and Destination: Instead of leveling up according to the number and lethality of the things you kill, the value of stuff you steal, or the narrative beats of a GM with more important things to do than balance an EXP checkbook, you gain experience by the literal milestone. This is most useful when travel and discovery is the central thrust of the adventure. Leveling up can happen overnight while camped, or maybe take the form of sudden insights of "road wisdom" as they leave an area.

Requiring that the party keeps moving in order to keep (mechanically) growing discourages them from settling down in one place for too long and becoming stale, stagnant, and/or feudal tyrants. Either give XP per the kilomile or other unit of measure traveled, or grant it in larger chunks depending on the length or difficulty of the paths the party chooses (or is forced) to take. In the event that they're moving over trackless wastes or acting as the trailblazers, consider awarding XP per region/landmark discovered, or map hex explored. Retreading old territory doesn't grant any experience unless they make a discovery they missed before.

If you need to positively incentivize them sticking around long enough to actually do stuff in every area instead of just scratching the surface like highly armed tourists, grant bonus experience for fully delving into the area's subsites, like ruins or a cave system, so that it guides them toward quests or bonus objectives. Finding the magma antechamber gets them the experience, but solving the fire lich's chronic loneliness gives that experience satisfying meaning. Or to give a negative incentive, slap the party with a stacking road-weariness debuff if they're being too shallow or moving on too quickly.

Communal Leveling: You're only as strong as the community you help cultivate and protect. PCs don't directly power up from doing or experiencing anything out in the field. Nobody levels up. Rather, they bring their experiences and resources back home to their base (or their caravan/nomadic camp if you want to use this with the above travel rules) to help it grow and prosper.

Different specialized buildings can be constructed, NPCs are attracted to the community, and existing relationships strengthen over time. From these, the PCs will gain their information, equipment, upgrades, training, etc. that were previously gated or inaccessible. And if the PCs ever start to neglect their community or take its services for granted, they risk misfortune befalling the place and/or its inhabitants, and making those services unavailable again.

And unless it's part of a big, endgame culmination of plot and progress, don't let the characters outright take control of the community. Doing something like taking public office and greater responsibility in recognition of their contributions is fine, but make sure they remain accountable to their fellows- fantasy is one of the few places where we get to make that happen without a lot of canvassing and/or revolution, after all.

The PCs are important, even vital organs of the whole, but this is not another stronghold for them to rule over. These are friends, family, and neighbors.

Moar Depletion Dice!: Instead of just making a sword break on a Nat 1, have the blade chip or bend first so that it's still usable, but not as effective until it gets a serious whetstone'ing. To-hit can take a penalty, but also that d8 damage drops to a d6. If the game uses a hit dice recovery during rest mechanic, maybe suffering some critical hits slashes those dice until the PCs manage a very long rest. Interrupted concentration or fizzled spells reduce their numerical effects by dice sizes, too. And all of these stack, to create an experience of gradually rising desperation as abilities and resources are depleted.

Basically anything that isn't a d20 has the potential to get reduced through injury or wear and tear. An entire mishap table can be constructed from these, offering a less permanent and gruesome alternative to the detailed maiming of some injury tables- or a complementary system to integrate into them, if your players are Hidetaka Miyazaki-level masochists.

Unless something obvious escapes me, this rule leaves most non-variable utility, save-or-die, or save-or-suck spells and effects unaffected, since there are no dice involved to deplete. It can still impact other facets of the characters or creatures who use those types of abilities enough to not be an all-the-time issue, but keep in mind that specialist wizards and their ilk might stand out as even stronger than usual.

Natural; Not Divine: The source of power that rangers, shamans, druids, et al draw their magic from is categorized as primal rather than divine.

... That's basically it, I just want it treated as unique and special.

I had forgotten all about the D&D 4E power categories until I started reading Keith Baker's old Eberron backlog and found that he has continued to apply the primal distinction to druids in his version of Eberron, not as a mechanical label but to help characterize a very distinct set of animistic practices and traditions as separate from the usual monolatry and organized religion you find in a D&D-inspired world. I just find it neat and wanted to share that.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Ivory Tower University: A Soft Reboot?

Hey there, Burrowers.

If you've been following my blog since the beginning, well, I am kind of underserving of that crazy dedication. Thanks for that.

But more relevant to this topic, if you've been following me since the beginning, you know one of my earliest long-term projects was world-building through cheeky academic article snippets written in the Ivory Tower University setting (ITUniverse for short).

Typically I'd write from the perspective of Roberick Bertrum Litte, the reluctant bearer of the most snobbish name I ever conjured, as well as my paper-thin author avatar for when I want to mix academic cynicism with humanistic idealism. He'd write up a paper from his supplies office under the staircase, scribble in his own snarky footnotes, and then send it into circulation among a readership that even he wasn't convinced of the existence of. And for a while it was pretty good times- for me, at least.

Of course it's been years since I regularly made posts tied to the ITU, excluding occasional shout-outs in my belabored but ongoing Troika! character background series.

Some of you may have wondered "what gives?" I know I did. And I think I've finally figured out what, in fact, is giving.

I created the world that houses Deneroth and the ITU as a home for my own very, very, very modestly different take on orcs, goblins, and hobgoblins. That was the impetus for starting all of it. My first-ever post about the Fokari was meant to get the ball rolling on that. But of course you don't see any of that in the full scope of my ITU posts. Even the Fokari are just a blip on the radar compared to my lengthy and scattered writeups on life in the safely generic Ersuunian Basin (assuming Iron Age societies with 20th century social sciences still count as generic). Because every time I leaned toward writing about those cultures directly, I felt the need to justify their existence first, by creating the world around them, and then finally, hopefully placing them in the perfectly humanoid-shaped hole that would be leftover.

Basically, I fell into the trap of writing what I felt I needed to write in order to set things up, before I could get around to writing what I had wanted to. A slow accumulation of layers of stuff to get ready for the even slower peeling-back of those layers, so that I could ultimately reveal the thing I had in mind when I started my blog one summer during college.

That's a totally valid strategy for writing fiction and it can lead to a really good payoff, don't get me wrong. But I was just doing mundane, unclever worldbuilding in order to get around to the slightly less mundane and unclever worldbuilding, and at the pace I write stuff it was going nowhere fast.

It was very fatiguing, and it felt pointless sometimes, but the compulsion returned every time I returned to the ITU. Even after I took a long break to do cringy audio logs, or to write more TTRPG-related stuff and accidentally become a member of the artpunk OSR blogosphere.

A visual map of OSR blog links, traffic, and interconnections aggregated through Discord.
Somehow I wound up visible on it. I don't know who the original creator is.

Now that I've identified the issue, it's probably good to work on it. That's what my therapist usually said to do, anyway. And I think there's some old self-help saying about writing a thing down to make yourself more likely to do it?

I've decided to give ITU something in between a soft reboot and a time skip.

RBL will still be my vehicle for most of it, and pretty much everything he's touched on remains canon. But rather than writing about his subjects from a great distance of time or space like the armchair scholars he so despises, he'll be far more mobile, and focused on bringing other voices to the fore. He'll come out the gate doing what I was inching toward with my aborted Looking Southward and Backward travelogue all those years ago.

I don't want him to be like one of those YouTube personalities who give a shallow and sensationalized account of whatever "exotic" historical or geographic topic they're covering- we have enough of those in real life. Hopefully he never actually came across that way to any of you readers. But even if he didn't, this change will help me quell that minor, personal quibble about him that I've had since I started meditating on all this.

The biggest mechanical change will be that the average post reads less like a micro-article and more like an interview transcript. I wouldn't dream of getting rid of the margin notes and fictional citations, so those will reappear in some form too. The posts will also just be longer in general, both as a natural outgrowth of my increased comfort with rambling since the beginning of my blog, and as a way to cut down on the overlapping multipart numbered series that wore me down the first time around.

So, yeah. I hope to start work on ITU posts again soon, and have one out for you to read within the next few [units of time of your choosing]. I hope this little aside made sense, and I hope we both enjoy it again.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

The Falling City

"The Falling City" is just one of several descriptive exonyms used by travelers and scholars. Others include Fallingrock, The Howling City, The Agglomerate, The Boulder, The Pebble, etc. None of them are especially clever, but all are true in part. For what it's worth, the city's denizens (commonly dubbed "fallers") merely call it "home", or "The City" at most.

The aforementioned rock is a collection of natural stone and mortal-made debris several kilomiles in diameter. It is approximately bullet-shaped, with a flattened top and tapering bottom. The "city" portion of the Falling City is located on the flattened top. The whole thing is held together by a small well of artificial gravity constantly maintained by the city's magic-users.

Without that, the City would be torn apart as it falls through the Chasm.

The Chasm is several times wider than the City, and by most accounts infinite in height. Most of the time it resembles an approximately circular rock tunnel, but it is known to deform into more jagged or esoteric shapes and materials at times. Rarely, it will widen out into massive vaults that offer strange and alien vistas before inevitably tapering back inward. Dim, ambient light comparable to an overcast day seems to suffuse the whole Chasm without source- nothing outside of the City casts a shadow.

It is unknown what, if anything created the Chasm, or if it even exists in a conventional sense.

The City perpetually falls through the Chasm at several times the terminal velocity it should be- what limited observations that can be made from the City suggest that its underside glows orange-hot from friction. The same blanket of spells that keeps the rock together also keeps a breathable atmosphere on top of the city, though the bubble is not thick enough to block out the low, constant howling of the wind whipping past the edges of the rock. Toward the middle of the rock it's little more than background static like any city has.

Under ideal conditions the City is stable and centered in the Chasm with no wobble, tilt, or rotation to its fall. As gashes and scrapes along the rock's flanks can attest, ideal conditions are not always met. Course correction requires immediate and immense effort on the part of all able spellcasters lest the City be dashed to pieces.

There is no way in or out of the Chasm—and by extension, the Falling City—except by way of teleportation spells (oftentimes a misfiring one, at that). The fact that it doesn't seem to connect to any other plane in the multiverse supports the argument that it is its own self-contained demiplane. Where on the "map" that is, is a mystery.

How it remained unknown by the larger multiversal community up until fairly recently suggests that the plane was either created recently, or is just very well hidden. This is reinforced by the fact that divine magic tends to fizzle out in the City- not even the gods seem to know where it is. Meanwhile, arcane and primal magic work more-or-less normally.

The citizens of the Falling City maintain that the City has been around for millennia at least, epochs at most.

Every neighborhood seems to have a different origin story for the City and the Chasm, influenced by local culture and history. Some believe that both have existed since before the dawn of time, and will continue to exist after all else has ended. Others maintain a small hero-cult dedicated to the original mages and geotheurges who either created the City and the Chasm or transported the City into the Chasm in order to save it from some impending disaster. Evidence for each is murky enough that many choose to believe whichever they fancy.

A Few Other City/Chasm Theories Include:

  • The Chasm is the intestine of a Cosmic Earthworm that devoured the City's world long ago. The day is eagerly awaited when the Worm excretes the City onto a paradise built on solid ground and/or midnight soil.
  • The Chasm is a very long circular loop that the City flies laps through. Glowing magical beacons are fired into the Chasm walls at intervals in the belief that someday the City will pass them by again and prove the theory true.
  • The City is the leftover pocket domain of a dead and forgotten god. The citizens are fated to reincarnate within it for all eternity until they achieve moksha.
  • The Chasm is actually an illusion projected around the perfectly ordinary City to keep its limits and its denizens imprisoned. Their jailors are an omniscient, vaguely malign conspiracy of NIMBY wizards and disgruntled suburban planners.
  • The Chasm is actually a one-dimensional string in the process of propagating itself into empty space to form a brand new universe, and the City is a proto-particle that will help form new matter there. There's more to the theory than that, but most people mentally check out here.
  • The City isn't falling down through the Chasm, the Chasm is flying up around the City, maaan.
  • The Chasm is not infinite in length at all, and in fact its end is coming up very, very soon.
  • Everyone in the City knows its history and the nature of the Chasm exactly, but refuse to give any details to outsiders because the mystique attracts tourists.
  • Once there were many cities and other islands of life falling through the Chasm. Now only the one City remains, and the council knows why.
  • All of these questions and more could be answered if one were to just ask the secretive natives hiding in the Chasm wall.
  • The City was once a piece of masonry connected to a "Bridge" before it broke off and slipped into the "Under". Whatever that means.

Whatever its origins or nature, the Falling City is surprisingly accommodating despite its eminently hostile locale. It is arranged in a roughly circular plan with a combination of wide-open common spaces and narrow streets with efficiently stacked buildings. Being unable to build outward, the city builds vertically to account for the slow upward crawl of its population, which is no more than a few thousand. High-rise buildings are cheap, but soundproofing them against the constant howl of the Chasm is not.

The city is divided up into a half-dozen districts, each of which has a seat on the council that gives the city its veneer of government. Since most citizens of the Falling City have at least enough magical talent to create matter from thin air and live self-sufficiently, there are few limited resources for a central government to justify itself by consolidating and (mis)managing. The council mainly exists to organize the will of its citizens to prevent or repair damage to the city, treat with visiting outsiders, and pass judgement on criminals.

There are two punishments used in the Falling City; community service, which is used for the vast majority of offenses and ranges greatly in length according to severity, and Unfettering.

Unfettering is quite simple: a group of the city's most talented mages stand in a circle around the condemned in an open space. The mages suppress the city's magical anchoring effect around the individual for several seconds; the individual then proceeds to exit the city limits in a very expedited fashion. A cleanup crew is typically kept on-hand, on the off-chance that anything is left of them afterward.

Unfettering is exceedingly rare, fortunately. It is meted out only by council consensus when an offender has been found guilty of premeditating grievous harm upon their fellow citizens, or threatening the integrity of the entire city- practically speaking, both charges are one and the same. No one has been intentionally ragdolled to bits upon the skyline in decades, and no outsider has ever been judged so, no matter how clueless or rude they can be.

And there have been many outsiders in the Falling City, ever since access was first accidentally gained during the Conjuration Crisis of █████████. Visitors are frequent, though few mortals stay long enough to acclimate to the extra atmospheres of pressure and the complete lack of a day-night cycle. The city tolerates these planar tourists and enjoys their business for the time being, so long as they can pay in magical curiosities not available in the Chasm.

Natives of the City don't much care to leave their home, meanwhile. They may visit other worlds and planes, but to date no fallers have voluntarily moved out of the City. It might be just a hunk of rock screaming through the abyss, but isn't that most people's homes at the end of the day?

Thanks to many tourists, a handy list of interesting places and sites to visit in the Falling City has been compiled. It is always expanding or shrinking according to whim. The current interesting sites include but are not limited to...

Visitor Center: An ornate, almost garishly decorated building quite at odds with its neighbors, located centrally in the City in order to attract even the shortest of adventurer attention spans. It is what the sign says in a dozen-and-a-half languages (the length of which is growing every week); City Visiting Center: Planar Visitors Please Register Within! Within, a large lobby plays host to staff offering local resources to outsiders or educating them on the finer points of city law and culture. A small group of abjuration and conjuration specialists nicknamed the Shunters also stands by to protect citizens and visitors both from any hazards of planar travel. They're the closest thing to cops the Falling City will tolerate having.

City Hall: Unlike the Visitor's Center, most outsiders can't find this place for the life of them without direction, and some citizens are even prone to forgetting its location. Not because it's hidden in any way, but because of how utterly unremarkable the building is. Only the crowd that gathers outside of it in anticipation of important or potentially amusing meetings is any indication that this is the seat of government in the Falling City.

Tiriyab's Twirls: An experimental entertainment house that operates within a warded zone of partially weakened tethering. This allows anyone inside to move around in a low- or even zero-gravity environment. Games, performances, and drinking abound. The different open-air levels of the establishment are serviced by "twirls", rotating rings that function like lifts or conveyor belts. All of this is overseen by the eponymous Tiriyab, who is otherwise known for perfecting (and closely guarding the secret to) an at-will short-range teleportation spell which they use to navigate their business quickly. A recent arrival in the city, a former contortionist and thief-acrobat, seeks to earn permanent residence and work as a performer under Tiriyab (and perhaps also steal the spell).

The Spiral: An access tunnel that winds down into the rock from the surface like a massive corkscrew. It houses a modest undercity that mainly services the ever-rotating staff of magic-users tasked with maintaining the integrity of the rock by channeling power straight into its floors and walls. It's also a pleasant little getaway from the (admittedly already pretty subdued) hustle and bustle of the city's surface. The tunnel supposedly goes all the way down to the "tip" of the rock, but the temperature is so high down there that none but the most skilled magic-users ever visit, and even then it's only to make sure nothing is melting or harboring unexpected trouble.

Beloveds' Embrace: One of the small shrines dedicated to honoring some of the hypothesized founders of the Falling City; in this instance, the magical power couple known as Quy & Hnah. As the legend goes, when the arcanist and the geomancer married, they also wedded their arcane and earth magic together. This formed a potent mix that allowed them to raise and build whole continents in the mythic time before the Chasm, and ultimately led to the founding of the City. The shrine's votaries keep an extensive canon of Quy & Hnah's adventures for the public, mostly told in the form of parables on ethics, magical practice, and healthy partnerships. The shrine gets slightly more traffic than normal these days, after a popular albeit shallow and trend-chasing travelogue author mistakenly identified Quy & Hnah as the gods of the Falling City. Visitors typically leave the quaint little street-side alcove feeling slightly underwhelmed. A visiting cleric—exceptionally rare in the void of divine energy that is the Falling City—has recently arrived on what they claim is a sacred mission to preach about Quy & Hnah abroad. The shrine keepers are... perplexed by this.

"Wobblespike": A tower that has the dubious honor of being the tallest point in the City. Gravity is weaker and the atmosphere is thinner here. Unique within the Falling City's architecture, it is made primarily of metal. This allows the tower to bend slightly with the windy Chasm turbulence it is exposed to, rather than just breaking apart. Hence the somewhat silly nickname. The lower levels see small amounts of mixed use, while the top only ever has a motley assortment of researchers and/or diviners trying to learn more about the Chasm from that vantage point. An air elemental in a copper suit has recently taken up temporary residence on the roof, where they "record" the wind with the aid of a strange metal rod.

The Antiquarium: A shop that began as a modest establishment for hobbyists who collected and traded interesting minor magical items. Since the arrival of the first planar visitors, it has become a growing hub of people seeking grander and less cozy acquisitions. Up to this point all dealings and visitors have been peaceful, but the neighborhood around the Antiquarium grows antsy about the increasing numbers of traditional enemies and opposingly aligned outsiders, not to mention all the magic weapons and dangerous wands. The matter—as well as whether or not to post a few Shunters in the area— is soon to be brought to the City Council.

How Disenchanting: Much like the Antiquarium, this place unexpectedly earned a whole new life as more planar travelers trickled in. What began as a municipal box with a slot on the front for recycling magical junk has evolved into a thriving city-owned business. Adventurers, it turns out, tend to hoard literal tons of stuff in those Bags of Holding and Portable Holes of theirs. Many of them will gladly pay a small processing fee to have their old magic items broken down into raw magical extract, useful for spell components or item creation. The Falling City keeps a percentage too, of course.

The Meander: Vegetation and "wildlife" are present all throughout the Falling City, in private gardens and on more hospitable streets. But to get a taste of true envelopment in nature, most fallers take a stroll through this large park and garden. Named for its winding pathways, this park holds several plant and animal species unknown elsewhere in the multiverse, lit up and sustained by small artificial suns that lazily float through the groves. Since they can't survive in the Chasm, scholars theorize that they were originally taken from another world that has since been destroyed, or perhaps they were bred from wizard experiments like so many other monstrosities. A druid(?) who calls themself the High Orinthologue is squatting studying the local bird genera here.

The Scrape: Once upon a time during a particularly deadlocked and petty disagreement between districts, the City drifted slightly off course and struck an unexpectedly large protuberance from the Chasm wall. It cleaved off a chunk of the City's rim, taking streets and city blocks as well as all their occupants with it. It was the largest disaster ever recorded in the history of the Falling City. The site has since been reinforced to prevent erosion, but much of the visible damage has not been touched since that day. This shell of a neighborhood long-gone has had a memorial statue installed on its outskirts as a reminder of what can happen when the survival of the City is taken for granted.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

GLOG Class: Rambler

The freedom to roam. Everyman's Right. "Trespassing". Whatever they call it, you live by it. Some call you a hopeless romantic. As far as you're concerned, you've worn through enough pairs of shoes to earn that right. You've been to distant lands and seen wonderous things, but you're not some explorer with grand ambitions. Sure, you might fight to keep the world free and sacrosanct. But you also wander just for wandering's sake, content to exist.


Starting Equipment: walking stick, weather-beaten coat or cloak and distinctive hat or scarf, pipe (for playing or for smoking), a brick.
Starting Skills: Foreign Parts, Wilderness. Also, roll on adjacent table.

A: Irrepressible Spirit
B: Friends in Far Places
C: Through Bramble, Over Hedge
D: Unfettered Vagabond

You gain +1 Movement and -1 Reaction Rolls against authorities and private land owners for each Rambler template you have.

A: Irrepressible Spirit
Years of traveling light over any terrain in any sort of weather have inured you to the mundane discomforts of life, leaving you implacable and serene even when you have nothing to your name but the experience of being alive. 

You can travel 3 hexes in a day while still benefitting from rest and having lunch. You also have +1 bonus to Save vs Fear and other negative emotions for every empty Inventory Slot you currently have.

B: Friends in Far Places
Wherever you go, you dispel the myths and negative stereotypes ascribed to vagrancy with friendliness and cleverness in equal measure. Most find you peculiar, some find you charming, but few can bear you ill will (or chase you down before you've moved on).

Once per day you can reroll the Reaction of peasants, villagers, or other ordinary folk to you (and your party, if you so choose) and take the better result. No matter where in the world you are, there's a 50% you know a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend in the nearest town or homestead who will let you stay the night.

C: Through Bramble, Over Hedge
Either thanks to years of rambling, or that one time you had a lovely spot of afternoon tea with a hedge witch, the land just doesn't try to inconvenience you very much. Rough terrain never slows you down, nonmagical thorns and briars don't hurt you, and once per day you can magically pass through any fence, hedge, or similar barrier.

D: Unfettered Vagabond
No man can keep you down- certainly not The Man. The land and its peoples should be free, no matter what arbitrary laws or lines on maps say. Once per day you can break any lock, chain, pen, cage, or other restraint that is keeping you or another creature wrongfully imprisoned.*
* Of course, all imprisonment is wrongful to you.


Rambler Skills


Everywhere you go, you take mementos of things you've seen and friends you've made. Gain a sentimental scrapbook and an aching nostalgia for a place you know you'll never return to.


You once did a brief stint in an anarcho-syndicalist union. Gain a random set of specialty tools and a pamphlet on wage slavery.


Surviving miles of trackless steppe or desert has left you well-preserved against dehydration. You need to drink half as much water.


You frequent colder, less pastoral climes than most ramblers. Gain a set of winter clothes and a bivouac sack.


That hedge witch really did take a shine to you. Gain a potion of antitoxin (lumpy and foul-tasting) and a dogeared copy of Dear Goody Mooncup.


Try as you might to avoid them, your many run-ins with guards and other authorities have left you well-versed in criminal procedure. Gain the "Law" skill and a wanted poster bearing your likeness (poorly drawn).

If you're basically playing Snufkin, you're doing it right.

Thursday, May 12, 2022


(I recently learned about the concept of "depletion dice" mechanics and decided to graft it onto an older idea I had. You'll probably see a lot of similarities between this quick draft and my Desolate Days post, another single(ish) page RPG, though I think Detritus distinguishes itself enough in tone to have the right to exist. You could also probably use this as the chassis for a Crypt-Cities game, too. Just swap constructs for corpses.)
FF1 Guardian by Yoshitaka Amano

Detritus is a game about loss. Not loss in the sense of just going along, making progress until you inevitably face something too great for you, or luck ceases to go your way- though that may also be the case.

Loss in the sense of constant, incremental decline. You do not level up in Detritus, you level down. Tools break as easily as your body. Wear, tear, and time force painful decisions on you, and the best you can do is cut your losses for the moment. You may get frustrated, or you may enjoy the challenge- both feelings are irrelevant. All is fleeting, soon to be dust.

In Detritus you play as a simulacrum cobbled together from scrap and garbage and endowed/burdened with a semblance of life. You are of approximately humanoid shape, lopsided and misproportioned. Your creators, and the means by which they created and repaired you, are long-lost.

You “live” on borrowed time as stone crumbles, wood splinters, and the gears in your head rust. You are soon to be nothing, and you have nothing except for one last order screaming over and over on a fraying ribbon inside your brain as you wander a dead, ruined world:

F̶̦͛Ḯ̴̦Ṉ̸͑D̵͇͝ ̸̯̐T̶̫͋H̴͙̉E̴͍̐ ̴͔͝A̵̩͘Ǹ̷͖T̵̤̈́I̷̪̍-̴͎̒T̷̯͆Ȍ̶̧Ŵ̶̤E̵̗̚R̷͙̈́

T̴̻̏U̶̫̾R̵̪̉N̷̛͔ ̶̉ͅŤ̷̞H̷̭̔E̵̪͗ ̶̤̒K̵̰̊Ě̷͔Y̴̹̅

Making sense of this agonizing geas, to say nothing of actually achieving it, presents you with an insurmountable task: survive in this world that is fast rejecting your existence. Brave continent-blotting sandstorms, plumb the hollowed-out shell of the planet, climb the shattered heights of the tetrahedral sky, all without your (mal?)functioning kin stripping you down for parts.

Simulacra have the stats Force, Finesse, and Focus.

  • Force holds things together or tears them apart.
  • Finesse navigates fragile things and deadly places.
  • Focus maintains your fraying mind and senses.

Assign d12, d10, and d8 to your stats. Smaller dice are worse. Everything will weaken and crumble.

Only roll dice when you want to do something and there is serious risk and meaningful consequence for failure, or when the world or its denizens have thrown something harmful at you. Roll the most relevant stat's die and test against the risk's Target Number, which can be anything from 2 up to ~14.

Roll sparingly and reluctantly, but remember that you will inevitably fail.

Roll at or above a target number to succeed or avoid harm. Rolling below the target number is a failure, and causes Breakage. Rolling a 1 is a critical failure, and causes double Breakage. Rolling the max number on a die is always a critical success regardless of Target Number, but also causes Breakage.

Breakage is the wear and tear on your body made manifest. When you suffer Breakage, reduce the rolled stat by 1 die size: d12 becomes d10, d10 becomes d8, etc. If you suffer double Breakage from a Natural 1, you reduce the die size by 2 steps. This reduction is permanent. Stats can break all the way down to d2. When a d2 stat is tested and breaks, your simulacrum breaks down into the Wreck it was always destined to be. When all simulacra wreck, the game ends.

You can stave off Breakage by using Tools, and Cannibalizing.

Tools are leftover machines, devices, and aids that can be scavenged from the dead world around you. If you're lucky, they make up for the resources you expend trying to get them. Tools come in d2 and d4 sizes and have an associated stat. You can choose to roll 1 Tool die alongside a stat and add the results together before determining if it succeeds or fails. Rolling the maximum number on a tool die is not an automatic success, but it does still break. Each simulacrum can carry up to 3 Tools each.

There's a rumor/theory/lie that better, less worn-out tools of d6 or even bigger size are somewhere out there, hidden by the Makers.

Cannibalizing is a bit like scavenging for Tools, except the heaps of rubble you rifle through are your fellow mismade simulacra. When another character (whether PC or NPC) is wrecked, you can harvest their body for repairs, spare parts, and the rare upgrade. Cannibalizing allows you to replace 1 or 2 of your stat dice with the dice your target had at the time of death, excluding the broken stat. Replaced dice must share the same stat; you can't replace your d6 Finesse with a d12 taken from a wreck's Force, for example.

You will probably happen upon the wrecks of your previous player characters and their Tools while on subsequent excursions, and should take advantage of any you find. Incremental progress measured in dust and failure.

At the end of every session (or with each major milestone reached), every simulacrum takes 1 step of Breakage in every stat from the inexorable passage of time, unless that would drop a stat below d2- that thread will break when its time comes.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Crypt-Cities: Rot Blossom Beds

(I hadn't given my Crypt-Cities mini-setting much thought for over a year now. But somewhere during the lurid dream-quest that has been my first Elden Ring playthrough, I came across these guys.

Trying not to spoil much, they are undead guardians brought back to life by the miniature trees sticking out of their backs. Some are bare or budding, others are blooming, still others are suffering a fungal infection.

How could I not go back and write something similar up for CCs?)

Rot Blossom Beds

Ahh, here we are. Look upon this mound of rot and despair, all ye wretched Awakened.

This is the fate that awaits anyone who doesn't take the time to check their scabrous hides for sprouts at the end of the day. All that struggle, all that toil, all that Need doesn't amount to anything if you become just another mindless seedbed.

Fortunately for our demonstrational purposes, this poor wretch was taken by a less virulent strain of Rot Blossom. They're still doomed, make no mistake, but it affords us an opportunity to study it closer without fear of any of you lot succumbing- probably.

See here how the biggest growth erupts from between the shoulders- rot blossoms especially favor the spinal column as a pathway through the body when taking root. If this specimen was given the time to, it's likely it would grow into a hideously beautiful tree that would then spread its seeds all across the wastes, catching more Awakened and perpetuating the cycle.

It's almost enough to make you want to burn it, isn't it?

Of course that will only make things worse- for you, for the host, and for countless other Awakened. Instead, your best course of action will be to cut it down to size and then bury everything in pieces somewhere even more inhospitable than the rest of the wastes- a salt flat is ideal. Yes, you're damning your fellow to an eternity as an immobile salt mummy, but you'll be saving everyone else. Easy decisions do not await you in this unlife, Awakened.

See how the roots weave their way all along the body, even worming their way in under its death mask.  This allows it locomotion even after a point where the host's independent motor functions have long since ceased. The body is just another organ now, granting the plant the ability to move and see. The union is rarely perfect, and it can sometimes take seconds for stimuli to travel from one half to the other- that is what gives the rot-bedded their characteristic shamble; the thing so many of the Living characterize all of you having by default. It may be that these poor wretches originated that stereotype, but don't bear them any ill will for it if you can help it.

We may as well get this next part over with and show you lot how to neutralize them.

See how the body twitches and slowly gathers itself up as another creature approaches it. See the clumsy yet deliberate swivel as it tries to locate and react to this new threat.

See how it... waves its hand and clears its throat?

And... politely introduces itself?


Not Just Fertilizer

It is difficult to call you "one of the lucky ones". You are an Awakened, after all. But considering the worse fate you should have suffered given the situation, it's safe to say you skirted another abyss. And look at you now; you've got a friend.

A less parasitic kind of rot blossom has taken root in your body. In fact, its relationship to you verges on symbiotic. You grant it life through your unfathomable biology, and in return it offers up its grim bounty. Perhaps it is a long-lost strain, or a more recent mutation. It may resemble a small flowerbed, a half-dead shrub, a tangle of vines, or even a gnarled sapling. Coloration ranges from matte and bland to eye-wateringly bright and lurid; texture from glassy smoothness to shredding thorns.

You resemble a Holt-Dweller whose mask has gone horribly awry, and among the unlearned you may even pass as one. But any Awakened worth heir smoke knows what you are, and will probably scorn you as such.

The plant will cause irreparable damage to your body if you try to remove it in its entirety, but you can prune it or keep it trimmed. Virtually every blossom bed that manages to keep the company of other Awakened will obsessively dispose of any fruit, seed pods, spore clusters, etc. before they can mature. Of course then you are left with company that is afraid of neither infestation nor immolation- a mad bunch indeed.

As alluded to, you can also use the 'bounty' of this bleak passenger to your own advantage. Branches can be cut and shaped into tools. Leaves can be harvested for their chemical properties. A seed can be used to hold yourself and anyone else in range of you hostage in a high-stakes situation. Your options are limited only by your imagination and recklessness.

You also benefit from something else. Something... disquieting to think about. You don't feel the Need quite as strongly as your fellows. The agonizing geas to throw yourself into a cozy little coffin in a crypt-city somewhere certainly still exists, but it doesn't have quite the same edge that drives others mad. This allows you to willingly travel farther afield of your final destination, opening up more opportunities to find resources and dangers out on the wastes.

But why exactly is the Need weaker in you?

Is it the rot blossom? Does it shield you from it?

Or is it feeding you a conflicting urge so subtle that you can't even perceive it?

And if so, where would it lead you?

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Goats & Gobs

Take a second to forget about all the animals you've seen domesticated (or not-so-domesticated) and ridden by goblins in the past. Forget about wargs. Forget ponies, or bats, or rat-dogs, or squigs, or llamas.

Well, okay, just put a pin in llamas for now- those are worth coming back to later.

But forget all of that, and for a moment consider instead: goats.

MTG Goblin Cavaliers by DiTerlizzi

The combination might not be obvious, but there are some strong reasons why goblins and goats should have a high affinity for one another.

For starters, they can both live off of almost unthinkable diets. While the belief that goats will gladly munch down on cardboard or tin cans is a myth propagated by their curious foraging nature, goats still eat a wide range of plant matter. Some of what they like to eat the most is actually toxic to most other living things- goblins included. 

Goblins, meanwhile, can and will devour that old leather belt or that dead sparrow if they aren't confident that another, better food source will be readily available in the near future. And even if there is, the goblin will probably take the bird or belt along anyway so that it can be pickled or fermented for later. Don't mistake that for simplemindedness or gluttony, however- it's thanks to a digestive tract evolved for a nutrient-scarce environment, coupled with an instinctive sensitivity to the risk of famine. They never did learn to stomach most leaves or grass, though.

Because of these broad diets, goblins and goats can coexist and eat what the other won't eat without having to compete for the same food sources. This efficiency is a double-edged sword in large numbers. While the jury is still out on whether goats are scientifically proven to cause habitat collapse via soil erosion or they actually help revitalize certain ecosystems, the sheer number of empty stomachs that a mass of goblins and goats brings with it is a problem alone.

For that reason, the hybrid herds are hyper-nomadic, moving almost daily within the environments allowed by their particular species of goat rather than settling in an area for weeks or months at a time like normal. To linger on any longer would strip the land bare and leave nothing to return to in their nebulous conception of the far future known as the Next Time. It must be acknowledged that, in emergency circumstances, a group of goblins can probably just eat the goats- assuming the goats' hooves and/or horns don't have anything to say on the matter. But more often than not they stick to their itinerancy, seeing little reason to try and kill their neighbors.

And it is that distinction—that they are neighbors—which defines the rest of the coexistence between these species. The goats are not so much domesticated as they are accustomed to bearing the gangling little green things that help them fend off their predators. The goblins are not so much herding the goats as they are fitting themselves into a larger herd and finding their niche- something they are apt to do everywhere else, so why not here?

Another cause for their uncommon kinship is how the rest of the world views them. Big folk tend to treat goblins and goats as inherently silly and bizarre creatures, and make them the butt of jokes and folklore when they aren't making them out to be the embodiments of pure evil. It's a wonder there aren't a bunch of them leaping across the pages of illuminated medieval manuscripts together, right in between the monopods and the killer snails. Commonality of adversity can go a long way.

Goblins and goats are also just generally fond of one another. They don't mind the other's odd smells or habits. Kids and whelps get along surprisingly well around nannies or aunties. And unlike most other humanoid species, the majority of goblins find the rectangular-pupiled eyes of a goat incredibly comforting and relaxing to gaze into. Goat eyes have taken on an apotropaic quality among some tribes, acting like an inverse of the more well-known Evil Eye. They appear often in decorative motifs and protective amulets, sometimes made using actual preserved eyes from the herd's most respected old goats.

Some of these goat-eye talismans even find their way into outsiders' hands through trade, alongside dung (sold either as fuel or fertilizer), homespun goat wool articles, and the (in)famous cheeses and beverages that goblins make from goat milk. There are more points of contact between the herds and other groups than being shooed off of someone's property, after all. Gob-goat herds will even hire themselves out to big folk as professional lawnmowers and conservation grazers on occasion.

And lest we forget, goat riders can be some of the most deadly annoying riders in the world, considering most defenses against cavalry don't take into account the ability to climb 95° inclines or leap 3 meters across from a standstill.

D&D 5E Character Background: Gob-Goat Herder

You are a child of the gob-goat herds, forever wandering the margins of the world in all their bleating majesty. Your scruffy ways belie a globetrotter's wisdom and a cosmopolitan outlook. You've seen trackless wilderness, distant bazaars, and a dozen terrors that would have devoured you if not for your goat's quick hooves. With naught but a good saddle and better cheese, you are eager to face anything and bring back stories Next Time you're passing through.

Skill Proficiencies: Animal Handling, Survival
Tool Proficiencies: One type of artisan's tools or musical instrument, either particular to your herd or something completely incongruous that you picked up on a whim at a market somewhere
Languages: One of your choice from the myriad of cultures you've encountered 
Equipment: Shepherd's utility crook, your favorite old saddle (goat-sized), a rectangular eye amulet, a set of traveler's clothes, and a belt pouch containing 10 "squeaky stones" (extra-preserved goat cheese curds usable as 10 rations or 10 pieces of sling ammunition)


Herd Role

Most goblins in a gob-goat herd can do most things, but every once in a while someone takes an extra bright shine to one profession or the other. Consider the ways you perform your role different from anyone else, or how you've picked up new tricks during your travels. You may roll on the following table to determine your profession during your time with the herd, or choose one that best fits your character.


Herd Role





















Hard Living

Your knowledge of ancient goat-lore ensures that you are never without a caprine companion. In the woeful event that you are without a goat, you can spend 1 hour scouring the wilds for a feral goat, even in places where goats are not native. You still have to befriend the goat yourself.

In addition, you can find food and fresh water for yourself and your goat each day, even in places where the land shouldn't be able to provide that much sustenance.

Suggested Characteristics

It's a rough, wild life out on the edges. But you learned more than just wiliness or plucky determination from it. The herd is shaped by the peoples and places it interacts with, and you are no different.

Personality Traits


Personality Trait


I normally speak in an idiosyncratic pidgin of a dozen different languages plus goat noises that I've developed over the years.


I have a soft spot for herd and draft animals of all sorts, and I usually carry a bag of treats for whenever I come across them.


Working hard so you can play hard later is for fools- just do both at the same time!


Big folk have done terrible things to goblins and unspeakable things to goats. I am always on guard around them.


Even if I don't believe in them, I collect symbols of lots of different gods, spirits, and faiths as good luck charms on my travels.


I always try to relate the ways of the world and the behaviors of outsiders to the internal dynamics of a goat herd as a way to understand them.





Coexistence. Let us share the lessons we’ve learned out on the margins, to help build a more accepting future. (Good)


Herd Mentality. We stay out of trouble by sticking together and keeping our heads down. (Lawful)


Whimsy. I bet this would go great with some fermented nanny’s milk…! (Chaotic)


Despoliation. Why shouldn’t we smash and reave and go as we please? Let them try to catch us. (Evil)


Survival. I’m hungry, and I don’t know how to eat philosophy- yet. (Neutral)


Curiosity. Ooh, I wonder what’s over that hill? (Any)





My mount is my best friend and my living, breathing, bleating connection to my herd even when we are far apart.


Strangers are just friends I haven’t met yet, and hospitality is sacred to my people.


The herd once passed through a special, transformative place that I have held as sacred ever since, and I will return to it someday.


Despite probably being younger than all of them, I view the outsiders I travel with as bounding baby goats in need of a nanny to guide them.


I carry a precious keepsake I accidentally "borrowed" long ago, and have vowed to give it back Next Time.


I draw a goat eye on everything for protection, and to keep my herd's tradition alive.





I get anxious and stir-crazy if I stay in one place for too long. “Too long” can be several days, or it can be several seconds.


I balk at concepts like borders or private land ownership- the world is free for all to graze in common! … Landlords and town guards don’t ever seem to agree, though.


I spent too much time watching the billies butt heads growing up, and I can come across as rough and aggressive when I don’t mean to be.


I often forget that other people didn’t grow up in a herd, and this usually ends in embarrassing situations- for everyone else.


I am curious about the places I visit- incessantly, vocally curious, much to the dismay of whomever I choose to ask questions of.


I consider bathing to be a silly affectation, and a senseless waste of precious drinking water besides. No one will convince me otherwise.